WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, the rector of our parish told me, “Don’t judge people by the way they dress. There can be angels in rags and demons in silk.” My mother encouraged me to listen to him in all things—except this. She had an entirely different opinion on the matter of people and dress. “Clothes tell you everything about a person, Emmy,” she said. If a man came into our pub, the Moon on the Square, with a patterned neckerchief or, God forbid, a colorful bow tie, she’d purse her lips and shake her head. She liked it when men’s clothing bore evidence of their workday: dirt stains on their shirts, tears in the knees of their trousers, frayed shoelaces stringing through the holes on their boots. This meant they were one of our own, men who raised sheep in our countryside parish, far from Avon-upon-Kynt, the capital city. While everyone in our small country of Britannia Secunda appreciated fashion (after all, it was the national commerce that put bread in our mouths and roofs over our heads), people in my parish took a strange pride in their simplicity, even as the wool from our sheep and the threads from our cuttleworms went to the city to be turned into exquisite cashmeres and shiny silks. My mother, more than any other inhabitant of Shy, eschewed the national obsession with fashion. I didn’t dare think about what she—and the rector—would make of the man standing before me, his frame eclipsing the sun as I sat on a bench outside a large canvas tent. Despite the heat, he was wearing a thick black coat with angular shoulders that rose high in sharp, rigid points. Three gold pocket watches hung from his tailored waistcoat. The first two were etched with the heads of horses, while the third was embellished with the face of a zebra with human lips and gigantic teeth. I didn’t understand this man’s appearance.
It was asymmetrical and strange . yet beautiful. “What is your name?” the man asked, bending forward to see me better and making his pocket watches sway in unison. As he came closer, I could see that his jacket was embroidered with silver thread that wound its way over the fabric in crooked swoops. If this was how people dressed at the Fashion House, then I belonged there—not in Shy, where one was often elbow-deep in dishwashing water or wielding an edging iron through the vegetable garden. My efforts at style—boots laced up the sides with black ribbons and bonnets trimmed with oversized flowers—always elicited whispers of “Does she think she’s from the city?” from anyone I passed. With this man beside me, dressed from head to toe in couture, I didn’t stand out at all in my wide-skirted purple gown. “My name is Emmy Watkins. Well, Emmaline, actually,” I said, forcing myself to speak steadily. I’d been waiting all morning to meet Madame Jolène, head of the Avon-upon-Kynt Fashion House, the most prestigious design institution in all of Europe.
Earlier, when I’d first sat down on the bench outside her tent, nausea had needled my belly. But the hours of waiting in the heat had lulled me into a bit of a stupor. An ache had settled in my forehead, and heaviness pulled at my eyelids. I stared up at the man, my skin suddenly prickling beneath a layer of sweat as I realized it might finally be my turn. I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. Hot air stung the back of my throat. “I’m from Shy,” I said, swallowing. I took another breath, slower this time as the man wrote my name on a list. He consulted his zebra pocket watch and released a low, heavy sigh. He had been outside as long as I had, ushering girls into the ivory tent one at a time.
“Blast this infernal heat!” he moaned, more to himself than to me. “She has to pick someone—she’s turned away the last twenty girls.” My fingers tightened on the sketch. I’d been balancing it on my lap, trying to keep it safe from my moist palms. All hope of getting a position at the Fashion House rested on this single piece of paper and the image sketched within its perimeters. Certainly, I wasn’t the only one with such hopes. Any girl who wasn’t royalty or born into a highranking titled family wanted to be a designer at the Fashion House. For a girl from an untitled family, it was the most prestigious job available and placed her amid the highest levels of society, all while giving her the chance to both wear and create couture. In Britannia Secunda, where one was raised on fashion (unless, of course, one had the misfortune of being born in Shy), it was a dream come true. But getting that job was nearly impossible.
