The Lovely Gaze Where Every Eye Doth Dwell
Gigi was wearing the blue-striped dress on Sunday. Zora and Hélène both stopped to chat, and even Nana gave a bit of a wave before walking off with a customer. Feuilly had been pulled completely into the circle. “I had a talk with Marcie,” Gigi told Feuilly, “and she’s expecting you to come sometime today. Before sundown, as she wants to get a good look at you. I’ve been singing your praises to the heavens!”
“How could she not?” Zora put in. “Usually when we find someone, they require all sorts of polish, but you’ve come to us ready-made, as it were. You would not believe what a spotty little thing Minette used to be.” It was the sort of comment Gigi might make, but Zora’s gossip tended to sound more like factual statements than carefully worded expressions of jealousy, no matter what Gigi tried to say of her.
“You were probably a spotty little thing at sixteen, too,” Gigi snapped cattily. “Now, I cannot imagine my darling here ever being spotty. Were you? You cannot have been spotty.”
“Some of us are indeed born lucky,” Feuilly found himself saying in rather the same tones though in a far lower register - the mannerisms were rubbing off on him far more easily than the voices.
Gigi passed him a carefully folded note. “Marcie is dying to see you.”
“And I suppose there’s a charge for the visit?”
“Oh no, no, not at all.”
“Marcie’s a dear, she really is,” Zora added.
Gigi explained, “You only pay if you buy something. She’ll even look out for things you might like.”
“She’ll do anything,” Hélène added. “She even pierced my ears for me.” Feuilly had to admit that he had been jealous of Hélène’s pearl earrings ever since he had first seen her in the gardens. These were sadly not the days of Saint-Just, when a man could go around with gold hoops in his ears. “I don’t know what we would do without her.”
“She knows just what to do for us, and you can pay in installments if necessary. She’s terribly good to us.” Gigi frowned a bit. “I did have to give her your name. I’m so sorry, dear. I hate using people’s real names. They never seem real at all. But I had to tell her something.”
“No, it’s not fine,” Zora complained.
“You are who you are,” Gigi said, “not who someone else said you ought to be. But then, it is easier to name yourself when you know who you are. Marcie will help.”
“You should go now,” Hélène told him. “If she’s been collecting anything, her room will be a treasure box, it really will.”
“Lène’s trying to tell me to bugger off,” Gigi explained.
“I am not,” Hélène said with cool deliberation. “I’m telling him he’ll regret not spending hours. Come walk with me to the gate, dear.”
“I can take a hint,” Gigi snapped. Zora tried to pull her along quickly, looking around wildly as if the police might arrest any of them for Gigi’s sudden bad mood.
But she would not move until Feuilly kissed her goodbye. “Wednesday, yes?”
“Until Wednesday, dear.”
Hélène took Feuilly’s arm as if he were escorting her, though she was taller than he was. “Gigi says you’ve been drawing us for real.”
“A little,” Feuilly admitted. It was very strange having Hélène on his arm. She was taller than he, and as a woman, not beautiful, but her height was the most masculine thing about her. Instead of Gigi’s theatricality, there was natural femininity, both in her bearing and in her speech. Indeed, in many ways, it was more like having a lady rather than a woman of his own class on his arm, though no gentleman would have stooped to this crass level of shop boys and clerks.
“She says you think I’m sad.”
“It was one drawing,” he tried to explain. “I can only draw what I see in the moment. It was one drawing.”
“One drawing. One moment.” She smiled, but it was twisted with sadness. “Many moments. Don’t be like us if you can help it.” She dropped her female voice and muttered, “We’re all fucking miserable.”
The disconnect between the man and the woman touched Feuilly as much as her words had done. He squeezed her hand and kissed her on the cheek. “I won’t let on.”
“You’re a dear.” She patted his hand. “Go see Marcie. She’ll set you up properly. If I haven’t scared you away.”
“I will see you on Wednesday,” he promised.
Marcie Lanoue worked out of a room on the top floor of a house off the rue de Provence, behind the Opéra. The ground floor housed a wine merchant; six dark flights of stairs led to Marcie’s attic room. Feuilly had climbed many steep staircases before, but the building in which he currently lodged had only four floors. He was breathing rather heavily when at last the final hall opened out before him. He knocked at the first door on the left, as the note had instructed.
