Dressmakers Excerpt

Brooklyn, 1924

Catherine Berrill awoke to blood—again. It had happened last month too, but it hadn’t trickled down very far, and so left only a light stain on her nightdress, one that she rinsed out immediately before the maid could see it. Nettie knew that Catherine and Stephen were hoping for a child, knew that month after month, their hope was drowned by blood. Sometimes a smear, sometimes a pool. It didn’t matter. Blood was blood. Nettie herself had four children and Catherine didn’t want her pity, however well intentioned. 

But today, the blood was far more than a smear. She’d been in a deep sleep and when she woke, there was a large, crimson stain beneath her, bright and incriminating. Catherine stripped the bed but she wasn’t sure what to do with the sheet—she could hear Nettie bustling around in the kitchen below so there would be no way to conceal it. And though she have could bundled it up and thrown it away, there would still be its disappearance to account for; Nettie took pride in her meticulous housekeeping. So leaving the sheet on the floor, she cleaned herself up, secured the necessary flannel pads in her underclothes and went downstairs.

“There’s a soiled sheet in our room,” she said. “I left it by the bed.”

Nettie looked up; she was pouring Catherine’s coffee into a delicate, bone china cup. “Oh that’s too bad, Mrs. Berrill,” she said. “Would you like me to bring your coffee upstairs, so you can have it in bed? Since it’s your time and all…It won’t take me a minute to put a fresh sheet on.”

Catherine’s face burned. Of course Nettie knew why the sheet was soiled. The maid always knew all the secrets of a house.

“No, I’ll take the coffee in the back parlor,” she said. “Just like always.”

“And a cinnamon bun? Fresh baked this morning. Mr. Berrill thought they were perfection—heaven on a plate, he said.”

Catherine had to smile—her husband was an optimist, an enthusiast, a man with a perpetually sunny disposition inclined to see the best in everything and everyone. To Stephen, a freshly baked cinnamon bun was indeed cause for rejoicing. Even so, she was glad he’d already left for work. She didn’t think she could stand his unquenchable good cheer this morning.

Nettie brought in the coffee and Catherine sat at the small table and looked out at the backyard. It was winter and nothing was in bloom, but come spring, there would be snowdrops, forsythia and then lilacs, and in the summer, peonies and miniature roses of the palest pink. The warm weather would bring new growth, new life but she, Catherine Delman Berrill, would remain barren, her womb wasted and empty. Abruptly, she got up from the table, so that the cup rattled and coffee pooled in the saucer. The cinnamon bun remained untouched.

“I’m not very hungry,” she said to Nettie. “I’m going out, and I won’t be back for lunch.”

“Dinner’s baked fish tonight,” said Nettie.

“Oh that’s right—it’s Friday.” Stephen didn’t eat meat on Fridays, a habit ingrained from childhood. Although the thought of food sickened Catherine at the moment, she said, “I’m sure it will be delicious, Nettie.”

It was a relief to be outside. She could walk along Vanderbilt Avenue, past the big arch at Grand Army Plaza Avenue and into Prospect Park, where she’d follow its winding paths and cross its expansive Long Meadow. If she walked as far as the pond, she’d see the ducks, and maybe even the pair of swans that swam calmly on its surface. She liked tossing them stale bread crusts; unlike the ducks, they didn’t lunge and push each other out of the way, but accepted her offering in a regal, dignified manner. But the park was apt to be bleak and deserted on this gray, chilly day, so she headed in the other direction, toward the busier Flatbush Avenue.

She only hoped that she wouldn’t run into one of her in-laws as several of them lived nearby, on Union Street. When she and Stephen first moved into the house on St. Mark’s Avenue she’d been delighted to have his family so close by. She’d fallen in love with his parents who’d welcomed her instantly, and his six siblings too—he was the eldest of a big Irish brood.

But Catherine couldn’t bear seeing any of them today, especially not Bridget, to whom she was closest, and who knew all about Catherine’s yearning to have a child. And Molly, his other sister, was pregnant with her second—no, Catherine really didn’t want to see her either.

Just as she reached Flatbush, she saw the new little dress shop she’d noticed before but never gone into. Although her closets were full enough, she decided it might provide a sorely needed distraction and she climbed the stoop leading to the glass-paned double doors. There was a small sign attached to one of them.

Dresses by Beatrice and Alice
Please Ring for Entry

A girl of around fifteen or sixteen responded to the chiming sound. Was she Beatrice or Alice? “Good morning,” said the girl. “Would you like to look around?” She was pretty but it was her dress that really stood out. It combined a persimmon-colored gathered skirt with a sage green bodice and sleeves; the sleeves were adorned with tassels, as was the skirt. Something about it seemed of another time—skirts had not been so full for a while—but the effect was more avant-garde than retrograde. Before Catherine could comment, she was greeted by another woman, one who looked to be in her forties. With an arresting face and dark hair that was elegantly twisted and gathered to show off her long neck. Something about her seemed interesting, compelling even.