Every five years or so, Madame Jolène invited a few select girls to participate in what she called the Fashion House Interview. Those girls lived at the Fashion House for a full fashion season and underwent a variety of challenges that tested their design creativity and technical skills while also attending to the Fashion House’s clients. At the end of the season, one or two became design apprentices. Even if one wasn’t chosen at the end, the excessive pay and connections (never mind the wardrobe!) one received during that time were life-changing. During the process, the papers reported heavily on the Fashion House Interview, and the entire country watched, often creating betting pools about which girls would make it furthest, and even putting up signs in their windows about who they wanted to win. Ever since I could read, I’d followed the competition, daydreaming that I was one of the competitors. A silly notion, of course. The only girls invited to apply had always been culled from the city. Until now. Two months earlier, Madame Jolène had announced that she was touring the countryside to seek a girl to join the Fashion House Interview.
Unmarried girls ages seventeen to eighteen with a “sense for fashion” were encouraged to apply. Despite coming from such a small country, Madame Jolène prided herself on being Europe’s fashion muse. She had a right to be proud. While department stores like Whiteleys in London and Le Bon Marché in Paris now offered premade clothing, the Fashion House still created made-to-measure gowns from custom patterns. Madame Jolène’s designs were so compelling that women from all over Europe traveled to the Fashion House for their spring and fall wardrobes. Customers who couldn’t afford the trip—or the steep price of a Fashion House creation—purchased Madame Jolène–inspired clothing from the department stores or had copies made by dressmakers from illustrations in La Mode Illustrée. In the ad, applicants had been instructed to bring just one sketch to the interview, no more. I had settled on a jade-colored jacquard gown. The pattern woven into the fabric was gold, and the design wrapped up the front panel like a seductive snake. Its neckline was low, with wisps of chiffon pulling horizontally across the bodice.
The chiffon was light, whimsical, sheer, while the jacquard was heavy, the design chunky. At home, I’d thought it was perfect. Yet now, under the unforgiving glare of the naked sun, I couldn’t tell if the image in my mind—sumptuous folds of fabric with luminescent glimmers—had translated to the pencil and watercolor sketch. I fixated on the places my brush had strayed outside the pencil lines. I liked the resulting image, the effect of movement created by the flaws, but would Madame Jolène think they were mistakes? “You’re nearly the last one, thank all that’s blessed!” The man pulled a fan out of his pocket and snapped it open with a flourish. It had foreign characters on one side of it and a painting of a black tree with delicate blossoms on the other. I’d never seen a man possess such an accessory before, much less one with pink flowers. “This heat is melting me. Melting me!” It was true. His eyebrows, which had been darkened with charcoal, were starting to smear.
“Do you think she’s ready for me now?” I asked, drawing his attention back to me and my sketch. I half hoped he would say no. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to meet Madame Jolène. I tried not to think about how she might see me. If one considered my years of household duties and waitressing, one would think I was applying to be her scullery maid, not her design apprentice. “Go, go.” The man fluttered a dismissive hand at me, preoccupied with fanning his neck. I forced my grip to relax around my sketch and noticed, for the first time, a dried stain in the top corner. Beer. Our new beer.
The one we had just gotten on tap. I bit my lip, hard. How would I explain it to Madame Jolène? Oh, never mind the pale ale on my sketch. I just wanted to personalize the couture gown with a little beer. “Good luck,” the man said. “Thank you,” I managed, and rose to my feet. His eyes fastened on my dress and I fought the urge to pull at my skirts. Could he see where I had cut and re-sewn them? Three years and six Fashion House seasons had passed since I’d made the gown, and I’d redesigned it several times to accommodate the changing styles. Just this past month, I’d dropped the waist and added black bands of velvet to the skirt. But the dress’s history and age could not be denied.
The fabric was old, the skirt’s cut dated. I’d done my best to update it based on illustrations from Avon-upon-Kynt’s fashion pages, but by the time those pages reached Shy, the trends had already passed. At best, my gown was a copy of a copy. I touched the yellow feather in my dark-blond hair for luck. That morning, I’d taken it out of my drawer of ribbons, feathers, and old broken brooches, and then hesitated, wondering if I should wear a black feather instead. My mother, who had been lurking in my doorway, holding a ledger, had asked, “Going somewhere?” I hadn’t answered because that would only lead to more questions. Ones meant to push and prod me into someone who could spend the rest of her life over a sink or pot of stew on the stove, ones like Haven’t you learned anything from my past? and How can you expect to feed yourself with sketches on paper? “Just running out to the store. I’ll be back soon.” “Be sure you are. Mrs.
