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The one with the sewing machine: Dress to Impress and you’ll feel oh sew cool

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

“If you can’t be better than your competition, just dress better”

Anna Wintour

Anna Wintour and I seems worlds apart, but when I read this quotation I thought who else could she have been talking about except me? Little old me, who doesn’t always come out on top, who can’t run as fast as Flo-Jo or add up very well, I may not be a great philosopher like Sapho and I don’t think I can change the world as Marie Curie did, but dammit do I dress well.

When I decided to enroll in a school for haute couture in Paris having never even touched a sewing machine before, I was arrogant enough to believe I was sufficiently intelligent to just catch up with those students who had been studying fashion design as intensely as I had been reading Vogue for the past 10 years. Threading a needle, cutting a bit of material, surely couldn’t be as difficult as designers would have us believe, right? Wrong. OMG. On my first day at the esteemed Paris American Academy for Haute Couture and Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, I rocked up in a new satin pink slip dress which I paired with some suede kitten heels and a new trendy hair band to keep my locks out of the machines, health and safety always a concern... I felt dressed to impress and I felt ready.

I walked into a sea of black, white and grey. Oscar Wilde promised me one could never be ‘overdressed.’ Sadly, I was let down. Not a single one of my fellow fashionistas sported an inch of colour. I stood out like a sore thumb; or in my case, a very dainty thumb with a French manicure. Unsure as to whether I should feel apprehensive or superior, I sat down with the familiar ‘asseyez-vous tout le monde’ to work in the ‘lab’ (as I was to learn it was not called a classroom in fashion). Forgetting about my colour dilemma, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Never had I felt more out of my depth, and trust me when I tell you I have put myself in many situations where I knew I would probably be at the bottom of the class. “Today, students, we’re going to begin a plissé dress in the style of Madame Grès from the pre-war era. We will be using techniques which I am sure you have studied in your previous schools’ (um, that would be a no from me), ‘and with which I am sure you are familiar. Please, if you could measure from your waistline to the lower hip, and back up to the decolleté, in cm not inches.” My brain: wHaT. I looked around for a conspiratorial eye-brow lift but all heads were bowed. To top it all off, this was said in French, (which later turned out to be my saving grace), and which I appreciate is why I was there, but still, cut me some slack.

Let me just tell you something vital: if you can learn to laugh at yourself before anyone else does, you’ve got a head start. Having already explained to the American fashion design students in the room that sewing was not my forte, (nor was drawing, cutting, pinning, hemming, measuring etc, well, only wearing, actually), I began with the self-deprecation: ‘Well, we all know I’m going to need some help with this, who wants to be the one to show me how to switch on the sewing machine? Come on, who’s up for the challenge?’ Bang, just like that, I established myself as the joker, the witty one, the funny little English girl who may not have known what she was doing, but boy, no one had better make me feel bad about it. To add salt to the wound, being dressed like a pink meringue going into anaphylactic shock wasn’t going to let me fade into the background feeling useless. Now, greeted with raised brows and a few nervous giggles, one brave soul volunteered, and complimented my outfit. Just like that, I was in.

One of the lecturers, Madame Martine, upon whom I now bestow huge respect after learning that she had spent four years creating perfect pleats for her version of this dress we (supposably) would sew over the coming four months, approached me: (in French) ‘That’s all wrong ma petite Lydia, it’s as if you’ve never sewn before, don’t you know anything, (no sh*t sherlock) this is a catastrophe you’ll never finish this dress in 4 months!’ The mistress of her craft did upset me, and that first day I came close to hopping right back on the Eurostar home. But then, after a cup of tea – I introduced my new friends to its calming qualities and the necessity of using a teapot – and a thorough assessment of the situation we all faced (aka bitch gossip) I agreed to persevere. Tomorrow is another day.

Over the next few weeks, I learned not to let Madame Martine’s harsh words get to me. Instead, discovering I was able to speak French came in handy for two reasons: firstly I could translate as many of my fellow American classmates, stereotypically, could only speak American, (no, not English, American). Secondly, I could soften Mme’s harsh tone and scathing criticisms. I was dubbed ‘la plus petite traductrice’, a nickname of which I became fond. Even when the day went badly, when I broke the needle, cut too much off the fabric or took 37 minutes (exactly) to thread a machine, I lay in my bed at night running through the list of new words I learned that day. At the end of four months, I knew all the different sewing terms in French and in English! I might not have known how to use them but at least they were there in my head. I may not have emerged as a sewing savante, but quickly I worked out they needed me to translate more than I needed to learn how to sew, so we met in compromise on the two-way street. I walked into the lab every day, switched into French and basked in the glory of my skill. It wasn’t because of my outfit but because I had something unique in the same way each American had design talent. It felt good to be able to help, but just as good to need help, and on this foundation I made some friends. By the way, it may have taken two weeks longer than everyone else to create, but I now have an original hand-sewn Madame Grès dress to wear to my next ball – I just have to hem it!

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