The Balenciaga

Mavis Gallant in Paris in the '50s
Mavis Gallant, who wrote for the New Yorker for 60 years, is one of the names that I suggest at parties when someone inevitably asks, “Read anything interesting lately?” The “lately” always has me stuck: I mean, who hasn’t read Capital by John Lancaster by now? (You haven’t? Oh dear: Really?)  But few people in the United States, it seems, have  heard of Mavis Gallant. And I get to introduce them.

My favorite is Paris Stories, quirky and sad, and devastatingly witty short stories written about Europe during the time around the second world war. The common thread, she once stated in an interview, is that they all were written in Paris, where she has lived for decades. In the first story, Sheilah and Peter, a desperately sophisticated middle-aged couple, broke and living on her sister’s couch, sit down at morning coffee for a rare talk about the past. The narrator informs us: “It is wrong to say they have nothing to show for time. Sheilah has the Balenciaga. It is a black afternoon dress, stiff and boned at the waist, long for the fashions of now, but neither Sheilah nor Peter would change a thread. The Balenciaga is their talisman, their treasure; and after they remember it they touch hands and think that the years are not behind them but hazy and marvelous and still to be lived.”

Oh my. The Balenciaga. Yes.  You can see it, can’t you?  The sculpted black dress setting off the lovely poignant part between shoulders and the neck? (“Clavicle” hardly describes such an evocative place.) 

We should all have our Balenciagas. Not the real one, of course, unless you have that kind of money, but our own versions.
Suits have become a tiresome workday staple, but it has not always been that way. Women use to wear suits to travel with white gloves and an elegant hat, or to go shopping, or to lunch with friends. They use to, at least in my imaginative world, have dress-up lives. I’m not sure I’d be up for such a dress-up life, but there is something appealing about the premise that we can do better.

I have a lined silk suit from the early fifties with a flared waist and pencil skirt that is beautiful.  But its elegance, for me, comes from a picture of my mother in the dress around 1954 when she is in her mid twenties.  She is laughing and shivering in the wind, gleeful and glamorous, playing at being grown up.  This suit is spirited. Her style is effortless.

This is the kind of suit that encourages a woman to laugh at the edge of a windy beach after a long drive, the kind that is abandoned on a chair for a lover on a winter afternoon, the kind that says I am positively giddy about the future.

I don’t wear it ironically or as a costume. I feel sexy when I wear the jacket alone except for a black lacy slip, with pencil heels, and my hair up in a loose French twist and, of course, red lipstick. I go to work with a black turtleneck and black patent loafers. Add a vintage rhinestone pin or pearls, silk shirt, and pointy flats and I am ready for family holiday parties and a neighborhood ladies' luncheon.

I think pearls are incredibly sexy, don't you?

I look at my young mother’s suit and I am reminded that  life is still marvelous and still to be lived.  Life is full of spirit and glamour and glee.

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