Wells and Johnny are coming over later.” “Are they?” I tossed out the words easily, as though the thought of a visit with Johnny was the most delightful thing in the world. “He’s a nice boy, Emmy. Dependable.” He also has sweaty hands and an inability to maintain a conversation, I thought. The last time Johnny had been over, I’d found myself prattling on about the size of buttonholes while he’d downed cup after cup of tea. “The black one is pretty,” my mother said abruptly. It had been strange for her to offer a suggestion. She rarely commented on my love of fashion, and whenever she did, her tone was so grim that one might think my passion was to prepare bodies for burial at the undertaker’s home, not design and sew gowns. “It is,” I’d said.
“But it’s not quite right.” “The black one is best,” she repeated, her voice tinged with agitation. “You should wear the black one.” By then, she had tucked the ledger under one arm and begun to bite her nails. It always made her seem young, as though she were my sister, not my mother. Sometimes she would resolve to stop. Inevitably, though, her hands would wander to her mouth and her nails would be reduced to stubs once again. I didn’t say anything else, and she waited, the silence building between us. Finally, she made a harsh sound under her breath—one single, angry humph—and left my doorway. The minute her footsteps had receded down the stairs, I grabbed my purple gown out of my closet and struggled into it.
I slipped the yellow feather into my hair. Then I snuck out the back door of our pub and walked the two miles to Evert, the neighboring town where the interviews were being held. The strange man was behind me now, nudging me through the tent. “Madame Jolène is waiting, darling. And let me tell you, Madame Jolène doesn’t wait for anyone.” I glanced over my shoulder at him one last time as I slipped through the tent flaps, clutching my sketch and trying to conjure up some kind of prayer for my future. The last image I saw from the outside was the smiling, toothy zebra. The minute I was inside, all thoughts vanished as I took in the tent’s interior. Its canvas walls were striped teal and black. Huge fans, the blades painted with gargoyles wearing top hats and bowlers, hung from the ceiling, rotating in hissing swoops.
A man in a gray suit controlled their direction and speed with a crank. Five fluffy Pomeranians attired in embroidered jackets padded around a bronze statue of a woman whose long streams of hair poured down over her voluptuous body in lieu of clothing. In the tent’s center hulked a huge marble table with legs carved in the shape of horses’ hooves. And there, sitting behind the table like a queen, was Madame Jolène. Though I’d seen countless illustrations of her and read dozens of articles about her career, none of my research had prepared me for this moment. At first, all I saw were her eyes, piercing and gray, like the pointy ends of sewing needles. She seemed to stare at me for a very long time, though it could only have been a moment before she directed her attention to the woman seated beside her. The woman was dressed in a green gown hemmed with extravagant layers of horsehair. As they whispered together, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken in Madame Jolène’s attire. Her presence was even more captivating than her designs, though she was wearing a bloodred gown adorned with patches of lace.
“Where are you from?” I barely heard someone say. No, not lace. Those were pieces of delicate metal arranged in sharp, neat rows across her bodice. But her gloves were lace. Black lace that wrapped around her palms and wrists, leaving her fingers bare. “I said, where are you from?” The woman in green spoke harshly, clearly annoyed by my distraction. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice strange and high. Somehow Madame Jolène made me feel as if I didn’t belong in my own skin, much less in the gown I’d designed. “I’m from Shy.” “How .
adorable.” Madame Jolène cut off the ends of the words, as though they weren’t worthy of her breath. The bracelets on her wrist clinked as she raised one hand to her forehead and pressed her fingers against her porcelain skin. A woman in a high-necked, lace-trimmed black dress came forward to set a cup of steaming tea in front of her. She wasn’t outfitted like a maid, but she stepped back into the corner demurely, her hands folded. “This,” Madame Jolène said, “is a circus.” The woman in the horsehair gown touched her shoulder in a firm but sympathetic gesture. “You need this,” she said. She hesitated before saying, “You need one of them.” Without looking, she gestured toward me.
