In Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris Goes To Paris (1958), a London char lady, Ada ’Arris, sets her heart on buying a Dior evening gown after glimpsing such a creation in the wardrobe of one of her wealthy clients, Lady Dant.
After years of scrimping and scraping Mrs Harris travels to Paris. Once there she puts up a spirited fight against the initial prejudice she encounters at France’s finest haute couture house, reluctant to entertain her. Gallico’s allegorical story shows just how far someone will go to achieve their dream and that the real understanding of what matters in life can be surprising.
Looking at the faces of those queueing in the torrential rain early on a Sunday morning to see the Christian Dior Couturier du Rêve (Designer of Dreams) exhibition, with their expressions of reverential awe and delight, it is obvious the spirit of Mrs Harris lives on.
The exhibition, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the House of Dior, features over 300 dresses and more than 1,000 accessories designed between 1947 and the present day, including some by Dior’s more recent creative directors such as John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri.
But the extravaganza at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs also brings home the fact that Dior (1905-1957) saved the French fashion industry and restored national pride after the Nazi occupation of much of the country. One particularly moving exhibit is a letter written by Dior to his father about his younger sister Catherine, a member of the French-Polish Resistance, imprisoned in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.
In 1947, when Dior revealed his revolutionary New Look, he also launched Miss Dior perfume, in honour of his sister.
The exhibition, interspersed with a host of masterpieces by artists such as Monet, Renoir and Salvador Dalí, film footage and works by photographers ranging from Cecil Beaton to Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, leads up to a spectacular grand finale.
A hall of mirrors, like that at the Palace of Versailles, features a dazzling array of spectacular evening gowns and a light show – starting at “dawn” through the Palace windows and ending with a display of the night sky constellations and a cascade of gold stars.
The Dior exhibition, along with Fortuny, a Spaniard in Venice at the Palais Galliera, runs until 7 January 2018.
A rare treat is to see Mariano Fortuny’s (1871-1949) controversial Delphos gowns. The silk, loose, finely pleated “Grecian” dresses, ornamented with Murano glass beads were worn without underwear and created a sensation when launched in 1907, freeing women from the corset. When rolled up into a ball the Delphos springs back into shape when unfurled.
An ideal hotel, just 200 yards from the Louvre and the Dior exhibition is the five-star Grand Hôtel du Palais Royal on the rue de Valois, a quiet side-street next to the Palais-Royal, the former Royal Palace which was notorious for its glittering gatherings, gambling, intrigue and debauchery.
Architect Pierre-Yves Rochon completely renovated the 18th-century 68-room hotel, a member of Small Luxury Hotels which has 520 small, independently-owned hotels across 80 countries. Rochon has taken as his inspiration the historic buildings around the hotel, the hidden garden courtyard haven of the Palais-Royal, and the Louvre’s artworks. Its many contemporary features include the Le Lulli restaurant and bar, the Carita spa, fitness centre, and a Turkish hammam.
Many of the rooms and suites have balconies with views across the Paris rooftops to the Eiffel Tower.
Rooms are elegantly furnished and guests are welcomed on arrival with complimentary treats such as a plate of French macarons, flowers, fruit juices and bottled water. The spoiling continues in the bathrooms which have a range of luxurious Atelier toiletries.
Cats, dogs and children are also welcome. There’s a kids’ room with toys, scooters available for family walks, and a children’s menu.
Completing the trio of fashion destinations, and one which allows visitors to set foot through the imposing entrance hall and into the glamorous salons where clients watched shows or came for fittings, is the Yves Saint Laurent Museum on Avenue Marceau.
At the heart of the museum is the design studio, where Saint Laurent (1936-2008), famed for his signature creations which reimagined menswear in styles for women – such as Le Smoking, a tuxedo-style trouser suit, safari suits and trench coats – worked at his desk cluttered with postcards, pencils and paperweights, not forgetting the dog bowl on the floor.
If a day of heady high fashion is too much of a culture shock after an Air France flight of just two hours from Scotland, complete with coffee and croissants, then the ideal antidote is a night out at Oh My God She’s Parisian! – a one-woman comedy show, in English, written and performed by Julie Collas, a former lawyer.
Collas’s one-hour show every Friday and Saturday evening at the Théâtre BO Saint-Martin, debunks the myth of the elegant Parisian, pokes fun at political couples such as President Macron and Brigitte and Donald Trump and Melania, and takes the audience into the psyche of the rude Parisian, waiters, and metro users, childcare hassles and much more.
Despite being a newcomer to the comedy scene, Collas, who decided to change her life after the Bataclan terror attack in November 2015, is attracting audiences from around the world eager for a hilarious crash course on the “real Paris”.
After such a fun-filled evening a visit to Spoon 2, Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant at the Palais Brongniart, the former French Stock Exchange on the Place de la Bourse, will keep the “alternative Paris vibe” going. Ducasse, who is one of the world’s most decorated Michelin-starred chefs, spotted a niche in the market with the growing taste for globetrotting cuisine.
Dishes served in the relaxed, informal restaurant where diners set their own cutlery, include Zahtar shoulder of lamb with yogurt, shrimp cake and dried bonito fish from Taiwan and Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
But any visit to Paris, the world capital of fragrance, would be incomplete without some mention of perfume – Dior said: “a woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting” – and a visit to the Grand Musée Du Parfum housed in an 18th-century mansion, previously Christian Lacroix’s couture house.
The museum, which opened in 2016, is supported by the Syndicat Français de la Parfumerie, representing 66 perfume houses. It tells the story of perfume from its origins thousands of years ago, tracing its history as the ultimate aphrodisiac from Cleopatra and Mark Antony to their latter-day avatars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Diane Thalheimer, the museum’s olfactive profiler, says when it comes to memories and scent “everyone has their own truth” and associations.
The museum’s hands-on interactive exhibits also offer whiffs of cannabis, tobacco, absinthe and “boudoir liberator” (we are in Paris...) and it has even held a whisky profiling workshop, so it would appear that accessorising a Dior creation might not be so difficult after all.
Air France offers 42 weekly direct flights from Scotland from Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports. Fares start from £89 including taxes and charges. To book visit www.airfrance.co.uk or call 0207 660 0337.
Book a stay at the Grand Hôtel Du Palais Royal with Small Luxury Hotels of the World from £327 per night (two sharing) on a room only basis.
www.slh.com/palaisroyal or call 08000 0482 314.
Paris Shopping Tours: www.parisshoppingtour.com, email@example.com