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sofia grant

The Dress in the Window

The Dress in the Window


November 1948

Nancy Cosgrove had seen in the gown made up in taffeta in Vogue, and taffeta was what she had to have. Jeanne made a muslin first, at Nancy's insistence, even though muslin could never stand in for the stiff, slippery hand of the real thing. The muslin's skirt hung around Nancy's lumpy hips like wet rags and Jeanne thought she'd finally come to her senses—but Nancy just went home to get her crinoline. It made only a slight improvement: the muslin spread out over the stiff underskirt like leaves floating on a pond. But Nancy took herself across the river to the city where she found a bolt of emerald green moire taffeta in a shop at the corner of 4th and Fulton.

When she brought it back, sitting in the passenger seat of her garish two-tone Packard Clipper like a visiting dignitary, it occurred to Jeanne that Nancy might still be trying to one-up her, even after everything that had happened. Never mind that Jeanne slept in the unfinished attic of the narrow row house that she shared with her sister and her niece and Thelma Glover. She suspected that there was a part of Nancy that was stuck back at Mother of Mercy High School, where Jeanne had sailed like a swan through adolescence, winning top marks and courted by a steady stream of Saint Xavier boys. By contrast, poor Nancy had been as awkward as a stump, beloved by no teacher, no suitors, and none of the other girls.

Jeanne tried not to hold this belated vengefulness against Nancy: they badly needed her money. Still, Nancy had no head for sums, and there was not enough fabric on the bolt for the New Look dress she had hired Jeanne to sew for her. Unlike the wide bolt of unbleached muslin that Jeanne kept on a length of baling wire on Thelma's back porch, the taffeta that Nancy brought back was only 48" wide—a scant 48" at that, the selvages taking up the better part of an inch on either side. Jeanne could barely cut a skirt panel from it—even with Nancy's oddly short, bowed calves—and only by forgoing the deep hem she'd planned in favor of an understitched facing.

Jeanne had been up the night before until nearly three in the morning, hand-tacking that facing with a single strand of super-fine Zimmerman and a straw needle. When she finally went to bed, she had an unsettling dream. It had been months since she'd dreamed of Charles, but suddenly there he was, wearing a hat that had hung on a nail in the carriage house of his parents' estate in Connecticut, a western style of hat that his father had brought back from a trip to Montana.

But in the dream Charles frowned at her from beneath its broad brim, while he pressed his hands to his stomach, trying to stanch the blood pouring from the hole in his side, while all around him in the trenches of Cisterna, his fellow Rangers were felled by the German panzers. Only six of them came home, out of more than seven hundred—but Jeanne didn't care about any of them. She would have traded them all to have Charles back.

War had made a monster of her, and there was nothing she could do about it—except to sew. A stitch, another, another. In this way the minutes and hours passed.

Sofia Grant

It was the second week of Advent and their little parlor was decked out in paper snowflakes and a wreath of fresh greens, but that was all for Tommie. The rest of the household was sick of pretending to be cheerful. Thelma had come down with shingles in the fall and spent long afternoons in her room, and Tommie had a cough that persisted through one week and then another, terrible racking coughs that seemed much too harsh to come out of a six-year-old.

"Stop pacing," Jeanne snapped, as Peggy swished by with Tommie clinging to her like a barnacle. Tommie was a stocky child, and too old to be carried like an infant. Jeanne didn't know how her sister managed managed—a few turns around the park could put Jeanne's back out for a week. But today it seemed to be the only way to get Tommie to stop fussing.

"You're the one who told me to keep watch," Peggy retorted.

"Girls! Stop bickering!" came Thelma's muffled call from the kitchen, where she was making stock, simmering last night's chicken carcass in hopes of getting another meal out of it. It galled Jeanne that Thelma still called them 'girls' when she was 28 and Peggy was 27, but she was not in a position to complain. She was the interloper here, the recipient of charity, a fact that she loathed but could not change.

Before Jeanne could respond, there was a knock at the door. She peeked out the parlor window, and there was Nancy's car, parked out front. Jeanne fixed a smile on her face and opened the door. Nancy wore a hound's-tooth coat too dowdy for a woman twice her age and it was all Jeanne could do not to tilt her head in subtle disdain the way she'd once done, in the halls of Mother of Mercy a decade earlier. She had forgotten, during the long hours of sewing since fitting Nancy with the muslin, the way she leaned slightly forward on the balls of her feet, like an old dog ready to collapse; had forgotten Nancy's stomping gait as she came into their front room. The gown Jeanne had just finished was a thing of delicate beauty, and it was hard to bear the thought of Nancy's lumpish figure stuffed into it.

