Clotilde, Clémence, and Clara were not only as lovely as their names, but as fashionable.
They also happened to conveniently be in Dalton’s preschool class at la Maternelle Richard Mique. So I enlisted them, without their knowledge, as my fashion coaches. When they arrived in their flared skirts and lace stockings and with coiffed bobs and velvet hair bands in their little aubergine or ruby or emerald wool felt coats in late October, I wanted to line them up for a photo shoot.
And I wanted to dig out all my own childhood photos, the ones where my hair’s greasy or tied with yellow yarn or both, and my clothing fits like a cheap barbeque grill cover and is about the same color. I wanted to hunt down all those school portraits taken always on a Friday after I’d gotten grimy playing dodge ball on the asphalt, those 20-second photo booth snap shots with their splotchy heavenly blue background. Wanted to find them and make a bonfire with them in my bathtub.
But you’re saying; it’s not the girls with the high style I.Q. but their parents, the crazed ones who were dressing their children up like puppets. Not so. I watched these girls greet each other every morning at the doorway with their four-year-old assessments of each others’ ensembles; “Oh, your hair bow is just the right shade of red”, “A beautiful barret, so classic!”, “Ah, your boots and gloves, so pretty,” and, “Why not a pop of neon with all that brown?”
They also knew somehow instinctively, it seemed to me, what was not beautiful; “This box of tissues (this felt tipped pen, this silver glitter, this sheet of construction paper) is not beautiful at all.” And all the little girls, pursing their lips, releasing a sigh, bobbing their bobbed heads with confidence, would concur: “No, it is not beautiful at all.”
I trusted them. And was back to crawling on all fours again like I’d done in Norway while figuring out how to dress children in ekte vintertøy, eavesdropping now on French conversations, not only to learn some slick colloquial turns, but to catch the latest fashion trend. And if you think it’s just the girls who dressed stylishly, think again. The boys showed up in their pea coats and corduroy knickers, their pressed button-down shirts and cardigans, their hair cuts that showed no sign of Mom’s kitchen sheers fiasco. They lived up to what their teachers called them as they shook hands one by one at their schoolroom door: les jeunes hommes.
Against this backdrop of pleats and Peter Pan collars, monogrammed shirtsleeves and wait, are those cufflinks? a boy in rubber purple overalls or even his fanciest bunad, was going to stand out. I took a look at Dalton and decided he looked mildly dilapidated. He needed a wardrobe overhaul. On second thought, the whole family, I declared that night at dinner, needed a wardrobe overhaul.
So we began at the feet. I learned from Rita and other Mique mothers that my son needed to be bien chaussé—well-shoed, literally, or well-heeled, as anglophones tend to say. Being bien chaussé ruled out both the clunky functional rubber boots of barnepark as well as the self-lighting neon-soled tennies of New Jersey.
Dalton and I arrived at a little local shoe store in Rue de la Paroisse, Versailles’ main shopping drag, ready to slip into whatever was on sale. I thought of Synnøve at Sportshuset and wrestling my way into a killion kroner worth of ekte vintertøy, and was sure this was going to be much easier. However, I learned in no time that shoeing my child, like parkdressing my child, was going to be a science. Shoes were the very foundation of being bien formé. Shoes — like penmanship, like coloring apples, like buying baguettes — were serious.
The shoe saleswoman/erstwhile podiatrist/cum child psychologist instructed me while placing Dalton in front of a mirror, circling him while judging his form.
“He is assez costaud (fairly stocky), your son,” she declared in French, “and has slightly rolled arches.”
Dalton stood in the middle of the little shop, eyes darting, like a stiff troll with shocks of blonde hair. Stocking-feet and, yes, dense. A bright Scandinavian delight. Dimples you could lose a silver dollar in.
“This would mean that for his morphologie you might consider this shoe, this shoe, this shoe and. . . that one. You know? In order to equilibré his appearance,” she said, touching her eyeglasses which hung around her neck on a thin, golden chain.
Neatly on the floor was a line: one navy with red trim, one navy with white trim, one navy with green trim, and one navy with navy trim shoe.
“But I don’t like navy blue,” Dalton muttered in English while the woman laced tight the first (navy) shoe.
“What does he say, the young man?” She tilted up her head to me and slipped the eyeglasses up on her nose, as if to see the situation more clearly.
“He does not like navy blue,” I said. And raised my eyebrows in a searching smile.
“Ah, but bleu marine is a good color, a classic color, young man,” she said, patting his bottom and scooting him toward the mirror.
Dalton could understand just enough French at this point, but like a troll, he preferred grunting to strangers over speaking to them.
“I do not like bleu marine,” he whispered to me in English, his face as unemotive as a tepid crêpe.
“What do you say, young man?” The woman put her hand to her ear as if cupping it would amplify this young man’s voice.
“He says, Madame, he finds the other shoe the most handsome. This brown one.”
I picked up a solid-looking brown leather shoe with a high-top, its sturdy Vibrim sole and Velcro tabs great, I thought, for easy access.
“Very good, Madame,” her tone flattened. “Let us try the brown one. Perhaps not as classic as the bleu marine. And not such a beautiful cut. But if the young man wants to consider it. . .”
I could see the effort she was making, unwrapping the tissue paper, lifting out the brown hulking bootlet, pulling open those Velcro tabs whose noisy scratch sound grated against the shop’s total silence and her nerves. Not classic at all. Ragtime jazz, actually.
Dalton stood stalk still in his one brown shoe. “I want it,” his half-smile said, making a dent in just one of his dimples.
I put my hand on Dalton’s shoulder.
“He wants it, Madame, “ I sang to her.
“Although it is not. . .not as classic as the bleu marine, young man? Although it is not cut to make his foot look. . . a bit more elegant, Madame?”
“Although it is not as classic, yes. Although it is not as elegant. Yes.”
“Yes, well, very well then,” the woman sighed, clearly disappointed.
I had obviously selected precisely the shoe that would not flatter my three-year-old’s morphologie, and would therefore mark him for life.
“One must decide, I suppose Madame,” the saleswoman said, putting her glasses back on her nose, ”if one wants to teach one’s child that mere comfort is more important than one’s classic, elegant appearance.”
She rang up the total with a briskness that meant this transaction was final-final, then, handing me the bag, added, “In the end, though, one never regrets an elegant appearance.”
One had to decide. What one will regret. And this one decided for comfort, Velcro and brown.
Dalton ended up being the only boy in his entire maternelle with brown high-top shoes with Velcro tab closures. His new little friends (all in lace-up or buckle shoes in a classic bleu marine),called his shoes les chaussures Américains. Even if they were made in France.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.