Film and literature are littered with characters who obsessively believe in the power of the perfect piece of clothing. To them this perfect item is not just transformative, but redemptive. Take the miserable Sasha Jansen in Jean Rhys’s 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight. As she drifts around Paris drinking and running out of money, she frequently imagines the ways in which her life could be improved. She “madly, furiously” longs for a black dress with “wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colours – red, green, blue purple.” To her, this dress is a totem of the ideal life, always just beyond reach. “If I could get it everything would be different,” she predicts at one point. “I must go and buy a hat this afternoon, and tomorrow a dress,” she thinks at another. “I must get on with the transformation act.”
A transformation act, like a magic trick, alters everything in an instant. It suggests that a new self is always just ahead, lingering on a mannequin or waiting in the seams of a dress that merely needs to be pulled over one’s head for the grand abracadabra moment. So much of the real change that happens in our lives is slow. It takes time, and understanding, and effort. Often it is arduous. No wonder we are enthralled by the idea of immediate access to beauty, or power, or attention.
What remains so interesting about Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is that for all its fairy tale trappings, it is more complex in its understanding of transformation. Without giving too much away, for Mrs Harris there is a distinction between merely wearing a dress and knowing it is yours. It is the latter experience that is more valuable. She wants a Dior dress “hanging in her cupboard, to know it was there when she was there, when she was away, to open the door when she returned and find it waiting for her, exquisite to touch, to see, and to own.” When she finally makes her way to that fabled atelier, she is thrilled not so much by her own reflection as by her ability to possess such beauty. “Buying a Paris dress was surely the most wonderful thing that could happen to a woman.” Much as we might see this as the ultimate capitalist fairy tale, there is a tenderness and dignity in Gallico’s approach to Mrs Harris. She is, above all, an aesthete: someone who deserves her ravishingly gorgeous gown just as much as the rich ladies whose houses she cleans; a singularly determined woman, moving through the world in pursuit of that perfect feeling of “IT!!”
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is in US cinemas from 15 July, and in the UK from 30 September.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.