Still, it would flatter her as much as any gown could, and Jeanne was counting on the other guests at the ball to notice, to lavish her with compliments. Jeanne knew Nancy wouldn't be able to resist telling people who had sewn the gown for her: girls like Nancy never forgot the cruel hierarchy of high school, and having Jeanne in her employ would be a card she would play for all it was worth.

Nancy was far from the only woman in Brunskill who was wealthier than most, but still unable to afford to shop in Paris or New York, or even the finer shops in Philadelphia. Jeanne was her best-kept secret, but hoped not to be a secret for long. If she could get a commission like this one every week, it would pay for groceries for the household, even a chicken every Sunday night. And that would do until Jeanne figured out the next chapter in her life.

"Well?" Nancy said, barely nodding at Peggy, who stood swaying with Tommie in her arms. "Where is it?"

Jeanne went to Thelma's bedroom where she'd hung the gown from the door of the closet, and said a quick prayer before lifting the dress from the hook and carrying it out in front of her. Thelma emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, a faintly imperious expression on her face. Thelma, Jeanne knew, did not care for Nancy either. She considered Nancy common, a peculiar vanity for a widow of a drayage driver. But like the rest of them, Thelma had once been someone else, too.

Nancy's sharp intake of breath belied her studied indifference. She touched the bodice reverently with nails filed into sharp points and painted crimson. "It's lovely," she said, "but don't you think...I mean, I wanted the waist nipped close. Like the picture, you know?"

Jeanne knew exactly what Nancy wanted. Every woman in America had seen those photographs in the paper, the fashion firestorm sweeping the nation ever since Christian Dior's scandalous collection launched last year in Paris. An outrageous reaction to the leanness and rationing of wartime, Dior's New Look was nothing if not controversial. It featured wasp waists, padded hips and close-fitting sleeves—and flowing, voluminous skirts, falling to the ankle even in day length, all of it hinging on an hourglass of a figure that few women came by naturally.

All that fabric, all that weight—excessive, screamed the American press. "Mr. Dior, We Abhor Dresses to the Floor," read a placard carried by a housewife protesting in Chicago, in a photo that was picked up by all the major newspapers. Husbands in several cities called for a boycott.

But the tides of fashion would not be turned back. Women had emerged from the war in the worn, threadbare, much-mended clothes in which they entered it, their few wartime outfits lean and spare according to the penurious regulations of fabric rationing. No cuffs, no pleats or gathers, no trim or pockets. No dolman sleeves, no skirts past thirty inches. They welcomed the feminine silhouette and hungered for the ballerina skirts and soft shoulders, no matter how impractical or expensive to produce.

Jeanne had fitted the silk bodice as tight as she could without asphyxiating Nancy, whose waist had disappeared after the birth of her second child. She would see this for herself once she put it on the dress.

But tact—even a bit of prevarication—was called for now. "Oh, don't you worry," Jeanne said, folding the dress over her arm at the waist. "A good corset will take care of that. I'll tell you what—why don't you put it on and I'll pin the adjustments."

Nancy shrugged in what she probably imagined was a queenly fashion. Peggy appeared at her elbow, Tommie suddenly nowhere to be seen. She had applied a slash of vivid scarlet lipstick, and that one simple addition made her appear radiant again. If Jeanne had once been the famous beauty of the family, Peggy had surprised everyone by blossoming late. It was as though tragedy had smoothed the sharp edges of her impetuous youth and given her a sense of languid melancholy, like Veronica Lake in "The Blue Dahlia."

"Come into the changing room," Peggy said, in the bored, throaty voice she sometimes assumed for company. Nancy glanced at Jeanne suspiciously before following Peggy into the larder, and Jeanne opened her mouth to speak—but was startled to silence by a rare, conspiratorial wink from Thelma. Only yesterday Jeanne had been on her hands and knees in the tiny, dank room, scrubbing a bit of onion skin that had adhered itself to the old wooden floor by a smudge of damp black mold, but now a flash of bright light emerged from the doorway.

"She wanted to surprise you," Thelma murmured, pinching Jeanne's forearm lightly. Jeanne could smell her rose water perfume mixed with the yeasty scents of baking. Thelma pinched her a second time. "Don't tell me you've forgotten? You've got that head of yours in the clouds, birthday girl!"

Jeanne realized with a sickening sensation that it was indeed her birthday—her twenty-ninth. She stood helplessly, her mouth hanging open like a fish laid out on ice, as the pieces fell into place. Thelma in the kitchen all morning, the scents of allspice and cinnamon wafting from the oven; pretending to be cross and shooing Jeanne from the room. Peggy insisting that Jeanne take Tommie to Florence Park, at the bottom of two steep sets of steps half a mile away, because the playground at the public school down the street where they usually played was too marshy with melting snow. They'd been plotting a celebration!

