Wellington, New Zealand 1920
My dad always told me do something you love, and you’ll never regret a day of work. He was right. At least about that. From a young age I had delighted in sewing. The ability to take a length of cloth and create anything I wanted, possessed a kind of magic. Then events that should have ruined my life, instead opened up the opportunity to start my own tiny fashion house—Designed with Grace.
My humble business occupied the bottom corner of a building on Plimmer Steps, a cobbled lane that ran from Lambton Quay to Boulcott Street. Every day, numerous pedestrians used the short cut between buildings and up the steep stairs. My workshop occupied a space before the wide window. The large cutting table, made by my dad, occupied the centre of the room. Against one wall sat my Singer sewing machine. A dress form either side. A private room for fittings was secluded to the other side of the room. A glass top bench stretched out near the rear of the shop.
Today I worked alone. My assistant Etty had the most terrible head cold and I didn’t want her nose dripping onto delicate silk. With hand stitching on my lap, I sat in a chair placed in the light coming through the window. A wooden work box open on the small table beside me. Sometimes a curious passerby would pause and stare at the item I sewed.
Today I felled a seam on the skirt of a walking ensemble—tedious work that some seamstresses didn’t bother with. After pressing the seam open, I turned the edge on either side under and pinned it down. Then another pass with the iron, kept hot on the small pot belly in the corner of the room. Now, a tiny row of stitches marched along the fabric and finished the edge. My mentor, Mrs Cooper, always told me it was the invisible details that distinguished a fine haute couture gown from mass produced fashion. Work that required patience and care, like felling a seam.
On my left hand, the one holding the fabric, I had drawn two black lines on my thumb nail. Those lines acted as a tiny measure and ensured every stitch was the exact same size. The repetitive nature of the work induced a kind of trance state. My inhales and exhales matched to the needle being passed through the linen. I finished off the row and snipped the thread as the brass bell above the door tinkled.
A blast of warm January summer air burst into my shop, along with a customer who sent dread flowing through my limbs. A willowy form clad in a fashionable day dress of yellow stripe with a wide sailor collar and a smart matching stra hat, marched in. She was exactly the sort of customer I longed to see walk through my door. Except for this particular person.
I had nothing personal against Agatha Marshall. She was overall a lovely person, quick to smile or offer a kind word. My issue with Agatha resided entirely with her memory. She would forget an appointment and leave me waiting for hours. Or she would forget how much she adored the blue silk and insist on green chiffon. Or she would forget to pay her rather large and outstanding bill that meant I had to pare back a recent fabric order from England.
“My darling Grace! It’s been absolutely ages!” Agatha swanned into my little shop and reached out to touch the tweed draped on the dress form for an outfit for cold winter days.
It had been ages because she still hadn’t paid her bill, and I had managed to fob off all her attempts to book a fitting.
“Hello, Miss Marshall. You are looking lovely today.” I placed the skirt pieces into my work basket and rose.
The bright yellow of Agatha’s dress combined with her large smile, reminded me of a sunflower.
“I need your help, Grace, and you are the only one who can help me out of a pickle.” She dropped to the comfortable leather armchair, reserved for customers as they are shown sketches or fabric. She clutched her purse on her lap and her fingers fidgeted with the golden catch.
“Oh?” Her dress didn’t appear to be in need of any repair and I recalled seeing it as part of the new summer collection at Kirkcaldie and Stains—the premiere department store in Wellington.
“I am desperate for the starring role in Liam’s new show at the Cricket. Rumour has it that a hotshot Hollywood producer is in New Zealand for a holiday and he will attend opening night! There is to be a party tonight and I know if I can charm Liam, he will give me the lead and not that fumble-footed blonde.”
She practically squealed when she mentioned Hollywood. A place far away and not subject to chilly winters. Or so I had read in a magazine. Silent films were making stars from ordinary folk, and Agatha dreamed of appearing on the big screen one day. I’d never heard of any star coming from little old New Zealand though. Not that we didn’t have our share of talented folk, but it was a terribly long boat journey to America if you wanted to be discovered. Probably why she was so excited if a movie producer had slid down to our part of the globe.
