The Royal wedding last Friday caused me a number of humiliations this week. To understand why, you have to know three things.
- The Royal wedding is but a warm-up event to The Wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancé in just over 2 weeks time in Scotland.
- My husband’s family’s motto is ‘to look good is better than to feel good’. We had spent countless (and I am not exaggerating) hours discussing the minutiae of hair possibilities, make-up options, undergarment alternatives and even the impact of fake tan to the perceived colour of stockings.
- I had decided not to wear a hat.
Within seconds of Victoria Beckham, and that hat, appearing on my TV screen last Friday, there was a cross-channel call with my mother-in-law. “Did you see her?” was the almost breathless question. I was always going to do something with my hair for The Wedding, but now I was wearing a hat.
At first, the thought of a tour of the milliners of Paris sounded wonderful. But did the small shop where I could pick up a vintage Dior or the old-fashioned store filled with hats that looked amazing on me and were perfect for the dress, even exist?. More crucially the dress and shoes are in Scotland. I’d have to rely on my not-so-reliable ‘vision’ to complete the outfit.
However, such is the power of my married family’s motto that it can make a girl from Ohio, whose personal motto would include something about a good meal and comfortable shoes, believe that this mission was not only possible, but worthwhile.
And so I set out.
My neighbourhood seemed the best place to start. Le Marais is packed full of cute independent boutiques, i.e. natural habitat for a hat shop. Or so I thought. After several hours of wandering the collective advice was that I was several weeks too early (wedding things come into the shops mid to late May) and that I needed to go to another part of Paris. A nice sales assistant suggested a place where it is always wedding season: Barbes.
As I set off on the metro, the sales assistant’s warnings about my safety started to concern me. He’d warned me that Barbes was not like Le Marais and that I would need to be careful. When I left the Barbes metro station, I could immediately see that I was in a very different part of Paris. There were women in colourful West African robes, crowds of North African men trying to sell me cigarettes, people and noise, everywhere. I wasn’t totally sure which direction would take me to the ‘many, many’ wedding shops I was promised. So I headed where the crowd was taking me.
Unwittingly, I had been into a Paris institution that had nothing to do with weddings, the Tati shops. Think of a city block full of individual Dollar or Pound stores, each with a different category of goods. Imagine that each of these shops is packed to bursting with women digging through bargain bins and filled with the smell of clothing dye and cheap shoes. Imagine that each of these stores has three floors, equally as busy and smelly as the first, and joined together by mirrored, yes mirrored, staircases. Imagine that all of these stores and this activity are bound together by one exterior facade wrapped in a baby pink and white hounds-tooth pattern with large signs declaring “le plus bas prix!”, the lowest price. That’s the Tati shops. Tati has been selling discounted goods in this location for more than 60 years and, if the crowds can be trusted, it’s very popular.
However, I needed to stay focused on my mission and set out to find ‘Wedding Shop Central’. It didn’t take me long. Like the rest of my Barbes experience, this was also a world where more was more. No subtle wedding dresses here. I imagine the store owners and their customers would have been disappointed that Kate hadn’t made more of an effort. If you wanted princess gowns, these places had more tulle, more sequins, more razzmatazz than any place I’d ever been. But no hats. As much fun as this was, what had the guy in Le Marais been thinking?
In the afternoon, I went to Plan C. I went to the much quieter area between the Blvd St Germain and the Seine on the Left Bank and found A la Recerche de Jane (41 rue Dauphine). This was more like it. The milliner was a woman in her 50s and a very smart double-breasted dress with brass buttons. The shop was full of her beautiful creations. I showed her a picture of the dress. She said, of course she could help.
“Ah, with such a special dress you need a very special hat.”
She ceremoniously pulled a large hat from the display area and placed it on my head. It was possibly the most ridiculous hat I’d ever seen. It looked like a giant gold balloon that had deflated on my head. Was she kidding? Apparently not.
“Very special, no?”
No. “I think something a bit smaller would be better.”
“Oh, I see you need something a bit safer,” she made a face. “Try this one, it is my speciality.” Had she insulted me and glorified the so-called ‘safe’ hat at the same time?
This hat was lovely, but also not right.
And then she said again, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” and produced another possibility with a sweeping flourish.
No, not right.
And again with a sweeping flourish, and again as if this was the first time, “With such a special dress you need a very special hat,” she produced two hats. She’d given up putting them on my head. One was quite pretty, but sadly,not right for the dress. The second had a cuddly teddy bear and feathers attached to the crown. Now she really must be kidding. Again, she was not.
“That’s all I have,” she said. She pushed passed me, and took a seat behind the desk at the back of her shop.
At this point I was losing faith in my mission. The ‘comfortable shoe’ part of my own personal motto was starting to win out over the quest to look good. My feet hurt and this was not as fun as I’d hoped. I’ll try one last place on my way home.
Le Grain de Sable (79 rue St Louis en l’Ile) is on the island of St Louis in the Seine, across a small bridge from Notre Dame. Again I produced a picture of the dress and again the dance of the many inappropriate hats commenced.
“Did you see the Royal Wedding?” I asked. “Did you see Victoria Beckham’s hat?”
I think you understand that I was getting desperate. I think you understand that with all of the other humiliation I’d suffered, I might as well go that last step, for the sake of the mission.
“Could you make something that looked like that?”
“Yes,” she said. “But you’re not Victoria Beckham.”
It was going to take something special to get me through those next moments and magically there it was. After she had inserted the knife, she put The Hat on my head.
I pick up my custom-made, cream-coloured chapeau a week on Tuesday. Remember, it’s better to look good than to feel good.