MRS HARRIS – THE FEELGOOD FILM

If ever there was a feelgood film then Mrs Harris Goes to Paris fits the bill.

With the wonderful Lesley Manville playing ‘heart of gold’ widower Mrs Harris from South London who cleans the home of the odious entitled Lady Dent (played by Anna Chancellor) and spends her evenings doing exquisite needlework to eke out her widower’s pension. Leslie Manville is as always spot on. She depicts Mrs Harris as you would expect, but manages to avoid the cliche Cockney. This is a very different role from her other fashion film, Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day Lewis, a more sinister look at the world of fashion, which TheEye also enjoyed.

In Lady Dent’s closet she sees a gorgeous Dior ball gown and falls madly in love, determining that by all means possible she will go to Paris to the House of Dior to buy one for herself unaware of what couture really involves, not including the £5oo she does not possess.

She scrimps, she saves and even makes an unsuccessful punt on the dogs. She manages to get to Paris, almost the easiest part, and pitches up at the grand House of Dior bright and early – with £500 in an envelope. Expecting to walk away with a couture gown proves more difficult. Mrs Harris is a street fighter who has no intention of being intimidated by the frosty snobbish directrice, Claudine Colbert, portrayed to perfection by Isabelle Huppert.

The film is indeed full of glorious moments, such as when her dream starts to become true in the fitting process, which involves staying in Paris for another three weeks. There are high and low moments for our heroine and the ending, is, of course, happy. This is a fairy tale after all. In these gloomy times it is essential viewing if you like fairytales, beautiful clothes and surroundings.

It brought back memories of SPIRIT OF THE TIMES, an exhibition TheEye curated in 1998 at the gloriously eccentric Bowes Museum in County Durham.

For a novice curator, this was a dream come true. She had been selected by the Director of the Bowes Elizabeth Conran (no relation) to curate the exhibition, fending off some far more experienced curators, basing her ideas on the concept that The Bowes themselves had no conventional art experience, but possessed a very good eye.

John and Josephine were an exotic couple. Josephine, a French actress and amateur artist. John, the illegitimate son of a wealthy Northern landowner, was a very rich man in his own right. The couple had no children and indulged themselves by buying and surrounding themselves with objects of beauty, which they bought from the great Fairs so popular at the time, mainly in Paris. It was at one of these Fairs that Josephine encountered a young glassmaker called Émile Gallé and became his patron.

The Bowes had a vision: to create a grand museum on a spectacular site in Barnard Castle – perched high up on a hill with commanding views. They started building a French-style chateau which they filled with furniture, paintings, ceramics and objects of all sorts. The pride of place in the Bowes Museum is the famous Silver Swan which people come to see from far and wide.

Photography taken May 2005. Image authorised for use by the Bowes Museum only. Commercial use by third parties prohibited. For commercial use contact the copyright holder.

Fortune was on my side and I was soon ‘adopted’ by Joanna Hashagen, Keeper of Costume, with encyclopaedic fashion knowledge. Most of my breaks were spent in her studio looking through the clothes and costumes which had been donated to the museum by local families. It was an incredible learing experience and also quite joyful. Some of the clothes and accessories in the Bowes Collection were gorgeous. The jewel in their crown was the lace collection. Possibly the largest in the world and each piece of lace had its own fascinating history.

 

In one of the grand halls hangs a portrait of Josephine Bowes wearing a couture gown by a ‘new boy’ in the Fashion World in the late 1800s: Worth. He had recently opened his own salon, The House of Worth, and Josephine always wanting to be ahead of the game commissioned a wonderful pink ball gown. At the time of the exhibition, another new boy, John Galliano, had joined Christian Dior in Paris and TheEye made contact requesting the loan of a Galliano ballgown.

The gorgeous gown was placed under the portrait. A curator came from Paris to install it from its specially made crate. Stunning.

John Galliano for Dior. Photograph by GUY MARINEAU.

To her great surprise, TheEye spotted an item on the BBC website about a fashion show put on by Dior in 1955 at Gleneagles Hotel in Glasgow.

French couturier Christian Dior (1905-1957) during a visit to Scotland. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7765 – Dior In Scotland – pub. 1955 (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images)

TheEye has stayed at this great Scottish pile of a hotel on numerous occasions and knew nothing of this event. Why would she, so long ago? Had it been a golfing event, it would certainly rate photographs in the building…but fashion..? Clearly not the same appeal.

In those days, Glenegales was owned by British Rail and lacked all the incredible to date amenities it now has. Apparently, Christian Dior came himself and fell in love with the spectacular countryside. Even the air is pure after the fumes of Paris and other capital cities.

Dior flew 18 mannequins from Paris (not referred to as models in those days). Statuesque and achingly elegant which was most appealing to the audience made up of local aristocrats living in surrounding castles and estates. One of the most famous was LUCIE DAOUPHARS, known as Lucky.

TheEye has Mrs Harris to thank for bringing back such wonderful memories and she is sure Mrs Harris would have positioned herself in the front row at all the events. TheEye would have been happy behind the scenes with the hotel maids just watching in the wings.

What a moment in fashion history!

21st May 1955: Behind the scenes at a preview of Christian Dior’s new collection, shown at two charity balls in Scotland, one in Glasgow, the other at Gleneagles. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7765 – Dior In Scotland – pub. 1955 (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The fashion show took place on 21st May 1955. Christian Dior insured the collection for £60,000 and flew 172 dresses (worth about £300 each), eight models, three organisers and three dressers from Paris to Scotland, in order to raise money for the charity FRIENDS OF FRANCE which organsed exchange visits for Scottish and French school children. The spectacular shows proved very popular and raised £4,000.

The original photos are from PICTURE POST – DIOR IN SCOTLAND.

TheEye was sent incredible photos taken by a remarkable photographer: THURSTON HOPKINS for Getty Images. Two have sneaked in above, but to see the rest of them, you should follow the link above or click HERE.

Thanks to Guy Marineau for permission to use his photograph of the John Galliano gown for Dior.

3 Comments

  1. What wonderful connections, my thanks to the Eye for highlighting the Gleneagles link to us all and reminding us how miraculous the House of Dior was to have set up post in dreary post war Britain … wonderful especially to learn from the Eye about Gleneagles ….
    (I found the movie a fab fairytale we should all see, beautifully shot in the midst of the Paris garbage strike and reminding us, as we wade daily through the Zara’s of our high streets, what Dior and haute couture is about) ..

  2. Wonderful article Jan. I’ve yet to see the film. It’s on my to do list.

  3. Darling Jan, isn’t the movie Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, charming. It’s directed by an old pal of mine, Tony Fabian. And the writer, Keith Thompson, is working with me on three film and TV projects. Highly recommended as an antidote to these terrible times.

    xxxxx

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