The Brown Silk Dress
Touched by Dior and the embers of the Holocaust, a 50-year-old dress conjures distant memories.
As I touch the rustling silk a faint hint of Ma Griffe perfume reaches my nostrils. In my Haifa apartment I stop spring cleaning for a moment and allow my memories to float back more than 50 years to a different time and to a far off country.
Australia, 1960s.Well groomed girls with bouffant hairdos, kept together by clouds of hairspray. Floral party dresses with layers of petticoats. Every few weeks I get a wedding invitation.
When my best friend Barbara gets engaged my mother thinks it’s time for me to start looking a little more sophisticated. “Would you like a dress from Genny Kay for the occasion?” she asks.
It is a great privilege to have a dress made by Genny Kay. Clients wait for weeks just for the initial appointment. Her clothes breathe haute couture which is not surprising as she had once been an apprentice to Dior. She learned the secrets of creating beautiful clothes from the master himself.
We ring her salon and are told our consultation will be in four week's time.
On the appointed day we are greeted by a surprisingly young Genny.
"So you would like a dress for your friend’s wedding,” she says in her French accented voice. She looks at me for a minute, eyeing a not too tall, curvaceous young woman. “I have something that will be perfect for you.” She leaves the room and returns almost immediately, holding a small bolt of material. “There is only enough material for one dress. It was made exclusively for my salon."
The brown silk dress
She unfurls the cloth. I take a deep breath. The material is exquisite – dark, chocolate brown Thai silk with scattered, gold, hand-embroidered roses. I have never seen anything so beautiful. “We’ll follow the line of your body to give you height,” I hear Genny saying. I just nod my head, enchanted by the lovely cloth.
Genny beckons me to follow her into the fitting room. I wait for her to take out a tape measure and a pad to scribble down my measurements but all I see is Genny walking towards me with a bolt of white calico and a pair of scissors. She drapes the calico around my body and starts cutting it, using my body as the outline of the design.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that,” I say in wonderment.
“That’s the secret of a perfect fit.” Genny says. After she has tucked in the calico with a few pins under the waist and near the shoulders she says, “That’s it for today."
I come back a week later. Mrs. Kay takes me straight to the fitting room. The calico is on a stand and the brown silk is spread over the work bench. She dresses me in the calico and readjusts the outline. Then she takes the calico and spreads it on the Thai silk. She carefully pins down the simple white material on the luxurious brown and starts cutting. I watch in fascination and allow myself to ask, “How did you come to learn to sew in the House of Dior?”
Genny continues cutting silently for a minute and then she puts down the scissors, her thoughts in a past that she finds difficult to talk about. "After the Gestapo took my parents, a kind neighbor hid my sister and me in her home and saved us."
The Jewish leaders asked Monsieur Dior to take in a few girls and teach them a profession.
Genny pauses for a moment. "When the war ended we started searching for our family. We went back to our house, but it was destroyed. We looked for our uncles and aunts, cousins. There was no one left. We were completely alone. The Jewish community opened homes for orphaned children, but we were too old to go to an orphanage and too uneducated to go to work. The Jewish leaders asked Monsieur Dior to take in a few girls and teach them a profession. We were amongst the lucky ones to be accepted. My sister and I worked long hours."
Genny spoke softly, as if to herself. "We were in the salon by eight in the morning and left when it was dark. We learnt everything slowly and meticulously. Do you know how many times I had to unpick my sewing because the stitches were too long or not quite straight? Oo la la , it makes me tired even to remember.”
By now she has adjusted both the calico and the brown silk. “When you come next time I will show you what I mean by hand stitching.”
Three days later I am back at the salon. Genny slips the dress over my head zipping it up at the back. Then she stands me in front of a full length mirror. The gold embroidered roses follow the lines of my body giving the illusion of extra height and a slimmer appearance. It is awesome. I am delighted.
Genny takes a step back. ”Ah bon, “ she mutters to herself. “It needs a little adjustment.”
Reluctantly I step out of the dress. “You will come back tomorrow, there are two things I am not happy with.” In my eyes the dress is sublime, but how can I argue with the woman who has created this magic.
The next day my mother accompanies me to pick up the dress.
“This is truly a work of art,” my mother says turning to Genny.
Genny nods her head in acknowledgement. “We’ll go into the waiting room while my secretary packs it up.”
When we are seated my mother asks Genny the question I have been dying to ask myself. “So how did you get from Paris to Melbourne?”
Genny smiles as she answers. “In 1948 my sister and I were contacted by an aunt who was living in Melbourne. She had managed to escape Europe before the war. She invited us to join her and her family in Australia and start a new life here. We thought it was a good idea and so we arrived in Melbourne in 1949. At first we worked from my aunt's house but soon we had so many clients I decided to open a salon.”
“Don’t you miss Paris?’ I ask.
“No, my life in Paris was miserable. We were poor, we were alone and there were only bad memories. My life here is better. I have my own salon, I have a home and best of all I have my husband.”
As we leave Genny wishes me, "Many happy hours wearing the new dress.”
I danced at Barbara’s wedding where the dress was much admired. The dress accompanied me to New York and England but its final stop was in Haifa, where I happened to be wearing it when I met my husband.
Fifty years is a long time to keep a dress, but I can't bear to part with it. As I wrap it gently in fresh tissue paper and hang it back in the cupboard I think of Genny and hope that life has given her the serenity she sought.