An Experience in Cosmopolitan Paris
— The late Theodore Child, in his recent book on Paris, speaks of the Parisians as so cosmopolitan, so experienced in strange sights and the sight of strangers, that even Oscar Wilde, in the bloom of his youth and æsthetic costumes, passed along the boulevards unnoticed. Now Mr. Child undoubtedly knew his Paris, so this statement only makes yet more mysterious to me certain puzzling Parisian experiences of my own. I am not a Second Oscar Wilde. I have never been accustomed to consider myself either an æsthete or an eccentric in dress, but I am a woman. Perhaps that had something to do with my peculiar trials in Paris ; still, taken in connection with Mr. Child’s statements, such an explanation hardly explains.
Here are the facts, and though my details are frivolous, the tale seems to me seriously curious. Three or four years ago I went abroad for the first time, taking with me, indeed wearing on the voyage, a certain dark blue serge gown. This fateful garment was made with a straight skirt and a blouse waist, and was entirely unornamented. Let me say, for the benefit of those with souls above buttons, that at this time straight plain skirts were “ in,” — not to the exclusion of more ornate varieties, to be sure, but as a popular style for certain goods ; blouse waists, too, were familiar objects to New York eyes, though it may be the New Yorker saw them chiefly during his summer outings. Mine had a sailor collar. This dress was light and comfortable. I was bent upon as much siglit-seeing with as little fatigue as possible, and when we were landed in England I continued to wear my blue serge a great deal. I was traveling with a young matron, who also had a blue serge gown, the counterpart of my own ; she, too, wore hers frequently.
As for a year I had worn to business in a New York newspaper office an exactly similar costume, and had been at the same time wrapped in obscurity as in a garment, the fact that no one in England, in town or country, paid the least attention to my attire, and that people in general took no notice of me at all, failed to win ray conscious recognition of their forbearance or my gratitude. These were to be awakened later.
So far this is a dull story. We went to Paris ; there was nothing dull to us in the tale that follows. Those blue gowns, with simple conventional hats, gloves, etc., excited such attention and curiosity as would have made the fortune of a patent-medicine man. People stopped and stared, turned around and stared, came back and stared. The utter simple sincerity of the amazement expressed in their faces was the most unmistakable emotion I ever read on the human countenance. Usually it was quite umnixed with either insolence or mirth ; it was too deep for any such alloy. One day a party of gentlemen and ladies stopped very near us, as we happened to be standing near the entrance of the Palais de l’Industrie (we had been visiting the Salon exhibition) , and looked and pointed at us as frankly as if we had been made of wax. It was like the experiences that befall Occidental travelers in remote Chinese villages. The really touching embarrassment and hasty retreat of these honest people, when one of our party called our attention to their attitude with a word or two of French, were the most suggestive part of their conduct.
Finally, a lady (such she seemed to be), very civil, though a little stern, came up to me in the Louvre and wanted to know where I came from, and if I wore a national costume ; then taking an affirmative tone, she insisted that I was wearing a national costume; and as I was not prepared to sustain her in this position, after a little crossexamination of my statements, she left me with an air that seemed to say she was too polite to express till the distrust they inspired.
We were not easily crushed, but the blue serge gowns were soon laid aside. Yet our lesson as to the things one cannot do in Paris was not ended. We admired a certain style of cap we often saw worn, especially in the Latin Quarter. It is called over there a berri, but it is in shape simply a Tam o’ Shanter ; it is made of cloth in dark colors, and we thought it pretty. Without a notion that the thing has sex to French eyes, we each bought one at the Bon Marché. I suppose at the Bon Murché they are really so accustomed to the insanities of strangers that they felt an un-French indifference as to what two more lunatics might do. I am sure that if we had patronized a cosy conversational little shop we should have been warned of the impossibility of wearing those caps.
When we made our first trial of them upon Paris streets, we were some time in finding out that it would also be our last. We happened to launch them in a somewhat deserted quarter of the town, and to be too preoccupied to perceive any chance warnings of what was to come. We were a mile from our lodgings when we realized that we could not even return thereto with those terrible caps upon our heads ; men were speaking to us, boys were calling to us, every one was stopping to gaze and — this time — to smile.
We were a frugal pair ; we did not want to buy a hat apiece simply to wear home ; and anyway, how were we to endure, all the gallant attentions of the populace till we could find a milliner ? A simpler device solved the problem perfectly : we took off the caps, rolled them up tight, and so far as possible concealed them in our hands ; bareheaded we went our way all unmolested. Beyond a smile from an observant passer-by at the moment of the transfer (naturally we had sought the quietest available corner for it), we were noticed no more ; the Parisian working girl is in the habit of going about at all hours with no other covering for her head than her own beautifully dressed hair, and we were flattered to find that our own general inferiority of toilette was not so great as to forbid us to masquerade as grisettes. But the climax of our adventures was yet to be reached.
I have been applauded at the Théâtre Français, — I myself !
We went to the play, and we had a box and an escort. It was a great deal of trouble to get our tickets from a snuffy old woman who could not make change ; it was a great deal more to find our box ; and it was, alas for the Americans ! impossible to get a glass of water or any substitute therefor in the whole place. But such trials are the joys of sympathetic travelers, and we devoted ourselves to the beautiful performance of Adrienne Lecouvreur with gratitude. Our box was at the back of the house, and very high ; I do not remember in what tier, but you could not well be less conspicuous anywhere in the house. The whole place, too (and very proper this seems), is kept in such a dim religions light that to American eyes no one off the stage appears at any time distinctly visible. After the fourth act I rose and moved about a little to rest myself. When was heard the first of those startling knockings by which the rising of the curtain is heralded, I came to my seat in the front of the box and stood chatting a moment with my friends. The clothes I wore had stood the test of French criticism without drawing punishment down upon me, and in the pleasures of the hour I had forgotten fear, Before the second knockings (this ceremony always being repeated before the curtain goes up) I became conscious of a strange commotion all over the house, — applause, laughter, slight incomprehensible calls. I looked about with interest to discover what was the matter. The demonstration increased ; from all sides faces were turned to our dingy little box, hanging halfway to the roof ; yes, we — I was the loadstone of their eyes. I dropped into my chair, and instantly the fickle public transferred its attentions to the still unmoving drop curtain. Clearly, I said to myself, I am not fitted for life in Paris. I found consolation only by taking myself, my behavior, my gowns, and my French berri back to insular England, where I was again the utterly inconspicuous person I am accustomed to find myself in my native land. I sat in Rotten Row, at the fashionable hours, in the height of the season, costumed according to my mild fancy, and no creature turned a head to glance at me.