The light from the window facing the courtyard flooded the hall and caused him to blink several times before he could see the woman who had answered his knock. She was short and fat, as the girls had said, something above thirty in all likelihood, with a plain face and thin blonde hair. “You’re Mlle Feuilly, aren’t you?”
It was strange to be addressed as “mademoiselle” by an actual woman, but Feuilly pushed aside his unease. “Yes. Gigi sent me?”
“Come in. Let’s see what I can do for you.” The room was small but whitewashed and brightly lit from the sun streaming in the open window. Another woman sat on the bed against the wall, stitching something he could not quite make out, her needle flashing in the sunlight. “You are a beauty. Gigi was excited as anything, and I can see why. Let’s start with some measurements. Do you mind taking your shirt off?” It was a question, not a politely phrased order, as if some of her customers must mind very much being asked to remove an article of clothing that ordinarily concealed their male bodies. He glanced at the other woman, but she kept her head down over her sewing. “Don’t let Virginie bother you. She only cares when the dresses come out.” Virginie looked up at the word “dresses”. She was darker than Marcie and possibly older, but with a round flat face and prominent round eyes, obviously simple. “Not yet,” Marcie told her.
Feuilly had never been measured properly for anything in his life, but he removed his shirt and permitted Marcie to do whatever she liked. He was surprised to see that she kept detailed notes of everything from his height to the circumference of his arms.
“How do you make your living? I’m not prising. Your hands are soft, and you’ve not a bad complexion, but you must do something, and every sort of work has its dangers for this masquerade. I’m not asking where, or even what, just how in the most general way possible.”
“Artistic work,” he said.
“You’re as well off as any of them, then. No wonder your complexion is decent; you’re not outside enough to ruin it. Do make sure you take the air as often as you can to avoid turning sallow, but I think you know well enough to avoid turning brown. You can get dressed. I’ve got a few questions for you, then we’ll see what we can make of everything.”
She had a couple of chairs, so sitting close together, and in hushed tones for Virginie’s sake, she led him through questions he had never before considered.
“Tell me the first time you remember wanting to dress up.”
It was odd to be addressed in the formal rather than the familiar to talk about these things - the girls always used the familiar with everyone they thought in any way akin to them - but it also somehow made it easier to talk to her because she permitted that distance. “I don’t remember being young enough to be in skirts properly. I remember . . .” He thought for a moment. How far back did he remember? “I remember wondering what it might be like, but I never did anything about it. The man who raised me made me put on a dress one day with the idea that a little girl begging in the street would be more profitable than a little boy. I just liked the way the skirt swirled around. Do you ask everyone about this?”
“Everyone who comes to me. You’re playing a role, you see, and to costume you, I’ve got to know what that role is. There’s no point in coming to me if you’re just going to throw on the first thing that’s presented to you and be satisfied with it. All of you have some things in common, I’ve learned, but the differences are most important. You wouldn’t really want me to give you the same things as I give Gigi, would you?”
Feuilly smiled - somehow, he could not imagine Gigi tolerating that, no matter how easily she would loan a dress. To loan something was to put that person in your debt; to own the same dress would be to devalue the merchandise. “She must have her way, mustn’t she?”
“Lord, yes, and on the thinnest of margins.”
“I hope I’ll prove a better client, though I can’t pay much.”
“That’s very sweet of you to say. Now, you grew up. A handsome enough man, from what I can see, though perhaps a little too refined for ordinary tastes. But certain things were not set aside with childhood. Why?”
“They were. It was all a lark, really, not even my idea at all.” He explained Anne-Marie’s plan, how he was chosen, and while he did not admit in words his admiration for Fanny’s lavender silk gown, it was obvious from the way he described it in detail and passed over Caret as if he had been a fly rather than a wolf.
“And how do you explain your hair to people?”
“A well-placed punch in the jaw can shut up any idiot.”
