BY AMANDA CUMMINS
My mama used to buy me clothes, which were presented with a shrugged shoulder and a muttered “you won’t like it”. On occasion, she was absolutely right: some quite dreadful garment would be unveiled. I’d smile with barely disguised horror. “It” would be worn once and then be consigned to the Really Awful Things Never To Be Worn Again section of the wardrobe.
But a triumph, oh what a triumph, occurred when my mother went to a rather smart, nearly-new (what I call second-hand, but that’s semantics) sale. The ladies of the county had trawled through their dressing rooms and produced unwanted, hardly-worn clothes, to be sold in aid of charity.
Some ladies had wardrobes which were replenished annually and nothing was worn twice, for fear that it would be noticed you were wearing something which been seen before (same outfit at Royal Ascot two years running: heaven forefend). It was a certain type of lady of the county who took this attitude: some of the extremely grand ladies were more frugal and, anyway, couldn’t actually give a toss about appearing in public in something that had been seen, repeatedly, for 25 years…or more.
My mama had a very jolly time at the sale, rifling through the rails and guessing who had given what. And then she found it. A suit. Perfect for her daughter. With a label that made her think she had to buy it because it was just too funny.
You see, for a long time we’d had a friend, a very good friend, who was a couturier or a dress designer or…whatever. With a Royal Warrant. He was the most lovely man, and we saw him a lot. I adored him, and he was simply sweet to the teenage and more grown up me: sometimes, when I worked in London and came home for the weekend, we’d meet at the train station on a Sunday evening for the return trip to London, and he’d INSIST on paying for me to go first class so that we could what he called “natter” on the journey. He said he longed to design my wedding dress, and howled with laughter when I said the budget wouldn’t include a Royal Warrant and I’d probably wear a frilly nightie from Laura Ashley. “Darling, I am not watching you trip up the aisle in crumpled white cotton with…” cue dramatic pause “…frills.”
Anyway, back to the suit that was found on a rail at a sale of pre-owned garments. It was the most beauteous suit: a crimson silk jacket (but not ORDINARY silk: textured, like grosgrain) and a black velvet skirt. With that name on the label.
I spun with delight when I saw it. It was beautiful. The cut of the jacket screamed haute couture. The simplicity was its triumph.
Then I tried it on. Top and bottom were too big. I looked like a pink and black marquée.
Mum knew that someone in the village altered things and suggested Mrs. Nifty Needle took it in. Which made us both a bit nervous.
We decided I must tell Mr. Royal Warrant about the suit and say I had a Royal Warrant garment in my possession, even if it didn’t fit. And to tell him how I had come to own it. I phoned him.
Peals of laughter. “I know exactly who that was made for: GHASTLY WOMAN.”.
When the laughter subsided, he told me I’d better come over for him to see me in it. “Don’t bring your parents, just you. We’ll have such fun.”
We did. It involved copious champagne and smoked salmon. Eventually I was dispatched to try on the suit, with his housekeeper as my dresser. Enveloped in the couture marquée, I walked into the drawing room for an inspection.
“Ah. Well, Mrs. ***** always thinks she’s petite. And of course I’ve never told her she’s not (diplomacy, darling, diplomacy). So you’ll have to come to the shop. This needs some work. More champagne?”
So it was that a few weeks later, when I went to London for a work-related lunch, that I presented myself at the “shop” in Belgravia. Rather nervously, I walked in. The usual hugs of hello and then a swift inspection of what I was wearing: “very elegant”.
What a morning. I put on the suit and an ancient seamstress appeared from the workshop in the bowels of the building. She tutted. The cutter appeared. And tutted. Between them they pinned and used tailor’s chalk. Essentially the whole thing needed to be pulled apart, re-cut and made all over again. Helplessly, I said I couldn’t possibly afford the alterations.
“This, darling, is in lieu of the wedding dress I’ve yet to design. Such a shame you have to go on somewhere else, otherwise I’d take you to lunch and afterwards you could choose something from the new collection to have once we’ve done the show of my latest designs…I’m so used to seeing you in jeans and wellingtons that I’d forgotten you wear clothes rather well.”
I left in a daze and a haze of hugs.. We arranged to meet at his house in the country when I would “model” the suit after it was rebuilt. My parents were to be there, too. “Dinner, darling, to celebrate the suit’s new owner.”
Three weeks later he died.
I called in at his house in the country with some flowers for his housekeeper as soon as I heard: I knew she would be bereft. We sat in the kitchen, and did a lot of that do-you-remember stuff. I rose to leave and the housekeeper said I must wait a moment, she had almost forgotten something.
She left the kitchen and returned with the suit. Alterations/rebuild all done and a note from Mr. Royal Warrant still pinned to the suit. It said “this is important”.