Jeanne, only last night, had been feeling sorry for herself as she put the finishing touches on the dress. She felt her face warm with embarrassment. "Thelma, I..."

"Hush now." One last pinch, this one hard. "Go see to Queen Elizabeth in there."

Jeanne hid a smile behind her hand. Thelma could occasionally make a joke, a sly one. They'd read about the luxury ocean liner named for the Queen, marveling at the glittering excess, the parties and formal dinners—and most of all the trunks and trunks of beautiful clothes the passengers brought along. But it wasn't the gowns Thelma was comparing Nancy to, but the enormous ship herself.

There wasn't room for Jeanne in the brand-new "dressing room"—but what a transformation Peggy had effected! The walls were covered in pale shirred fabric, and a closer examination revealed it was Jeanne's very own muslin, gathered under hem tape and stapled top and bottom. Thelma's oval mirror had been plucked from her dresser and hung from the wall by a satin ribbon Jeanne recognized from the band of one of Peggy's hats, and the floor was covered by the rug from Thelma's bedside. The hooks that held bags of onions and potatoes were now adorned by glass knobs that looked suspiciously like the ones from Thelma's bureau. Nancy had slipped off her day dress and hung it on the wall, and now she was turning this way and that in the green silk gown, examining herself in the mirror and frowning.

The waist was stretched taut, as Jeanne had known it would be, and Nancy was tugging at the sleeves. They were done in the New Look style she'd requested, small tapered caps that hugged her doughy shoulders. Jeanne had made the armholes more generous than the tight cut featured in the Parisian gowns, but even so, the fabric cut into Nancy's flesh. She looked a bit like a washerwoman, her underarms jiggling as she moved.

"You've made these too tight," she complained, jamming a stubby finger under one of the curved caps.

"I've got an idea," Peggy said, before Jeanne could respond. There wasn't a seamstress in the world who could make a cap sleeve that would flatter Thelma's arms. Peggy and Jeanne, used to the labor of keeping house and carrying Tommie around, had the opposite problem—their biceps bulged with muscles.

Thelma crowded behind Jeanne, the four women squeezing into the little room like fraternity boys into a phone booth. Ignoring Nancy's ire, Jeanne was touched by her sister's ingenuity. There hadn't been money for a new pair of gloves or stockings, but the gift she'd given Jeanne was better than anything money could buy.

"What a gorgeous shade," Thelma said diplomatically. "Almost like jade, wouldn't you say?"

"What was your idea?" Nancy huffed to Peggy.

"Just give me a minute..."

While Peggy raced upstairs to the bedroom she shared with Tommie, there was a small commotion from the coat closet, and Jeanne suddenly realized where her sister had stashed Tommie. She exchanged an exasperated look with Thelma.

There was often an unspoken cooperation between Jeanne and her sister's mother-in-law. For her part, Jeanne's efforts were born of the desperate wish to make herself valuable in the household that had taken her in. She was well aware that her presence was a burden, that Thelma had offered her shelter more out of deference to social conventions than any genuine enthusiasm for Jeanne's company. As for Thelma...Jeanne liked to think that they had found they were kindred spirits: both practical women, clever in the way of women whose resources were few and needs were great. And without many options for passing their leisure time, both loved to read, and Jeanne suspected both of them might have been labeled bookish if their more obvious assets hadn't drawn greater attention. Yes, Thelma had been a beauty once, and her face—even now unlined and smooth—still commanded notice.

Thelma gave Jeanne a slight nod and went off to fetch Tommie, who'd probably been stowed among the galoshes and mops with nothing but a few saltine crackers to keep her busy, and Jeanne racked her brain for ways to hold up her end of the bargain—to distract Nancy.

"So tell me more about the ball," she said.

Nancy gave Jeanne a suspicious look. The Holly Ball was a fairly minor event in the Philadelphia social season, but to attend any ball in the city was a heady accomplishment for a Roxborough matron. Jeanne herself had attended, once, with Charles. With his sterling manners and good looks, he'd been invited several times already, a handy date for girls making their debut. And he danced well—his mother had seen to that.

Nancy, on the other hand, had had to work her way up—laboriously, Jeanne suspected—to an invitation, serving on the committees no one wanted and looking for opportunities to gain a footing in Philadelphia society. "Well, it's still held at the National Guard Armory, of course," she began. "The Woody Shaw Band will be playing, and—"

Jeanne was saved from having to hear more of what she would be missing by her sister, who'd come back with one of her old sketchbooks in hand. She held up the book to reveal a quick drawing of Nancy's dress rendered in a few bold, assured strokes—but with a new sleeve, a rather straightforward elbow-length style with a little notch at the bottom, eased into a more generous armhole. The new sleeves were just shy of matronly, but they would hide the flabby extra flesh that had given Nancy pause.

