Here’s a scene from Murder On The Rue Cassette, publishing early next month. It stars Carmela and Tessa. They are visiting one of Busacca’s three millinery stores in Paris, this one in Montparnasse.
Paris, April 1874
Ricci laughed. “I’m even less of a designer, but let me introduce you to our chief of design.”
They followed him to a desk in the corner of the workroom where a woman of a certain age sat looking through half-glasses at a book brimming with swatches of fabric. Ricci introduced them to Madame Josephine Joyeuse. Pieces of felt lay on her desk as did some peacock feathers, strands of horse hair, netting and lace. At the sound of Ricci’s voice she rose, a tall woman, slender. She had Gallic features and a presence. Her smile warmed the air around them, and her graying hair was pulled up, pinned, curled and arranged in an elaborate French coiffure.
“My friends have come from Sicily on behalf of my uncle.”
Carmela cut in. “And I’d love it if you could design a hat for my friend, Madame Joyeuse,” gesturing to Tessa who wore her teal day dress but was hatless.
“Certainly,” she said, gazing at the hat Carmela wore, a small black pillbox with a spray of dyed feathers and a veil draping slightly over the top and circling down one side. Before they left this morning, Carmela had fussed with it, angled it just so.
“Please call me Madame Josephine. Everyone does. I’m afraid our showroom is a little crowded this afternoon. We must have our clowns,” she said, cocking her head in Ricci’s direction and pursing her lips, “but perhaps we can find a corner where we are not disturbed. This way.”
She led them into a private room with a table and mirror where several hats sat on a rack. A few more were scattered about an overstuffed chair in the corner. The designer asked them to excuse her and returned in a few minutes with several basic shapes, a pillbox, a cloche, a beret, and a straw. In her apron she carried some loose flowers, fruit, feathers, and veils. She dumped these on the table in front of Tessa and began by having Tessa stand in front of a mirror while she looked at her reflection, feeling the fabric of her dress, turning her around, and asking her to sit.
Madame Josephine glanced at Carmela. “You’ve been to our other stores, I see,” she said as she began designing Tessa’s hat, her fingers like the wings of birds in flight, her head cocked to one side.
“I brought this from home. I made it myself.”
Josephine Joyeuse stopped, straightened. “Lovely work.”
She continued creating Tessa’s hat, placing and shaping the felt just so, rejecting it, picking up a deep cadmium red pillbox instead, pinning, prodding, fussing with speed and dexterity, a hatpin between her teeth. She stepped back to appraise the work, adjusting the angle of the hat, her movements transforming the material, shifting it slightly, pulling it backward, forward, refitting the hat on the head, trying a different veil until she was satisfied. Her touch reminded Carmela of how the voice can inflect words to change their meaning.
“Stand please,” she said to Tessa.
Tessa looked in the mirror and widened her eyes.
Madame Josephine straightened her apron. “Now step back slightly from the mirror.”
Tessa did, and once again saw a change.
“You see how your whole outfit ‘turns’ when you step back, the same way a painting does. That’s how a hat transforms. That’s how you know it works for you.”
Photo: At the Milliners, Pastel on Paper, Edgar Degas, 1882