Mary Chamberlain

"The Dressmaker of Dachau"


The April sun cast shafts of light onto the thick slubs of black silk, turning it into a sea of ebony and jet, silver and slate. Ada watched as Anni ran her hand along the fine, crisp edges of the jacket, tracing the rich, warm threads and fingering the corsage as if the petals were tender, living blooms.

She was wearing it over a thick wool jumper and her cook's apron, so it pulled tight around the shoulders. No, Ada wanted to say, not like that. It won't fit. But she kept her mouth shut. She could see from Anni's face that the jacket was the most beautiful thing she had ever possessed.

Anni was holding the key to Ada's room in one hand and a suitcase in the other.

'Goodbye,' she said, throwing the key on the floor and kicking it towards Ada.

She walked away, leaving the door open.


London, January 1939

Ada peered into the broken mirror propped up on the kitchen dresser. Mouth open, tongue to attention, she plucked at her eyebrows with a pair of rusty tweezers. Winced and ouched until only a thin arc was left. She dabbed on the witch hazel, hoped the stinging would fade. Dunked her hair in clean, warm water in the old, cracked butler sink, patted it dry with a towel and parted it along the left. Eighteen years old, more grown up this way. Middle finger, comb and straighten, index finger, crimp. Three waves down the left, five down the right, five each herringbone down the back, pin curls and a Kirby grip tight to her skull, leave it to dry.

Ada was taking her time. She opened her handbag and fished around until she found her powder, rouge and lipstick. Not too much, in case she looked common, but enough to make her fresh and wholesome like those young girls from the Women's League of Health and Beauty. She'd seen them in Hyde Park in their black drawers and white blouses and knew they practised on a Saturday afternoon in the playground of Henry Fawcett's. She might think about joining them. It was good to be supple, and slender. She could make the uniform herself. After all, she was a dressmaker now, earned good money.

She rubbed her lips together to spread her lipstick, checked that the waves were holding their grip as her hair dried, picked up the mirror and carried it into the bedroom. The brown houndstooth skirt with the inverted pleats and the cream blouse with the enamel pin at the neck - that was smart. Good tweed, too, an offcut from Isidore, the tailor in Hanover Square. Just fifteen she was when she started there. Gawd, she was green, picking up pins from the floor and sweeping away fabric dustings, plimsolls grey from the chalk and her hand-me-down jacket too long in the arm. Dad said it was a sweatshop, that the fat capitalist who ran it did nothing but exploit her and she should stand up for her rights and organize. But Isidore had opened her eyes. He taught her how fabric lived and breathed, how it had a personality and moods. Silk, he said, was stubborn, lawn sullen. Worsted was tough, flannel lazy. He taught her how to cut the cloth so it didn't pucker and bruise, about biases and selvedges. He showed her how to make patterns and where to chalk and tack. He taught her the sewing machine, about yarns and threads, how to fit a new-fangled zipper so it lay hidden in the seam and how to buttonhole and hem. Herringbone, Ada, herringbone. Women looking like mannequins. It was a world of enchantment. Beautiful hair and glistening gowns. Tailored knickers even. Isidore had shown Ada that world, and she wanted it for herself.

She wasn't there yet. What with Mum demanding a share for her keep and the bus to work and a tea cake in Lyons with the girls on pay day, there wasn't much over at the end of the week.

'And don't think you can come into this house and lord it around,' Mum raised a stained finger at Ada, knuckles creased like an old worm, 'just because you pay your way.' Still had to do her share of the dusting and sweeping and, now she was trained up, the family's dressmaking too.

Ada knew this life of scrimping and nit-combs and hand-me-downs was not what she was meant for. She damped her finger and thumb with her tongue, folded down her Bemberg stockings with the fitted toe and heel

and rolled them up, crease by crease, careful you don't snag, so the seam sat straight at the back. Quality shows. Appearances matter. So long as her top clothes looked good, nobody could touch her. Lips pinched, nose in the air, excuse me. Airs and graces, like the best of them. Ada would go far, she knew, be a somebody too.

She propped the mirror on top of the mantelpiece and combed her hair so it settled in chestnut waves. She placed her hat on her head, a brown, felt pillbox that one of the milliners at work had made for her, nudging it forward and to the side. She slipped her feet into her new tan court shoes and, lifting the mirror and tilting it downwards, stood back to see the effect. Perfect. Modish. Groomed.

Ada Vaughan jumped over the threshold, still damp from the scrubbing and reddening this morning. The morning sky above was thick, chimney pots coughing sooty grouts into the air. The terrace stretched the length of the street, smuts clinging to the yellow stock and to the brown net curtains struggling free from the open windows in the city-hobbled wind. She covered her nose with her hand so the murk from the Thames and the ash from the tallow melts wouldn't fill her nostrils and leave blackened snot on the handkerchiefs she'd made for herself and embroidered in the corner, AV.