Like Alice, the older woman wore an unusual dress, hers in blue and white striped wool with knitted and fluffy sleeves. “Hello,” said the woman. “I’m Miss Bea and this is Alice. Please look around and feel free to ask us any questions.” Her voice held the faintest trace of an accent. It sounded European, but Catherine couldn’t pin it down any more than that.

“Nice to meet you,” Catherine said. Was the woman staring at her or was she imagining it? She began to look at the clothes on display, mostly dresses, no two of them alike. Here was a frock fashioned from a glorious butterfly print silk with a black satin capelet at the shoulders; here was a simple emerald-green column made from an unfamiliar but appealing material that was both luxurious and soft. Its only adornment was the sash of aubergine velvet that extended from one shoulder to the opposite hip.

There were no labels in any of the dresses and Catherine couldn’t begin to guess where they were from. She only knew she’d never seen anything quite like them before. Despite her gloomy mood, she was intrigued and asked if she could try on the green dress. The material felt so good when she touched it; what would it be like to have it on her body, against her skin?

Alice carried the dress over to a changing area enclosed by an ivory, watered silk curtain. “Won’t you step inside?” Her accent was clearly southern—so neither of these women was a New Yorker. Were they related, though? She wasn’t sure.

Catherine took the dress and once inside, began to disrobe. When she had the green dress on, she stepped out again, Alice came over and began to fasten the buttons in the back. The dress felt even better than she imagined. “What’s it made of?” she asked.

“Silk knit jersey,” said Miss Bea. “It’s mostly used for undergarments but we got hold of a bolt and wanted to find a way to use it.”

“So you make the dresses here?”

“Yes. Though mostly Alice remakes them.”

“Remakes them? What do you mean?”

“We take existing dresses and combine various parts to come up with something new. Sleeves from one, a skirt from another—like that. Though the one you’re wearing is an original. It was my idea actually.”

Catherine walked over to the mirror. The woman who looked back at her was unfamiliar. She was glamorous, yes, but even more, she was composed, she was in complete control of her life. Her future. The day’s dark mood seemed to lift, banished by this altogether unusual dress. Maybe the dress was a sign of something—something good. Maybe she’d wear it and soon enough, she’d be with child and would need to have it let it out.

“…the sleeves are just the slightest bit too long but Alice could easily fix them.” Miss Bea was looking at Catherine’s reflection in the mirror but it seemed to Catherine that she was not focused on the sleeves at all, but on her face. It was unnerving.


“The sleeves—I was saying that—”

“I’ll take it,” Catherine blurted out.

“It’s very becoming,” said Miss Bea. “Alice, can you pin the sleeves?”

Alice came over with a pin cushion and tape measure. When she was done, Catherine stepped back in the dressing area to change, then handed the dress to Alice, who disappeared behind another, much wider ivory silk curtain in the back.

“That’s our work area,” Miss Bea explained. “I can have the dress for you tomorrow. Will that be all right?”

“Tomorrow is fine.”

“If you give me your name and address, I’ll have it sent round when it’s done.”

“How much do I owe you?” She hadn’t even asked what the dress cost.

“Eight dollars.”

Catherine would have happily paid more for it. “And the alteration?”

“No charge. Now if I could just get your name.” Miss Bea’s pen was poised above a small pad.

“Catherine Berrill, 127 St. Mark’s Avenue.”

The pen dropped and ink splattered, black drops sprinkling the pale cream-colored rug and the bit of stocking revealed by the strap of Miss Bea’s shoe. “Excuse me,” the older woman murmured as she knelt to retrieve it. She didn’t seem care about the ink—or maybe she didn’t even notice. When she looked up again, her face had paled and this time there was no mistaking it—she was staring at Catherine, seemingly transfixed.

“Well, thank you very much.” Catherine held out the bills but Miss Bea, still staring, ignored them. “The payment,” she prompted. This was all so strange. Strange and uncomfortable.

“You’re welcome.” Miss Bea took the bills and hastily stuffed them into the pocket of her dress.

Catherine fastened her coat and drew on her gloves. She loved the dress, she truly did, and she was sure that if she continued to look around, she would find others that were equally appealing. These women were clearly gifted. But Miss Bea’s manner was so unsettling, so peculiar, that Catherine didn’t care to shop any further. She hurried out and down the stoop, walking swiftly away, quite certain she would never set foot in that shop again.