“It does shut down the implication that I’m anything less than a man. I cut it once. It doesn’t behave the way fashionable gentlemen with their false curls would lead you to expect. It sticks straight out from my head and looks an utter fright. I can only control it when it’s long.” Somehow, he managed to register this complaint without a single sign of the effeminacy in which the girls so excelled.
“Very well, then. What is it about the dressing up that you like best? Dresses, hair, jewelry, stays . . . Or is it not the clothes at all?” she added sympathetically.
“It’s the clothes,” he insisted. “I’m not that way. I thought it was just the skirts, at first, but the rich ladies in their evening gowns are so lucky.”
“The silk? The trim? The gloves? The neckline?”
“Bare neck, bare chest, bare arms - it’s incredibly freeing.”
“Freeing. That’s generally what the men say.”
“Are some men and some girls?”
“You can tell by looking.”
“What am I?”
She paused a moment before answering. “You’re not a girl. But there’s something stops you from being quite a man. Well,” she continued rather more brightly, “let us talk about what you need from me. If you can only afford one dress, it will be an evening gown, because it is what you most need. You don’t want gloves, which is good. You’ve no idea the lengths I go for some of the girls. I cannot get you shoes. None of you ever have small enough feet, and you’ll ruin the dancing slippers you really want. Dancing slippers are good for one dance, no more.”
“That’s why only rich girls and actresses have them, because someone else is paying for them. You’ll just have to live without pink shoes the way most of us do.”
“I never really thought about shoes,” Feuilly admitted.
“It’s all simple enough. A pair of men’s dress slippers will do perfectly well for you, with silk stockings, of course. Since you’re getting an evening dress, you’ll want a shawl. Particularly when winter comes. So at the very least, you’ll need a dress, petticoats, and a shawl. You may or may not want stays. They’ll give you posture, and they’ll hold the padding in place, but they aren’t a necessity unless you like the feel of them.”
“I don’t think I can afford anything more than the basics.”
“I accept payment in installments, if that helps.”
“Not much,” he admitted. He really could not afford to put too much towards an activity that would bring him no profit.
“Then I suppose we should talk fees. There are a number of things I can do. I can find an old dress in a style and colour that will suit and tailor it to fit you properly. I can find an old dress in a fabric that will suit you and cut a new dress out of it. I can start from scratch and purchase fabric and create a wholly new garment. The cost is based in large part on my cost. I can make a very simple muslin frock for far less than it would cost to recut a silk acquired through various means.” She laid out a range of prices that almost caused Feuilly to choke until he reminded himself that he had once paid more for an overcoat than it could cost for a dress, should Marcie have a lucky day at the Temple. But then he would have to have petticoats, too, and shoes, and a shawl - it seemed neverending. But all the girls had at least something, and he did not like the implication that he was so much poorer than Gigi.
“I think I can come up with twenty francs. Maybe more later.”
“We shall see what can be done. Virginie, you can bring out the box,” Marcie called to the other woman. In a flash, like an excited child, Virginie dropped her sewing and retrieved a box from under the bed. “Do you mind if she helps you look?” Marcie asked Feuilly.
“Not at all.” It was less unsettling, and in the end terribly fun, to let the poor woman participate. She was very much like a child, though she hardly spoke.
“For colour, I would recommend against yellow with your complexion, and greens are too finicky for me to wholly recommend to anyone for evening. The lavender you liked so much must have looked very well on you. I would also recommend any shade of blue or a decent pink. Red would be a bit much.”
Feuilly assented to all her advice. He had no notion of choosing his clothes other than that he hated looking too flash, which he assumed was what she meant when she said red would be a bit much.
Only then did Marcie begin to present images for his benefit. The box held a collection not only of fashion plates but of various other prints, most in strict black and white, including several series of actor portraits. Styles ranged from the latest low waisted heavy skirts to the diaphanous muslins of the Directory all the way back to the unsettlingly wide and elaborate silhouettes of the days before the revolution.
