01 November 2016

new fiction: The Audrey Hepburn

Meredith wills her voice up her dry throat. "It's a famous design, this dress. Did I tell you? The actress who made it famous?" 
The women peer at her, pins held between their lips as their fingers coax the bodice into place. Meredith can't stop talking. Roman Holiday. My Fair Lady. Academy Awards. Lifetime Achievement. She rambles on, sweating and breathless, words spilling out of her in what must be English-gibberish to the women as they move about her in an undulating whirl until the sash neckline lies naturally over her collarbones, darts fitted neatly alongside her breasts, bodice perfect above the flare of the gored skirt.

~ from "The Audrey Hepburn" by Sherri H. Hoffman

More than one of the expatriates in Rwanda encouraged me to have a dress made while I was there. If only for the experience, they said. A culture of dressmakers is something I could only imagine from historic references in the U.S., and I was intrigued.

In Butari, the fabric and textiles vendors held the second floor of the open market, and tucked into the center of the cement stalls, the dressmakers worked in a single open room. The rows of sewing machines were of various age, and the women seemed to work as one body, heads down, all machines buzzing with industry at once.

Prepared with my vision of the iconic dress made famous in Breakfast at Tiffany's, I looped through the fabric shops several times until I'd identified ta pattern I wanted, a small pattern of of blue over a cream backing. The vendors all had access to the same textile production, so it was available in more than one location. The aggressive shopkeepers put me off, and I made my purchase from a woman in a smaller shop with a soft voice and a baby strapped to her back.  She recommended a specific dressmaker and sent me to the galley of seamstresses to ask for her by name. Within minutes of meeting with her, she had my measurements and had sketched a pattern from my photograph. She took my bolt of cloth and instructed me to return in two days for a fitting.

Nothing could have prepared me for the experience. The seamstress I engaged along with a bevy of her fellows were boldly attentive and profoundly skilled, their expertise a reflection of a lifetime of professional practice. Within the week, I had a custom fitted replica dress blue-and-cream. I was beyond impressed.

As I left, the women told me that there would be a new market soon with a larger sewing galley. They hoped I would come back soon. Wrote indecipherable phone numbers and addresses into my notebook should I wish to order another dress.

I suppose I was not surprised that none of the women had ever heard of Audrey Hepburn. My hope that the older black-and-white film had circulated as far as Rwanda was overly optimistic. It seems like the closest theater was in Kigali several hours away. And in the end, it didn't matter. The experience became the context for my famous dress. One of a kind.

Tiffany's salesman: Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?
Paul Varjak: Oh yes.
Tiffany's salesman: That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing.
           ~ from Breakfast at Tiffany's

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