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One of the mothers at school (40, newly single, surgeon in a busy teaching hospital) recently asked me to examine a text message she had just received. “I can’t make it out,” she said. I peered into her phone. The message in question was about 120 words long, elaborately punctuated (for a text) and in French. “What do you think?” she said.
“What do I think?” I said with a sigh. “I think it’s Baudelaire.”
She swore quite loudly.
“Is that bad?”
“Well, it’s not exactly good, is it?”
“I suppose if it’s from someone you like, it’s insanely romantic, and if it’s not, it’s obscenely pretentious.”
“I know,” came her curt reply but there was a small upwards turn at the corners of her mouth.
As I went about another ordinary day, I felt a pang or two that no one was texting Baudelaire to me. I caught my reflection in a baker’s shop window that was crammed with hot cross buns. With my hair pulled back and my old tweed coat and scarf, I looked like someone’s semi-respectable uncle. Absolutely not a flasher, you understand, but certainly not the glamorous sports-car-driving fellow of myth either. There was also, perhaps, a flavour of distressed urban gentlefolk thrown into the mix. It was not exactly good. Could this have anything to do with the lack of poetry in my life?
Resolved on self-improvement and browsing in the Galleries Lafayette a few days later, I rifled through the Chloé collection, cooing over lightly ruffled white Katharine Hepburn blouses, floppy belted gold skirts, the most delicate and immaculate white appliquéd dresses and pleated pale chiffon shifts.
It was only the fact that everything was about £1,000 and several sizes too small for me that stopped me snapping it all up there and then. I thought how exquisite these pieces would look on my niece Frances, only she would be sickened by their prices.
Generally, expensive clothes look awful on the very young, whose natural advantages simply don’t require them. But I always think Chloé’s clothes actually suit the women who can’t afford them so much better than they suit those who can. There’s something about the absolute simple beauty of the garments that goes very much against the grain of the sorts of shoppers who can brave their high price tags. Seeing a highly groomed woman, self-assured and in control, in Chloé seems to me a mismatch. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, in the way that seeing Sylvie Guillem dance Giselle does. It is pretty hard to believe that someone of her haughty, aristocratic bearing is the sweet daughter of a country pauper. But perhaps I am being naive.
Just then, next to the Chloé stand and past the Rochas and the Lanvin concessions (which seemed far too ambitious for me), I saw a mannequin dressed in a very dark navy jersey dress, ballerina length with a V-neck, tiny sleeves, vertical frills on the skirt, and, just left of centre, an extravagant rosette of the same fabric. It was such a pleasing mixture of sobriety and romance, exuberance and restraint, that I tried it on straight away in the little curtained changing nook.
It was immediately clear it was a dress designed for dancing; I did a glissade in front of the mirror, followed by a modest arabesque. Then I indulged in a step-ball-change-pick-up-toe-hop. The assistant came in to see what all the commotion was. I froze, then tried to show off the dress. “It’s good,” was her verdict. “You’ll wear it often.”
It may not provoke Baudelaire, I added to myself, but don’t be too surprised. I examined the label, which not only told me that the brand was IRIE, but also that the garment was made from a special blend of modern fibres and was machine washable. Now that’s what I call poetry.
Susie Boyt’s latest novel is ‘Only Human’ (Headline Review, £7.99)
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt
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