They started with the most recent, Marcie noting the numbers of the pictures that most attracted his attention. There were a few coloured plates here showing delicate pink gowns with delicious swags of silk and rosettes, blue gowns with rows of lace in the skirt, even a gown covered in little leaves that must be individual pieces of satin that would flicker and shake in the candlelight at a ball - it was either the ugliest thing anyone had ever conceived or the most brilliant. It was certainly too flash for him, but he did rather wonder if any of the more theatrical girls had managed to acquire something similar. One dress in an uncoloured print looked as if it must have been the inspiration for Fanny’s lovely gown. The decoration of the skirt had been simplified by the real seamstress, but everything else was exact. “How much would a gown like that cost?” he asked in curiosity.
“New, in new silk rather than reclaimed silk, five hundred at the very least, I should think.”
Fanny was indeed terribly lucky to have had a friend who was maid in a rich household and managed hand-me-downs of such quality and glamour.
They moved backwards in time, the waists of the dresses rising higher and the skirts growing straighter. There was something deeply attractive in the narrower skirts, however, how they must flow more naturally over so many fewer petticoats. Lace was even more common, both day and evening, whether in as many as eight or ten rows on a skirt or shot through the length of a sleeve or even as an elaborate collar. One plate Feuilly could not help staring at showed a beautiful woman in a lovely evening gown, trimmed with lace at the bust and sleeves and hem with a thick embroidered vine along the bottom of the skirt, but with what must have been starched lace or lace stretched over a stiff frame to create an elaborate collar framing her neck and face. It was not a style that he would have wanted for himself, but it was certainly attractive on the model.
At the turn of the century, it seemed ladies must have gone about nearly undressed - there was no quickly discernible difference between the gowns for day and for evening, all of them having low-cut necklines and straight silhouettes and many having such a diaphanous quality that they were often drawn as if, facing into the wind, the wind could push the dress into their cunts. One could so clearly see how it clung to the legs, that in such a dress, a man’s prick would be in constant sight. Yet the delicacy of the fabric attracted him, particularly when Marcie explained that most of these, despite the line drawings and classical design, were not actually meant to be white. “Every colour of the rainbow,” she told him. “And that one is designed so that the underdress is white with a bright tunic sort of thing on top of it.” There were dresses that were deadly plain, and a dress with a Greek key pattern at the skirt and bodice that was certainly a model for Minette’s lovely frock, and dresses that needed no ornamentation at all because they were so audacious in cut. A few dresses had no sleeves at all. “Oh, and this one, the sleeves and neck are meant to be so thin you can see through them.” Many examples seemed simple, just thin muslin gathered immediately under the breasts, but the effect was beautiful with so much less effort than the modern styles.
Structure and design returned in the last set of prints, some of which predated the Revolution. His eyes lingered on what must have been the inspiration for the princess’ elaborate gown. “Oh, that. That was Mme Mairet in Don Giovanni. I sometimes find the skirts left over, people not sure what to do with just the bit that goes under the elaborate overdress. The dresses have mostly been cut down by now because they’ve enough fabric to do something with.”
“Do you know the Princess?”
“Of course. He got me started. Stole that very gown himself from the wardrobe, if you can believe it. I had to smuggle the panniers out myself.”
“Tied on your hips. Brocade is stiff, but not stiff enough to stand out that far by itself. I’ve still got a few of the trimmings, if you’d like to see.”
“Virginie, bring him you doll.”
It may have been strange that a woman of her age had a doll, but then she was not really a woman of her age. The doll was an old, battered fashion doll, re-dressed in a narrow gown of red stripes corresponding to what must have been the underskirt. The fabric was wonderfully thick, too thick to be suitable for the doll, with a slight sheen to it. “It must have looked a treat under the footlights.”
“Mustn’t it? Fabrice said he had to rescue it before someone cut it down like they cut off Marie Antoinette’s head. I don’t entirely blame him. We’d started going through the racks ever since rates were down. We had to dress the girls in something. But at least I never got sacked.”
Feuilly suddenly realised what she was saying. “You used to work at the opera?”
“I was with the Ambigu-Comique for five years and another three at the Italiens. Fabrice was a dresser at the Italiens. But my mother died, and Virginie can’t be left alone in the evenings. So here we are. She can make her own living, nearly, but can you imagine sending her in to pick up or drop off her work? They’d have her leaving without a sou, thanking her for the great favour she’d done them, and happy to do it, too. But she can’t be left, so here we are. Fabrice sent me work, and now it seems we’re dressers to all the girls in Paris.”
