Literary Style Heroes: The Duchess de Guermantes
Why I’d like the wardrobe of The Duchess de Guermantes in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
We lived in Delft at the time. Our house was not far from that place on the water that became famous through the painting of Delft’s artist Vermeer who called it ‘ A view of Delft’. Its transparent precision always gave me the feeling I was watching the light, the bridge, the houses reflected in the water through a mirror sharpened by Vermeer’s brush strokes. The painting was the only reason author Marcel Proust came to visit the Maurits Huis Museum in the Hague in Holland twice in his life.
I was studying music at the time my parents decided to read Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu for a second time in their lives. Our dinner table talk was stuck on the behaviour of the book’s characters and forced me to a choice: read the whole thing as well or become a bored and muted outsider.
I hid in my attic’s gold and black library, let the cat nestle and read about the Parisian, mainly high society life, as described by the genius Marcel Proust. Much as I enjoyed his beautiful prose and the depth of the characters, I couldn’t pretend that his delicate and minute descriptions of the dresses, ‘les toilettes’, of the ladies did not completely turn my head.
This Guermantes Duchess with her giant ruby and emerald encrusted swan feather fan was the main object of my Proustian dream. At nineteen, I believe I already had an eccentric, maybe overly aesthetic sense of my style and above all a need for certain colours and fabrics in my life.
It had started when my aunt, then first lady in waiting to Queen Juliana of Holland, passed down her old lace and velvet evening gowns to me so I could dress up. There are pictures of me, age six, in elbow high lace gloves, clutching the train of an ankle length indigo velvet gown, head held high, curls tied up, taking my reflection in the mirror one thousand percent seriously: I looked the part. Which part?
At six you have the certainty, at nineteen it had been tainted already by the tales of many books devoured and paintings admired. Sometimes I would quote fabrics from Gigi, by one of my favourite authors Colette- when the young girl Gigi gets confused about the fabric of her uncle Gaston’s cheviot costume for example.
Then came that Guermantes dress. Marcel goes to the house of the Duchess to accompany her and her husband, the splendidly dressed brute with the magnificent blonde beard, to a ball. As he arrives, prepared to wait in one of the sitting rooms, he spies on the Duchess who is already dressed and is writing something at her desk in the next room. Through the half open door he can see the dark green and gold embroidered lilacs on the back of her dress streaming down the long train and coming to bloom in the soft light. He sees her auburn curls, the tight line of her body emphasized by the wide collar which is yet another embroidered wide crown of lilac flowers.
When she turns, the rich fabric, a silk patterned velvet inspired by prints from the sixteenth century, floats around her. Her eyes sparkle like the sapphires in the slim tiara that is quasi-modestly stuck in her hair. Proust spends pages and pages on the description of her outfit and how it changes in the light with every small move she makes or even a few words she utters.
He helps her wrap herself in one of her muslin gauze evening capes and they leave the house to join the elite of the Parisian art, aristocracy and science world.
Oh how I wanted, sitting in my attic, to feel that dress descend on me and play the part, to leave on the arm of Marcel and be admired.
She was of course real, this Lady, mostly based on the Countess Greffuhle, the Princess Riquet de Caraman–Chimay, a woman who knew how to combine the high art of dressing with a sharp intelligence and sense of what she was needed for in the world.
Apart from being a talented musician, artist and wit, she was a Patron for the composers Berlioz and Wagner, and paid for the famous Ballets Russes. In politics she supported Dreyfus and the Front Populaire and funded a laboratory for the scientist Marie Curie, who subsequently obtained a second Nobel Prize for her work.
I studied the dress and the woman who owned it and many other stunning outfits, because I loved the part they played .
As a performer I had to learn to play many parts, and believed that a dress could make the woman work. Now, at my age still with my muslin dreams, I know that this particular dress was made by the couturier Worth. My mother, long gone, used to perfume herself with Worth’s scent Je Reviens, which means ‘I will return.’ Shortly after her ordeal of surviving WW2 she received a telegram from a friend in France who was coming to see her in Holland. It said ‘what perfume shall I bring?’ My mother sent a telegram back. It just said ’Je Reviens Worth’.
And return she did, to make me read Proust and give me a taste of the parts I could possibly play in a well dressed life.