"It's very chic," Peggy gushed. "I saw this style in Women's Wear Daily. It's barely made it to New York from Paris, but it will be everywhere this spring, I imagine."

Peggy didn't look at Jeanne—she knew better. She was a gifted liar, and had been since childhood, and Jeanne had learned to be constantly vigilant. Often she'd give up in a gale of laughter when Jeanne gave her a raised-eyebrow glare—and they couldn't chance that now.

"Hmmm," Nancy hedged. "I didn't know you were an artist, Peggy." She said it in the same tone that she might have said I didn't know you were a laundress, but Peggy's sketch really was quite good. Once, she'd hoped to go to art school, but when their mother grew ill after her last year of high school, she settled for working at an art supply shop. She'd draw anything, but she especially loved to copy illustrations from the department store advertisements in the papers and the magazines they read at the library, modifying the stylish outfits to suit her own taste, and she could bring the turn of an ankle or the drape of a coat with just a few strokes of a pencil. It was a hobby that had taken a back seat since Tommie's arrival, but now Jeanne saw that it might come in quite handy.

"Oh, yes," Jeanne improvised. "Peggy's done tons of original designs. In fact, I'm wearing one."

She turned this way and that, hands on hips, to show off the dress she was wearing. In truth Jeanne had copied it from one she'd seen at Fyfe's on a trip to see the holiday decorations earlier in the month. The wool had exhausted her savings, but Jeanne was making Peggy and Thelma each new dresses for their Christmas presents, and she'd wanted something new to wear to church, too. She'd even made Tommie a little matching dress, just for fun, but she'd been sick on it and Jeanne couldn't get the smell out of the wool.

The dress was ice blue and it had a clever faux twist at the neckline, made by stitching down a band of wool faced with a thin rayon interfacing that allowed the wool to be ruched without adding much bulk. It hadn't been Jeanne's idea, but it had been simple enough to copy.

Nancy considered Jeanne's dress only for a moment before she returned her attention to the one she was wearing. Her fingertips idly caressed her bare shoulder. "Well, can you do it?"

Jeanne thought of the scraps, carefully folded in her basket. She'd coveted a bit of the green silk to use on a project of her own—but there wasn't enough to make much more than a dickey or perhaps to line the pockets of her old car coat. Making new sleeves for Nancy would be a stretch, but if she cut them on the bias, and pieced a gusset in the underside...

"I suppose," Jeanne said coolly.

"But she'll have to charge you twice her usual rate," Thelma cut in, "as it will mean putting off another client. And there won't be time for a fitting, of course, since the ball is tomorrow night."

Nancy glanced between Thelma and Jeanne, nonplussed by the older woman's intervention. "Well, then, I'll come first thing in the morning."

Jeanne could see that it had been the right move, from the rising color in Nancy's cheeks. It was just as it had been when they were at school together: girls like Nancy valued things by how much others wanted them, and creating a false sense of scarcity had excited that impulse in her.

A devilish idea occurred to Jeanne, borne of the years she and Nancy had spent in their overlapping social spheres.

"Oh, I'm afraid that won't work," she said sorrowfully. "I'm to visit Sister Anthony this evening, you see, and the poor dear looks forward to my visits so much. She doesn't receive many visitors."

Behind Nancy, Jeanne could see Peggy trying to keep a straight face. She bent down pretended to be busy wiping something from Tommie's face.

Sister Anthony O'Connell had been simply the most dreadful teacher at Mother of Mercy. She'd always seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, and had a near-obsessive distrust of humor. A giggle in Sister Anthony's English class could lead to an inquisition, with her looming over a student demanding to know what exactly was amusing about the day's lesson. Also, she couldn't speak without spittle flying from her thin, cracked lips, and rare was the girl who'd avoided being spattered during a reproof.

Sister Anthony had seemed ancient even then, and shortly after Jeanne and Peggy graduated she'd retired to the order's retirement home. Jeanne had heard she had dementia now; there was a rumor that she yelled like a longshoreman at her nurses. Jeanne had certainly never been to visit her, not once.

"Well," Nancy said, drawing a breath. "I suppose...I mean, I could go, to visit her...that would be the kind thing to do, wouldn't it? And you could—you could—" she gestured at the sketch she was holding.

Thelma coughed and took the sketch from her hands.

"And yes, the...extra charges will be fine," Nancy added.

Moments later, she was gone. The three women peeked out at her behind the drapes, giggling at her wide derriere when she bent to get in the car. Even Tommie joined in the laughter, delighted by a rare moment when none of the women in her life were in the clutches of despair.

© Sofia Grant

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