Flowers For Mrs Harris - A Dior Fairy Tale

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store

House of Dior

Do you have time to attend a fashion parade in the salon at the House of Dior today?  Make sure to read to the end!!

While recently cleaning my (extensive) bookshelves I came across a slim volume I had not read. Reading the blurb, it claimed to be about a woman who went to Paris to buy a Dior dress. How could I resist?

Paul Gallico's Book

The book was Flowers For Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico (published in the US as Mrs Harris Goes to Paris). What a joy this book proved to be. Mrs Harris is a London char, or cleaning lady, pushing 60, whose great desire in life is to own a Dior dress. The novella follows Mrs Harris on her trip to Paris to realise her dream. I describe it as a fairy tale, because the events are those we would like to see happen rather than those that would be likely to happen in real life.

The novella was published in 1958, only a year after the death of Christian Dior, and is set in the '50s. At the beginning of the story, Mrs Harris is flying to Paris..."She was neatly dressed in a somewhat shabby brown twill coat and clean brown cotton gloves, and she carried a battered imitation leather brown handbag which she hugged close to her...Only in the hat she wore did her ebullient nature manifest itself. It was of green straw and to the front of it was attached the flexible stem of a huge and preposterous rose which leaned this way and that, seemingly following the hand of the pilot upon the wheel as the plane banked and circled for altitude." (p.7)

That would have been a coat like this (I know it's not twill, but you get the idea):

And maybe a hat a little like this?

With trepidation in her heart, and in a fit of bravery, she approaches the hallowed chambers:

In Paris, she is saved from almost certain humiliation at the House of Dior by the kind heart of Madame Colbert, the manager of Dior's salon.

Fashion Parade at Dior

How wonderful is the description of the fashion parade. It was almost as good as being there:

"They came in satins, silks, laces, wools, jerseys, cottons, brocades, velvets, twills, broadclothes, twills, nets, organzas, and muslins -

They showed frocks, suits, coats, capes, gowns, clothes for cocktails, for the morning, the afternoon, for dinner parties, and formal and stately balls and receptions.

The entered trimmed with fur, bugle beads, sequins, embroidery with gold and silver thread, or stiff with brocades, the colours were wonderfully gay and clashed in daring combinations; the sleeves were long, short, medium, or missing altogether. Necklines ranged from choke to plunge, hemlines wandered at the whim of the designer. Some hips were high, other low, sometimes the breasts were emphasized, sometimes neglected or wholly concealed. The theme of the show was the high waist and hidden hips. There were hints and forecasts of the sack and trapeze to come. every known fur from Persian lamb, mink and nutria to Russian baumarten and sable were used in trimming or in the shape of stoles or jackets" (p.70)


The Dior Gown

The gown Mrs Harris chooses is called "Temptation" - "a black velvet gown, floor length, encrusted half-way from the bottom up with a unique design picked out in beads of jet that gave to the skirt weight and movement. The top was froth of cream, delicate pink, and white chiffon, tulle and lace..." (p.72)

There are no spoilers here, what happens to Mrs Harris and her gown from here are revealed to only the reader.

At the end she reminisces: "she was there again as each model more beautiful than the last clad in the loveliest frocks, suits, ensembles, gowns, and furs came thrusting, swaying, or gliding into the room- three steps and twirl -  three more steps and another twirl - then off with the pastel mink or dark marten coat to be dragged behind on the soft carpet, off with the jacket - a toss of the head, another twirl and she was gone to be replaced by yet another.

From there it was but a flash for her to be back in the hive of the cubicles, a part of the delicious atmosphere of the woman world compounded of the rustle of silks and satins, the variegated perfumes carried thither by the clients, the murmuring voices of saleswomen and dressmakers like the droning of bees, and the sound of whispering from neighboring booths, and smothered laughter." (p.116)

The Dior Musical

What a delightful book I've discovered, I thought to myself. I wonder if it's still in print? So I Googled. Why was I so surprised to find that I was not the only reader to be delighted by this whimsical tale? It has even been made into a musical!! Which looks like a bit of fun...

Dior - The Movie

And it is also a made for television movie starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs Harris which after the first half hour, bears little resemblance to the book. Lansbury's Mrs Harris is more restrained than the brash  character of the book, but charming and perhaps easier to imagine in Dior. She's not really the character in the book, though.  It's worth watching the exclusive fashion parade in the House of Dior, which begins about 27 minutes into the film. The rest of the film, however, is not worth watching in my opinion. I'm not sure why the chosen dress "Temptation" is transformed from beaded black velvet to pink satin, and I'm not sure why they completely changed the second half of the book, the ending and the moral of the story either. Why bother?

So, I'm not the first to discover the charms of Flowers For Mrs Harris.The book is out of print, but second hand copies are available on Amazon and The Book Depository.

Do yourself a favour and hunt down a copy.

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store

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