Clip-clop along Theed Street, front doors open so you could see inside, respectable houses these, clean as a whistle, good address, you had to be a somebody to rent here, Mum always said. Somebody, my foot. Mum and Dad wouldn't know a somebody if he clipped them round the ear. Somebodies didn't sell the Daily Worker outside Dalton's on a Saturday morning, or thumb their rosaries until their fingers grew calouses. Somebodies didn't scream at each other, or sulk in silence for days on end. If Ada had to choose between her mother and father, it would be her father every time, for all his temper and frustrations. He wasn't waiting for Heaven but salvation in the here and now, one last push and the edifice of prejudice and privilege would crumble and everyone would have the world that Ada yearned for. Her mother's salvation came after death and a lifetime of suffering and bleeding hearts. Sitting in the church on Sunday, she wondered how anyone could make a religion out of misery.

Clip-clop past the fire station and the emergency sandbags stacked outside. Past the Old Vic where she'd seen Twelfth Night on a free seat when she was eleven years old, entranced by the glossy velvet costumes and the smell of Tungstens and orange peel. She knew, just knew, there was a world enclosed on this stage with its painted-on

scenery and artificial lights that was as true and deep as the universe itself. Make-up and make-belief, her heart sang for Malvolio, for he, like her, yearned to be a somebody. She kept going, down the London Road, round St George's Cross and onto the Borough Road. Dad said there was going to be a war before the year was out and Mum kept picking up leaflets and reading them out loud, When you hear the siren, proceed in an orderly fashion ...

Ada clip-clopped up to the building and raised her eyes to the letters that ran in black relief along the top. 'Borough Polytechnic Institute'. She fidgeted with her hat, opened and shut her bag, checked her seams were straight, and walked up the stairs. Sticky under her arms and between her thighs, the clamminess that came from nerves, not the clean damp you got from running.

The door to Room 35 had four glass panels in the top half. Ada peered through. The desks had been pushed to one side and six women were standing in a semicircle in the middle. Their backs were to the door and they were looking at someone in the front. Ada couldn't see who. She wiped her palm down the side of her skirt, opened the door and stepped into the room.

A woman with large bosoms, a pearl necklace and grey hair rolled in a bun stepped forward from the semicircle and threw open her arms. 'And you are?'

Ada swallowed. 'Ada Vaughan.'

'From the diaphragm,' the woman bellowed. 'Your name?'

Ada didn't know what she meant. 'Ada Vaughan,' her voice crashed against her tongue.

'Are we a mouse?' the woman boomed.

Ada blushed. She felt small, stupid. She turned and walked to the door.

'No, no,' the woman cried. 'Do come in.' Ada was reaching for the door-knob. She put her hand on Ada's. 'You've come this far.'

The woman's hand was warm and dry and Ada saw her nails were manicured and painted pink. She led her back to the other women, positioned her in the centre of the semicircle.

'My name is Miss Skinner.' Her words sang clear, like a melody, Ada thought, or a crystal dove. 'And yours?'

Miss Skinner stood straight, all bosom, though her waist was slender. She poised her head to the side, chin forward.

'Say it clearly,' she smiled, nodded. Her face was kindly, after all, even

if her voice was strict. 'E-nun-ci-ate.'

'Ada Vaughan,' Ada said, with conviction.

'You may look like a swan,' Miss Skinner said, stepping back, 'but if you talk like a sparrow, who will take you seriously? Welcome, Miss Vaughan.'

She placed her hands round her waist. Ada knew she must be wearing a girdle. No woman her age had a figure like that without support. She breathed in Mmmmm, drummed her fingers on the cavity she made beneath her ribs, opened her mouth, Do re mi fa so. She held tight to the last note, blasting like a ship's funnel until it left only an echo lingering in the air. Her shoulders relaxed and she let out the rest of the air with a whoosh. It's her bosoms, Ada thought, that's where she must keep the air, blow them up like balloons. No one could breathe in that deep. It wasn't natural.

'Stand straight.' Miss Skinner stepped forward, 'Chin up, bottom in.' She threaded her way through the group, came to Ada and pushed one hand against the small of her back and with the other lifted Ada's chin up and out.

'Unless we stand upright,' Miss Skinner rolled her shoulders back and adjusted her bosom, 'we cannot project.' She trilled her rrrs like a Sally Army cymbal. 'And if we cannot project,' Miss Skinner added, 'we cannot pronounce.'