“Hollywood!” She repeated. With an accompanying sigh.
My heart fell. Agatha not only wanted a new frock, but she expected it at incredibly short notice. “I’m sorry, Miss Marshall. I couldn’t possibly make a gown by tonight.” Not even if I wanted to and you were going to pay me—in advance.
“But Grace, I need to look ravishing. I will simply die if I don’t get this part and it goes to that cow, Mintie.” At this point she leaned back in the chair and pressed her hand to her forehead in a melodramatic fashion. She really was suited to life as a starlet, from her stunning looks to her extravagant gestures. Everything about her life was do or die.
However my family would die if I didn’t put food on the table. Which was exactly why I ran my own small fashion house, even though others would laugh at calling it such. Six years ago as war broke out across Europe, I had left my regular employment and taken the risk of opening Designed with Grace. I barely made enough during those years, but now with war and the influenza pandemic behind us, things were starting to look up. There was a chance to expand and hire another girl to help sew.
“Have you been to see what Kirkcaldie and Stains have in stock? They released some lovely cocktail dresses over Christmas, up on the first floor.” Once, I used to be a shopgirl there. Then I rose to fittings and repairs before my departure. Thanks to Mrs Cooper who was not only a wealthy customer of the department store, she also happened to own the building where I rented my workroom.
“Oh, don’t be so horrid, Grace! You know your dresses are the most sought after these days. As I must be.” Agatha closed her eyes and tilted her head back farther.
Agatha wasn’t like the other hoofers—the showgirls who danced and sang to entertain the late night set. She came from a well-off family and could have married and lived a comfortable life that revolved around lunches and dress fittings. Instead she pursued her dream of being an actress in the new talking pictures. But that required relocating from New Zealand to the bright lights and glamour in the United States of America. A journey her family refused to sanction or fund.
The showgirl was convinced that if she attracted the right attention in Wellington, she would be swept away to the life of a movie star in California. To rub shoulders with Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Everyone had a dream, Agatha’s simply involved more logistical problems.
“I am ever so sorry Miss Marshall, but I simply couldn’t complete an expensive commission like that in such a short amount of time.” I emphasised the word expensive, hoping her horrendous memory would recall the outstanding account. Perhaps then her hands would dive into her designer clutch and pull out a wad of cash.
Agatha dropped her hand, but not to search the handbag for my outstanding money. Instead she placed the bag on the seat and stood. She paced my workroom with a restless energy like a caged tiger at the Newton zoo. “You must have something tucked away, Grace? A little project for no particular client, that could be made to fit with one of those new handkerchief hemlines and a chiffon train.” She lifted a bolt of rust red chiffon and peered underneath as though suspecting it unfolded into a complete gown.
I did indeed have projects I worked on at night, or in my free time. On one, the metallic embroidery alone was taking me weeks. When completed, it would resemble the cheeky fantail where his distinctive tail was transformed into a curved train of burnished bronze, grey, and cream. Part of me longed for an occasion to wear it myself, but it would most likely find an owner among Wellington’s inner circle of high society.
“No,” I lied. “I don’t have anything at all. Since you are here, there is the matter of your overdue account.” Protecting the fantail gown emboldened me. She would never pay unless prodded along.
“You would trouble me about money at a time like this?” her voice rose to a sharp tone.
Pedestrians in the lane, stopped. Agatha’s waving arms and volume drew their attention.
I darted a glance to the growing audience. A hoofer might be used to men staring at her performance, I was not. Nor did I want to air dirty laundry in the middle of town. The large window which had so appealed to me for allowing as much light into my rooms as possible, now became a stage and we were actors upon it.
“There is no need to shout, Miss Marshall. I don’t think there is ever a good time to discuss the issue of finances, but the bill has been due for some time now. I cannot buy the fabrics I require for other customers, until it is settled.” My son, Theo, wanted nothing more than a bright red bicycle for his fifth birthday in May. I wanted to purchase a new one for him, but until Agatha paid her bill we might have to settle for an old bicycle dad would restore and paint. One day, I vowed, my son would have new things and not hand-me-downs.
