What Else Would a Young Film Star Wear?

August 1, 2016

In this essay published on The Center For Fiction, Maggie O’Farrell, author of  This Must Be the Place, writes about how an unforgettable dress found its way into her fiction.

In my mid-20s, my friend and I managed to snag a flat near Angel tube station in London. It was narrow and lightless, with a corridor running alongside two rooms, a kitchenette you could cross in two steps and a tiny bathroom, where you could reach the loo only by turning sideways and edging past the bath.

I had the back room, dark as a cave in winter, with a desk under a sash window, where I would sit working, when not at my actual job on a newspaper. I had no money; neither of us did. I was trying to write—freelance book reviews, stories, what seemed to be turning into a novel—and my flatmate was trying to break into set-design.

The flat had a concrete stairwell zig-zagging between red-painted front doors; if you went up, you found yourself on an enormous, sun-scorched, asphalted roof. If you went down, you reached a narrow lane, at the end of which was Upper Street.

Islington in the mid-1990s was an area on the way up: every second doorway was that of a bar or a restaurant, blasting Britpop into the nicotine-heavy air. Every other was that of a chic boutique or shoe shop or homeware place selling vintage doorknobs. What window shopping was to be had here. I would walk home from a night out or a late shift at the newspaper, picking my way through drunks and revelers, sidestepping lakes of lager (and worse), gazing up at the flickering reel of shop windows.

One night, something stopped me in my tracks. A faceless mannequin, half-turned towards me, as if she was about to step out of her window and down into the street to join me. She was wearing a dress in cumulonimbus-grey silk, with an ivy-trail of red beads winding up it. Its incongruities—the fragility of the silk, the fiery beading, strength meeting weakness—struck me, imprinted me as I stood there, mesmerized.

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