“All the pretty girl boys,” Virginie added, the first words he had heard her speak other than an occasional sigh over a particularly elaborate fashion plate. He handed her back her doll and she hugged it fiercely.
Marcie shooed her away so they could talk business. “For twenty francs, I can’t do much unless I find a brilliant deal at one of the old clothes dealers’ stalls. You’re not as tall or as muscular as some, which does make it easier, but every gown requires adjustments, fittings. For thirty, I can start to make promises. For forty, I can run up a simple Directory gown, white muslin, and may be able to add a bit of trim. A chemise and a petticoat can be done for five or so, but you’re on your own for shoes and stockings. A dress shoe without buckles will never go amiss. Light-coloured stockings for evening. You’ll be hard pressed to set up properly at less than sixty francs.”
“Do many of the girls use older models for their gowns?”
“About half, I’d say. No, more. Some of the girls who try to live full time like their bit of dress up, too.”
“Live full time?”
“You’ll figure it out soon enough. But yes, really it’s very good I was with the theatres for so many years. After dressing fifty supers in Turkish robes for Abduction from the Seraglio, there’s very little I can’t do. Oh, I nearly forgot. Breasts.”
“Breasts. Yes or no? I mean, do you want them or not? You wouldn’t be the first to ask for a flat-chested gown.”
“I - uhm -” He had to think. He had never considered whether or not breasts, for himself, would enter into anything. Yet it was the obvious difference between wishing to wear skirts and wishing to dress as a woman. But anything that he had admired required breasts, particularly the high waisted gowns where otherwise there would be no bodice. “Yes. I think I need them.”
“Built in or will you create your own?”
“There’s a price difference, isn’t there?”
“Of course. I can build them in for a couple francs, really - it’s just a matter of rolling a couple of old stockings and stitching them to a pocket inside. But it does affect what I get you, you see. If the bodice is too low, it will never look right because it was cut for décolletage. If you prefer to use undergarments, then the straps of your stays have to be thin enough and placed properly to go under the gown. Do you see?”
“What if I said I’d do whatever the dress requires?”
“Oh, you are a good customer. Gigi also said you needed hairpins, so I’ve picked up a packet, and do you want paint?”
For a franc, Feuilly left with hairpins, powder, rouge, kohl, and the promise that Marcie would find something for him within the next week. He could not decide what he most hoped she could find: heavy satin that would swish with every step, or thin muslin that would flow softly around his thin frame. The possibilities were simply too delicious to be able to choose between them.
He spent all evening experimenting with making himself up. The kohl had been thrown in as a gift - no one else had wanted it, but as Marcie said, “You, unlike the rest, know what you’re doing with a brush.” The rouge, so very bright, was actually harder to master than the kohl. He could make his eyes look deliciously heavy and eastern, but it was going to take a great deal more practice blending the carmine so that he did not look like an Indian on the warpath. It was a very pleasant evening playing with his paints, despite his failures. Painting himself was so much more interesting than drawing himself.
Come Wednesday, Feuilly was yet again forced to borrow from Gigi, but a few days later he received a note from Marcie: “Come on Sunday and let us see what we can do.”
She had made a decent haul that week and had five girls crowded into the tiny room to make their selections. “Let the new girl pick first; she doesn’t have a single thing, you horrid greedy children.” The yellow satin was of course not for him, nor was a green striped day dress that Hélène was already clinging to the way Virginie clasped her doll. A simple dove-grey cotton dress with low neck and high waist was rather tempting, as was a slightly yellowed frock printed with purple flowers, but more because they existed and might be affordable than because they were otherwise ideal. He even had Marcie shoo everyone into the hall so he might try on the dove grey which, while not fitting entirely like a glove, had definite promise. It was a first dress, after all, and there might be others, more perfect, later. It was certainly far better than the flowered thing Sylvanie wore every week. But Sylvanie was not trying to do the thing properly, and even as he could see Virginie’s grinning face in the cheval glass Marcie had uncovered so he might examine himself, Feuilly knew he could only do the thing properly or not at all.