Agatha spun on me, her eyes wide. The bright light in her eyes grew cold. “I happen to know that you are liar, Mrs Devine. And you will find me a dress by tonight. Unless you want me to tell all of them your little lie?”
She flung out her arm and gestured to the crowd watching the show playing out in my window. They stared openly, perhaps trying to determine if they observed a comedy or a tragedy.
A chill worse than the Wellington southerly in the middle of winter, froze my bones. I swallowed, tried to talk, but at first nothing would make it past my parched throat. Her words were a mere bluff. They had to be. “I have no idea what you mean.”
Spinning around, I walked to the rear of the room and the polished wood counter. The depth of shadow there afforded privacy from the open view of the window. She couldn’t possibly know. Could she?
“Yes, you do. Frank was unusually drunk the other night at the Cricket, and I got him talking.” Agatha followed me and her purse dropped to the counter with an ominous thud.
Frank, the younger brother of Freddie, my husband and father of my cherished son. My thumb rubbed the thin band of gold on my left hand. It seemed a lifetime ago that we waved Frank and Freddie off to war aboard the transport ships. Only one of the brothers had returned.
“I think it’s time you left.” My opinion of Agatha changed, I no longer liked her.
Unshod tears shimmered in her eyes. “I must land the lead. My life depends upon it.”
Recalling happier times, when we chatted during her fittings, I found a weak smile for her. “You have always shone like the brightest star, Miss Marshall, you don’t need a new dress for that. I am sure you will be given the part on the strength of your talent.”
She reached out and grabbed my arm. “You don’t understand my situation. I’m desperate and I’ll do anything to get out of this mess. Stick with me, Grace, and once I’m a star I will shower you with money. You could be my personal designer in America and all the other starlets will beg for you to dress them, too.”
As soon as her fingers touched my skin, a memory thrust itself into my mind. As a child, the things I saw as waking dreams, confused me. Dad explained it was a gift that came from his side of the family, but that some people wouldn’t understand. Over time, I learned to bite my tongue when the scenes pulled from another person’s mind didn’t match their words. Or sometimes the images were so violent or upsetting, I had to escape into a piece of hand work to calm my thoughts.
My workroom disappeared, replaced by a lush drawing room I didn’t recognise.
A man cloaked in shadow raised his arm and pointed at Agatha, as he yelled. ‘You will make things right!’
Agatha sobbed. ‘I will. I promise. All I need is a little time. Once I land this role, everything will work out. You’ll see.’
Then a single white feather drifted down from the ceiling, as though a bird had flown past and pulled it loose.
I broke contact and peeled her fingers off my arm. The fight in my mind, dissolved like ocean mist. A small amount of compassion crept into my soul for the other woman. Her behaviour was so out of character and different to her usual light hearted banter. We all carried scars no one else could see, but one of Agatha’s had been opened recently and drove her desperate comments.
Desperate people did desperate things. That was something else my dad used to mutter. My world would collapse if people knew the dark secret carved in my heart. My concern not solely for myself, but to protect another. Agatha might be bluffing, but it wasn’t a bluff I could afford to call.
“I have a gown I could possibly modify in time.” In the store room was a gown I made a season ago. The customer had changed her mind about it at the last minute and in a fit of guilt, paid for the dress but told me to keep it. The hemline was far too long to be fashionable in 1920, but there was sufficient length and fullness to both shorten and stagger it in the latest handkerchief style.
Agatha gasped back her tears, and threw her arms around me. “You won’t regret this. I promise. I shall pay you double what I owe, just as soon as I have the part.”
“If you return here before the party tonight, we shall see what we can do.” I would settle for being paid. Bringing my nerves back under control, I opened the front door and glared at the crowd. Men shuffled their feet and women looked away as they continued about their business.
“Thank you, Grace. You are a darling and I would never intentionally tell a soul about your secret.” That would have to suffice as an apology for her blackmailing me. Then clutching her bag, she hurried up the lane toward the steps and the street beyond.
“No rest for the wicked,” I muttered.