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The Story of the Book

What Else Would a Young Film Star Wear?

Photo of Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell


In my mid-20s, my friend and I managed to snag a flat near Angel tube station in London. It was narrow and lightless, with a corridor running alongside two rooms, a kitchenette you could cross in two steps and a tiny bathroom, where you could reach the loo only by turning sideways and edging past the bath.

I had the back room, dark as a cave in winter, with a desk under a sash window, where I would sit working, when not at my actual job on a newspaper. I had no money; neither of us did. I was trying to write—freelance book reviews, stories, what seemed to be turning into a novel—and my flatmate was trying to break into set-design.

The flat had a concrete stairwell zig-zagging between red-painted front doors; if you went up, you found yourself on an enormous, sun-scorched, asphalted roof. If you went down, you reached a narrow lane, at the end of which was Upper Street.

Islington in the mid-1990s was an area on the way up: every second doorway was that of a bar or a restaurant, blasting Britpop into the nicotine-heavy air. Every other was that of a chic boutique or shoe shop or homeware place selling vintage doorknobs. What window shopping was to be had here. I would walk home from a night out or a late shift at the newspaper, picking my way through drunks and revelers, sidestepping lakes of lager (and worse), gazing up at the flickering reel of shop windows.

One night, something stopped me in my tracks. A faceless mannequin, half-turned towards me, as if she was about to step out of her window and down into the street to join me. She was wearing a dress in cumulonimbus-grey silk, with an ivy-trail of red beads winding up it. Its incongruities—the fragility of the silk, the fiery beading, strength meeting weakness—struck me, imprinted me as I stood there, mesmerized.

I walked away, of course. Fast. I could no more afford that dress than I could a yacht on the Mediterranean; the clothes I did on occasion allow myself to buy came from thrift stores and sale rails. I was barely making the rent each month as it was.

I didn’t forget it, though. I couldn’t: I had to walk past it twice a day. As that summer wore on, the grey-dress mannequin and I got to be on quite familiar terms. I would pause in the morning, on my way to work, and again in the evening, on my way back. She retained her proud, high-chinned stance. Sometimes, taking a break from my nocturnal, secret novel-writing stints, I would come out into the deserted, hot street in my nightdress and stand near her in the sodium-orange streetlights, squinting upwards.

Then it was gone, my grey beaded dress. One morning, the mannequin was sporting a lurid skirt suit, in a different pose, facing the street. I shouldered my bag and walked away.

Two things happened. I got paid for some book reviews in a magazine and a literary agent said she might take me on, if I could edit my manuscript down.

Ecstatic from the meeting with the agent, I ran home along Upper Street, her business card in one pocket, a cheque from the magazine in the other. As I neared the dress shop, I slowed my pace. I hesitated at the door. I opened it and went inside.

“Do you remember a grey dress,” I faltered to the shop assistant behind the counter, “on display a few months ago because I was wondering–?”

“It sold out,” she said and I was nodding backing away, when she added, “but we’ve still got the one from the window in the back. It’s got some sun damage but you could try it on, if you like.”

Was I surprised when I slid up the zip and saw that it fitted me like an expensive, smooth second skin? When I turned in front of the mirror and saw that it moved and clasped my body like a caul, that the beads were the exact shade of my hair, that in it I was somehow different, transposed, older, altered? Or when the assistant said she would reduce it, because of the fading, to the exact sum of the cheque in my pocket? No. I wasn’t surprised at all. The whole interaction had the sense of something expected, something foreseen, something essentially right.

Reader, I bought the dress. I had to subsist on a diet of lentils and beans for a while, but I could eat them in front of my closet, where the dress dangled from a hanger.

I wore it to parties, to weddings, to birthdays; I wore it with trainers, with flip-flops, with heels I could barely hobble in. I wore it in nightclubs, on beaches, in hotels. I wore it to the launch of my first novel. I wore it to get married in.

Three children later and it’s no longer an option for me, even though my husband sometimes begs me to put it on for him.

I recently had it cleaned and I put it away, in a trunk of things I keep for my daughters—a maternal clothing archive. I closed the lid of the trunk and shut the locks, imagining them both as grown women, lifting it out, holding it against them, sliding up the zip, as I did that day in Islington.

I thought I wouldn’t see it again for a while; my daughters were, after all, only six and three so it would be some time before it would even come close to fitting them. But then, halfway into writing my seventh novel, I came up with the idea of putting in a chapter in the form of an auction catalogue.

One of my characters, Claudette, was a reclusive actress who pulls off a disappearance at the height of her career and vanishes to live in a remote valley in Ireland. What, I wondered, would have happened to the things she left behind? What kind of narrative do our possessions hold?

As soon as the idea struck, I knew my grey dress would be a part of it. Claudette rises to fame in the early 1990s. What else would a young film star wear to Cannes Film Festival in 1993 but a Katharine Hamnett silk shift?

So I got the dress which has traced a clear line through the most important events of my adult life out of storage. I hung it up, I put it on a mannequin to photograph it.

As I was fiddling with the lens of my camera, bringing the picture into focus, my elder daughter came into the room.

“Oh,” she breathed, “it’s beautiful.” And she put out a hand, carefully, reverently, to touch it. “Whose is it?”

“It used to be mine,” I said.

She tilted up her face to look at me. “Whose is it now?”

I smiled at her. “Yours,” I said.


About the Author

Maggie O'Farrell

Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, Maggie O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives in London. She has worked as a waitress, chambermaid, bike messenger, teacher, arts administrator, and journalist in Hong Kong and London, and as the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. Her debut novel, After You’d Gone (2000), won a Betty Trask Award and was followed by My Lover’s Lover (2002); The Distance Between Us (2004), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006); The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the Costa Novel Award; and Instructions for a Heatwave (2013).