“I’ll have to add another row of trim to make up the length, bring it in a little through the waist, but on the whole it’s in remarkable shape. I paid fifteen. It’ll be another ten or so, for the work, which I know is a bit more than you were looking to spend. The flowered one only cost me seven, but I really bought it for the fabric.” She showed him a tear at the hem and the complete lack of buttons. “I can do it up for you easily enough, but it will take me longer and may come to nearly the same price.”
Feuilly examined himself carefully. It was nice, certainly, but twenty-five francs was a lot of money to spend on something that was merely nice and not perfect. Some things simply could not be done both properly and cheaply, he feared. “You said last week that you could do a Directory muslin for forty?” What was another fifteen francs when more than two weeks wages were going to be spent in any case?
“It depends on the dress. A basic muslin is fairly cheap, but if you’d like the thin stuff you can see through, that can go for well over a hundred a yard, and that isn’t even for the best quality stuff coming from India. Virginie, get me the box. Show me what you want.”
Sitting down, still wearing the dove grey dress, which felt very nice yet was not really growing on him at all, he flipped through the box until he found what he knew he wanted: a muslin gown without sleeves, the neck coming to a deep v shape emphasised by a thin ribbon or something equally simple, the skirt straight through the front but heavily gathered in back to create a lush swirl of muslin around the legs and feet. “This one. Forty francs?”
“Forty won’t quite get you that. That’s definitely a fine muslin over the top of a heavier muslin. I can do something similar, but I also recommend that the skirt be a little looser in front if you don’t want to show off your manhood to every comer, and the neck should not be quite so abrupt if we have to add the breasts in ourselves. But I can definitely do very like for forty. That bit of trim is really very nice. What colour do you want? If you could afford more, something gilt would be divine, but that could run to forty in itself.”
“Lavender,” he insisted without a second thought.
“Give me two weeks, and I’ll need half in advance. We’ll work out how you can pay the rest.”
Feuilly paid out the twenty francs he had brought with him in the hopes that something would strike his fancy, then he returned the dove grey dress that had completely paled in comparison with the idea that had lodged in his mind. He did not even mind when Zora made a late grab at the grey dress for herself; it was not that Zora was taking his leavings, but that he was going to manage to have something new for the first time in his life, something new and just for him, something he had been permitted to select and would adore no matter how it turned out.
It took two weeks - Marcie was as quick as she could be with first dresses - and every moment of those two weeks was a torture. Ebrard gave him a look at work one day, asking if there was something in the works because he seemed to be turning sly on them. Feuilly lied and tried to control his expressions better. It was hard enough that Ebrard had essentially started him on this path, his sister being the catalyst; lying to him when he had been a friend for so long was worse. But the boss had been giving them both funny looks ever since the lie about janissaries being eunuchs, and it would not do to have more suspicion descend on their table. Feuilly had to admit that keeping his eyebrows plucked like a sissy was not helping matters at all, but he did his work, kept his head down, and when it was not a Wednesday, sat in a café most of the evening if Ebrard or Picard asked. And after his fitting, when Marcie had to make some adjustments and finish the whole thing, he managed to find Fanny, who was perfectly willing to be an appropriate outlet for his exhilaration so long as she did not know the precipitating cause.
When at last the dress was done, it succeeded in every way Feuilly had hoped it would. It was worth every sou of the forty-one francs it had cost in the end to see the look in Zora’s eyes when he wore it to a Wednesday evening. Much of the early love and praise faded in the utter jealousy he now inspired, having learned several of their tricks. Perhaps Gigi had been right about Zora all along. The pet in grecian curls and heavy eastern eyes and incredibly daring frock had outpaced several of his teachers, and Feuilly took even greater pleasure in Zora’s hate than in her initial friendliness. The hate had been earned, a sign of success, and when Gigi asked if he had a name yet, Feuilly smiled evenly and answered, “Victoire.”
Gigi, at least, never stopped petting him, nor did Hélène. Feuilly’s victory was as much about their taste as it was about his. He did not mind if he spent his evenings being petted only by them. They appreciated his natural talents.
Chapter 2 ~ Fiction ~ Home