One of them? Without meaning to, I peeked down at myself, trying to see what they were seeing. Scuffs on my shoes. Bits of dirt clinging to my hem, picked up on my long walk here, and painfully visible despite my efforts to brush them away. Pilling at my waist from where I carried trays for delivering dinner. I raised my sketch a little, as though I could somehow hide my inadequacies behind it. Not that it mattered. Madame Jolène wasn’t looking at me. Instead, she lifted her teacup to her lips. The steam from the tea drifted up around her face in thin streams. “I don’t design for the press,” she said.
“I don’t design for anybody.” She set the teacup down without ever sipping from it. “Since when is beauty for everyone? If fashion does not inspire aspiration, then what, tell me, is the point?” I noticed, for the first time, a newspaper on the ornate desk. It was turned to the fashion pages. Even at this distance, I saw the bold headline: “PARLIAMENT SLASHES CROWN’S ARTS BUDGET, PUSHES FOR TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS AND FASHION FOR ALL.” I was aware it wasn’t Madame Jolène’s first choice to include a country girl in the Fashion House Interview. Country girls had never been included in the competition, and it was well known that she’d been encouraged to do so as a sign of progressiveness. But this scene was not at all what I had imagined. Madame Jolène was supposed to reach out for my sketch. She was supposed to understand that I didn’t belong in Shy and that I belonged at the Fashion House.
Even though the tent was cool and the artificial breeze from the fan wafted over my skin, my face burned hot. “Madame Jolène,” I said, trying to make her look at me. A fluffy white hairball of a dog started yipping, its high-pitched bark swallowing my words. “Madame Jolène!” I said again, loud enough to quiet the dog. “I think I could do very well in the Fashion House Interview. In fact, I know I could.” “My dear girl,” she said. Her smile was full of pity. “The candidates for the Fashion House Interview are handpicked from hundreds of girls. Educated girls who understand not just fashion but high culture.
Education is the cornerstone for creativity, and you are woefully lacking.” She pushed her chair back, and it scraped across the wooden floor, making a dark, gruesome sound. “I have seen enough. I won’t cater to this nonsense.” Her words sent my heart straight up into my throat and I stepped forward, still holding out my sketch. She was moving away, and I had to stop her—she hadn’t even seen my work. She couldn’t turn me down, not like this. “You should go.” The woman in the horsehair gown nodded at the maid. She came forward, ushering me out.
“Wait!” I said loudly, desperately. Yet it had no more effect than the yipping dogs. No one even glanced in my direction. “Of course, we appreciate you coming,” the horsehair woman said brusquely. I turned toward her, ready to entreat her to help me—anything to make it all stop so I could explain and show them I belonged. The maid’s firm hand landed on my shoulder, and she shoved roughly. And then, just like that, I was outside, stumbling over tufts of dead grass, my senses jolted from the blinding sunlight and drastic change in temperature. It happened so quickly that, for a moment, my lips were still parted as I tried to protest. “Record time,” the man with the three pocket watches said. “I was hoping you would rescue us from this godforsaken wasteland of a place.
” He turned his face to the cloudless blue sky. “I dream of . sorbet.” He sighed longingly, sweat glimmering on his forehead. I could barely hear him, much less reply. My breath was short, like I’d been running, and I started sweating again but not from the oppressive heat. I crumpled my sketch into a tight ball, the outline of the dress disappearing with the clutch of my hand and the crinkle of paper. “Oh, honey.” His face softened underneath its sheen of perspiration and smudged eyebrow charcoal. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.
It’s not you. It’s Madame Jolène. Let’s see it.” He held out his palm. Automatically, I placed the ball there, my movements dull, as though I wasn’t the one making them. The man propped his foot up on one of the tent stakes, spread the drawing across his knee, and stared at it in silence for several moments. The zebra on his pocket watch leered. “It’s good,” he said. He ran his hand over it, smoothing out the wrinkles. “It’s quite good.
” “It doesn’t matter. Madame Jolène didn’t even see it.” Talking sent nauseous waves through my stomach, and a disgusting, bitter taste rose on my tongue. Nothing made sense. Everything inside me had pulled me to this place and tricked me into believing my dreams were coming true. Despair, strong and thick like tea dregs, surged with the taste of bile. I glanced around, trying to determine the best place to vomit. The man’s charcoal-darkened eyebrows arched. “She didn’t even see it?”