This essay contains spoilers for “Mrs. Harris goes to Paris.
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”, a new film based on the 1958 book of the same name by Paul Gallico (with her last name shortened to “Mrs. ‘Arris”), follows the quest of an English housekeeper to buy a haute couture dress in the 1950s. Along the way, the film explores the pitfalls of materialism through characters who yearn for the elegance and glamor of designers like famed Christian Dior.
Mrs. Harris, interpreted with elegance and charm by Lesley Manville, is a housekeeper for wealthy families. Her quest begins when she discovers a lilac-colored strapless dress sitting on a chair while cleaning the house of one of her employers. As the hostess holds the dress to herself and gazes at her reflection in her mirror, she tells Mrs. Harris that she got the dress because of how fabulous it feels.
‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ explores the pitfalls of materialism through characters who yearn for the elegance and glamor of designers like Christian Dior.
However, the matron never wears it. She puts the dress away in the closet, hiding it and its high price tag from her husband and the rest of the world. So focused on her feelings and internal dilemmas, she never shares her dress with anyone. She puts her sparkling dress under the bushel.
Inspired by her encounter with the dress, Ms. Harris flies to Paris. Although she was a busy worker and a pincher, she could not afford the plane ticket and the dress she would later buy on her own. Brand names have high prices. Mrs. Harris receives significant help from her late husband’s pension, the kindness of others and pure luck, including a reward for returning a beautiful piece of jewelry she found on the street to the police.
But she arrives in Paris and attends the Dior fashion show. The Dior brand was only 10 years old when the film was shot, but its creations and fragrances were already popular and celebrated across Europe. He received entry into the French Legion of Honor for his contributions to the textile industry and fashion craftsmanship.
Mrs. Harris falls in love with a scarlet Dior dress named Temptation which another aristocratic woman buys out of spite after seeing Mrs. Harris’ interest in her. Avarice would have been an equally good name for the dress. Ms Harris buys an emerald green dress instead, but it needs a week of alterations before she can take it home to England.
Mrs. Harris knows the value of a dress and she uses the garment to help others, even when people don’t deserve it.
In the haute couture workshop where she brings the dress (a workshop), Mrs. Harris announces that she feels like she has entered paradise. Sunlight and anonymous white-clad workers fill a series of rooms; it takes them hundreds of hours of skilled labor to make a single dress. For Ms. Harris, entering this kind of paradise does not mean leaving the labor market. She soon finds herself sewing to help pay for unexpected expenses for her dress.
Mrs. Harris knows the value of a dress and she uses the garment to help others, even when people don’t deserve it. After her Parisian adventure, she returns to England and gets back to work. Shortly after arriving home, another of her employers, an aspiring movie star, comes to see her complaining that she has nothing to wear for a career-defining event. The starlet’s cleanest dress is wrinkled, with a large stain on the front. Against her better judgment, Mrs. Harris lends her the brand new Dior. She does not put her sparkling dress under a bushel, choosing instead to share her light.
During a lavish dinner party that night, the starlet accidentally burns the skirt near an open fireplace. The next day, Ms. Harris finds the damaged Dior sitting in the actress’s empty apartment. Mrs. Harris gives the burnt dress a burial at sea.
Ms. Harris’ Dior dream is then unexpectedly resurrected. Workshop, after reading about the starlet’s disaster in a newspaper gossip column, is moved by Mrs. Harris’ compassion for others in need. Its good deeds, like a city on a hill, cannot be hidden. He sends her the Scarlett dress, Temptation, which had been Mrs. Harris’ first choice at the fashion show. (It turns out that the wicked aristocratic woman couldn’t pay for it.)
Unlike the aristocratic wife or carefree starlet, Mrs. Harris doesn’t spend her time admiring herself in the mirror. She derives satisfaction from her Dior dress by seeing the starlet wearing it, and by the look on her friends’ faces when they see Ms Harris in her new dress. His joy inherently involves others and also depends on their happiness. The beauty of the dress is only a small part of her happiness, and in this way Mrs. Harris shows how to enjoy a luxury good.
The film doesn’t condemn Mrs. Harris’ quest for a sparkling red couture gown which, during the local dance at the end of the film, stands out like a beautiful shrine lamp amid dozens of dark votive candles. Rather, the film condemns people who selfishly hide items for themselves, or carelessly hurt other people’s feelings, let alone make fun of their possessions. The film rewards those who work hard and are generous.
Ultimately, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” isn’t suggesting that viewers should emulate her and start saving for a Dior dress. Ms. Harris can only achieve her goal through the generosity of others and a lot of luck. The real goal is to use possessions to uplift and appreciate people, actions that, like the joy she found in Dior’s studio, bring Ms. Harris one step closer to heaven.