She turned to Ada. 'Miss Vaughan, why do you wish to learn elocution?'

Ada could feel the heat crawl up her neck and prickle her ears, knew her face was turning red. She opened her mouth, but couldn't say it. Her tongue folded in a pleat. I want to be a somebody. Miss Skinner nodded anyway. She'd seen the likes of Ada before. Ambitious.


'I thought you were one of the customers,' the Hon. Mrs Buckley had said, 'when I saw you standing there, looking so smart.' Taken for one of the customers. Imagine. She was only eighteen years old when she'd started there last September. Ada had learned fast.

The Hon. Mrs Buckley traded under the name 'Madame Duchamps'. Square-hipped and tall, with painted nails and quiet earrings, she dazzled with her talk of couture and atelier and Paris, pah! She would flip through the pages of Vogue and conjure ballgowns and cocktail dresses from bolts of silks and chenilles which she draped and pinned round slender debutantes and their portly chaperones.

Ada had learned her trade from Isidore and her nerve from Mrs B., as the other girls all called her. Where Isidore had been wise and kind and

funny, genuine, Mrs B. was crafted through artifice. Ada was sure the Hon. Mrs Buckley was neither an Hon. nor a Mrs, and her complexion was as false as her name, but that didn't stop Mrs B. What she didn't know about the female form and the lie of a fabric was not worth writing on a postage stamp.

Mrs B. was a step up from Isidore. Paris. That was the city Ada aimed to conquer. She'd call her house 'Vaughan'. It was a modish name, like Worth, or Chanel, but with British cachet. That was another word she'd learned from Mrs B. Cachet. Style and class, rolled into one.

'Where did you learn all this French, madame?' The girls always had to call her 'madame' to her face.

Mrs B. had given a knowing smile, her head pivoting on the tilt of her long neck. 'Here and there,' she said. 'Here and there.'

Fair dues to Mrs B., she recognized in Ada a hard worker, and a young woman with ambition and talent. Aitches present and correct without aspiration, haspiration, Ada was made front-of-house, Madame Duchamps's instore fresh-faced mannequin, and the young society ladies began to turn to her to model their clothes, rather than Mrs B., whose complexion and waistline grew thicker by the day.

'Mademoiselle,' Mrs B. would say. 'Slip on the evening gown.'

'The douppioni, madame?'

Midnight blue with a halter neck. Ada would lean into her hips and sway across the floor, swirl so her naked back drew the eye, and that eye would marvel at the drape of the fabric as it swallowed the curve of her figure, out and in, and fanned in a fishtail. She'd turn again and smile.

'And now the chiffon.'

Veils of mystery and a taffeta lining, oyster and pearl and precious lustres. Ada loved the way the clothes transformed her. She could be fire, or water, air or earth. Elemental. Truthful. This was who she was. She would lift her arms as if to embrace the heavens and the fabric would drift in the gossamer breeze; she would bend low in a curtsy then unfold her body like a flower in bloom, each limb a sensuous, supple petal.

She was the centre of adoration, a living sculpture, a work of art. A creator, too. She would smile and say, 'But if you tuck it here, or pleat it there, then voilà.' With a flourish of her long, slim fingers and that new, knowing voilà, Ada would add her own touch to one of Mrs B.'s designs and make it altogether more modern, more desirable. Ada knew Mrs B.

saw her as an asset, recognized her skills and taste, her ability to lure the customers and charm them with an effortless eloquence, thanks to Miss Skinner's skilful tutoring.

'If you cut on the bias,' Ada would say, holding up the dress length on the diagonal to a customer, 'you can see how it falls, like a Grecian goddess.'

Draped across the breast, a single, naked shoulder rising like a mermaid from a chiffon sea.

'Non, non, non.' Mrs B. tut-tutted, spoke in French when Ada pushed the limits of decency. 'That will not do, Mademoiselle. This is not for the boudoir, but the ball. Decorum, decorum.'

She'd turned to her client. 'Miss Vaughan is still a little inexperienced, naïve, in the subtler points of social correctness.'

Naive she might be, but Ada was good publicity for Madame Duchamps, modiste, of Dover Street, and Ada had hopes that one day she could be more than an asset but a partner in the business. She had developed a respectable following. Her talent marked her out, the flow and poise of her design distinguished her. She conjured Hollywood and the glamorous world of the stars and brought them into the drawing rooms of the everyday. Ada became her designs, a walking advertisement for them. The floral day dress, the tailored suit, the manicured nails and the simple court shoes, she knew she was watched as she left the shop and sauntered west down Piccadilly, past the Ritz and Green Park. She would clip-clop along, chin in the air, pretending she might live in Knightsbridge or Kensington, until she knew she was free of curious eyes. Then finally she turned south, clip-clopped over Westminster Bridge and into Lambeth and past the sniggering urchins who stuck their noses in the air and teetered behind her on imaginary heels.

Late April, black rain fell in turrets and drummed on the slate roofs of Dover Street. Torrents, scooped from the oceans and let loose from the heavens, thundered down to earth and soaked deep into the cracks between the paving, fell in dark rivers along the gutters, eddied in dips in the pavements and in the areas of the tall, stuccoed houses. It splattered off the umbrellas and sombre hats of the pedestrians and soaked the trouser legs below the raincoats. It seeped into the leather of the shoes.

Ada reached for her coat, a soft camel with a tie belt, and her umbrella. She'd have to bite the bullet today, turn left right away, pick up the number 12 in Haymarket.

'Good night, madame,' she said to Mrs B. She stood under the door frame, then out into the sodden street. She walked towards Piccadilly, looking down, side-stepping the puddles. A gust of wind caught her umbrella and turned it inside out, whipped the sides of her coat so they billowed free and snatched her hair in sopping tentacles. She pulled at the twisted metal spokes.

'Allow me, please,' a man's voice said as a large umbrella positioned itself above her head. She turned round, almost brushed the man's face, an instant too close but long enough for Ada to know. His face was slim, punctuated by a narrow, clipped moustache. He wore small, round glasses and behind them his eyes were soft and pale. Duck egg blue, Ada thought, airy enough to see through. They chilled and stirred her. He stepped back.

'I apologize,' he said. 'I was only trying to protect you. Here, you hold this.' He passed over his umbrella and took hold of hers with his free hand. He sounded continental, Ada thought, a sophisticated clip to his accent. Ada watched as he bent it back into shape.

'Not quite as good as new,' he said. 'But it will take care of you today. Where do you live? Do you have far to go?'

She started to answer, but the words tangled in her mouth. Lambeth. Lambeth.

'No,' she said. 'Thank you. I'll get the bus.'

'Let me walk you to the stop.'

She wanted to say yes, but she was frightened he'd press her on where she lived. The number 12 went to Dulwich. That was all right. She could say Dulwich, it was respectable enough.

'You're hesitating,' he said. His eyes creased in a smile. 'Your mother told you never to go with strange men.'

She was grateful for the excuse. His accent was formal. She couldn't place it.

'I have a better idea,' he went on. 'I'm sure your mother would approve of this.' He pointed over the road. 'Would you care to join me, Miss? Tea at the Ritz. Couldn't be more English.'

What would be the harm in that? If he was up to no good, he wouldn't waste money at the Ritz. Probably a week's wages. And it was in public, after all.

'I am inviting you,' he said. 'Please accept.'

He was polite, well-mannered.

'And the rain will stop in the mean time.'

Ada gathered her senses. 'Will? Will it? How do you know?'

'Because,' he said, 'I command it to.' He shut his eyes, stretched his free arm up above his head, raising his umbrella, and clenched and opened his fist three times.

'Ein, zwei, drei.'

Ada didn't understand a word but knew they were foreign. 'Dry?' she said.

'Oh, very good,' he said. 'I like that. So do you accept?'

He was charming. Whimsical. She liked that word. It made her feel light and carefree. It was a diaphanous word, like a chiffon veil.

Why not? None of the boys she knew would ever dream of asking her to the Ritz.

'Thank you. I would enjoy that.'

He took her elbow and guided her across the road, through the starlit arches of the Ritz, into the lobby with its crystal chandeliers and porcelain jardinières. She wanted to pause and look, take it all in, but he was walking her fast along the gallery. She could feel her feet floating along the red carpet, past vast windows festooned and ruched in velvet, through marble columns and into a room of mirrors and fountains and gilded curves.

She had never seen anything so vast, so rich, so shiny. She smiled, as if this was something she was used to every day.

'May I take your coat?' A waiter in a black suit with a white apron.

'It's all right,' Ada said, 'I'll keep it. It's a bit wet.'

'Are you sure?' he said. A sticky ring of heat began to creep up her neck and Ada knew she had blundered. In this world, you handed your clothes to valets and flunkeys and maids.

'No,' the words tripped out, 'you're right. Please take it. Thank you.' Wanted to say, don't lose it, the man in Berwick Street market said it was real camel hair, though Ada'd had her doubts. She shrugged the coat off her shoulders, aware that the waiter in the apron was peeling it from her arms and draping it over his. Aware, too, that the nudge of her shoulders had been slow and graceful.

'What is your name?' the man asked.

'Ada. Ada Vaughan. And yours?'

'Stanislaus,' he said. 'Stanislaus von Lieben.'