When I planned to visit Heather in Paris this April, one of the main goals was to go to as many rummages as possible. The Paris rummage, called ‘brocante’, is active and bustling in different little corridors of the city, many days of the week and certainly every weekend. Brocanteurs get ready during the coffee hour; the sight of them throwing down their tables, spreading their wares, and hanging garments from improvised tents is rife with anticipation.
Heather, like myself and not quite like anyone else exactly, loves a brocante as much as I do, the same way I do. I will never tire of a rummage. I live for it. I’d rather do almost nothing else. I always find beauty, I always learn something, and a good rummage can really lift the soul from what ails it.
Of course Heather was prepared - she is a pro - with both resources and a sharp-eyed radar out for the word ‘brocante‘ on any kind of poster or public advertisement.
My first evening there, strolling back to the apartment at , we saw a paper poster on a pole, yellow in the dark evening air. Heather’s eyes narrowed and she grew excited. “ morning. We have to go. It’s a church sale...” and so my first brocante had been chosen.
We arrived after coffee; there was short lineup of serious women, the room itself was a small enclave in a church just across the river Seine from us. Inside the stone walls, women prowled two aisles and a few tables. Informal, relaxed older women were running the show without pressure. The fitting room was simply a sheet hung up across an alcove before the toilet.
We made quick work of the room. The first thing that caught my eye was a long black tunic. Awkwardly hung on a pants hanger, at first it looked queer, but upon examining I found it to be austere and lovely. Draping down onto the floor, the soft, thin, almost-sheer black cotton looks like wide pants but is completely open. Flat gold embroidery, done by hand, trims the collar area. It seemed like a good vacation garment. Heather had, in her typical fashion, expertly exhumed all of the high-waisted ladies’ pants from the room, and had found a pair she thought would fit me. Thin black wool with a flat front, a high, tiny waist, and hardly worn it would seem - I could only just shimmy into them while sharing the fitting room with three other women. The pants are surprisingly perfect, only the ankle hem will have to come down but luckily there are several inches to spare. Two pairs of black leather gloves that would please even Karl well, and a black Armani hoody of thin buttery lambskin later, I have cleared the room of what is mine and get the whole lot for 14 euro. Very good.
Heather and I have a whole day planned, three rummages in separate neighborhoods, none of them touristy, and it’s a weekday. We get up early, coffee in the white light, sleepy but who cares. Serious business awaits. This will be a day of testing our French language skills, bartering with professional brocanteurs who know what they have and don’t expect you to necessarily know your game but do want you to speak the language.
Heather and I make a good team, there’s a subtle good-cop bad-cop play, as she assumes the role of the heavy and I the innocent. The first brocante is a metro ride away and we arrive just as it’s been assembled. It’s much higher-end than the church bazaar, real jewelry and beautiful antique household objects I dream of being able to transport back to Canada. One stall held many items appealing to me: antique nighties, lace collared blouses and pinafores with schoolgirl charm, and one gorgeous black silk, lace and velvet dress from early 20th century. Dating to about 1914-1920, it appears to have been made for me; from its sheer silk tiny pleated panel to the hand lace overlay and velvet trim ... to the long velvet bow at the neckline ... both formal and relaxed, chic and childish. I’m in love. The older woman behind the tables is very cool and stylish, a sharp grey bob and wise expression. We barter with her a little but she’s firm in her knowledge of the standout dress. I marvel at the rest of her stall, and spy her morning teacup of dark hot chocolate, overflowing onto a saucer and napkin, rivulets of chocolate pouring down the white porcelain in a decadent delicious display. I like her and I am in love with the dress. She gives me her card so I can send a photo of me wearing it. ‘Genevieve Klein, Antiquité Brocante’.
We move on to an outdoor brocante boasting many vendors of artwork and objects. On the way we find a tiny coffee shop in a corridor and are delighted that the gentleman working allows us to order toast and marmalade with our allongés though it is not on menu.
This market is predominantly male vendors and they joke and comment to us, especially when they find out I’m not French. Having started the day with such a quality item, my taste is somewhat sharpened and I am not settling for anything I could find elsewhere. However there are many paintings and knick-knacks to quench my thirst. The best clothing at this sale is a collection of French military and navy items, kept by a burly man who was dressed the part. Heather and I both are drawn to a charcoal and pencil drawing of a hand in a sleeve lined in pearls; and when I talk it down from 50 euro to 25, it is mine. The artwork, dated 1896, is alluring though strange, well done and yet amateur. A classically drawn, cherubic hand reaches out to - something, someone? It is unclear. I make off with a sweet tin horse and a silver pin of a guillotine besides. A little bit of popular culture, emblematic of the French Revolution. We’re having fun...
We stop for some hard bread and cheese in a park. The third rummage, in a northwest part of Paris, circles a midcentury apartment block and offers a true blend of low and highbrow, people simply emptying their closets and others with more serious wares. The fashions are mostly of lower quality but Heather and I find a few gems in the way of some quality drawings of beautiful French men in a folio. The day thus draws to a close, our feet and eyes tired and satiated.
Our next rummage isn’t until we leave Paris for the small town of Angers, on a road trip to see the Apocalypse Tapestry. But we’ve planned to make stop in a community called Chilly Mazarin, for an outdoor rummage boasting many vendors.
A mix of outdoor mall, basement finds, and antique market, we quickly discover the only glamorous garment of the bunch: this amazing cropped black leather jacket. A tiny nipped-in waist cropped very high, broad rounded shoulders, and brass hardware is the standouts of this very cool and simple jacket. We talk him down from 40 to 30 euro, but the man is so sweet and really wants me to have the jacket. It is made in Cyprus, Greece, and I feel like one of the 1980s powerhouse supermodels in it. I only think about it for a few minutes before I know I cannot leave without it. We eat French fries and drink black coffee in satisfaction.
I must wait until Easter weekend for my next brocante, a two-day extravaganza at Rue de Aligre. I’m still looking for a few things, and my days are dearly numbered. I know to take it easy the first day of this particular sale, as the second day will be when the brocanteurs are really showing off their best.
I get distracted off the gate by a thin gold strand deep within a knotted clump of several other necklaces. It’s a real mess, but I am charmed by this chain of thin link interspersed with gold balls covered in an even finer gold chain-link. The brocanteur laughs at me as I begin to untangle the bunch. “Bonne chance Madame,” he remarks, raised eyebrow in my direction. But the sunlight and the chains entrance me and in my determination, to the surprise of the vendor, one by one I patiently separate the necklaces. The one I like is the only one that’s worth a damn. “Regarde monsieur!” I indicate to the four necklaces, now neatly laid out on his table. He says a bunch of words to me and I recognize something along the lines of “you are a very passionate woman, your passion shows you result.” I ask him how much for the chain, “Pour toi? Un cadeau!” And so, I’ve gained an admirer and a gift for my ten minutes of labour.
Later within the piles I find the day dress I’ve needed, something of simple and demure style, to be easily thrown on for working at my studio or daytime errands in cool spring weather. This dress, a black button-down sailor cut, is really nothing so special but still appealing: Kookai is a common French label with shops everywhere in Europe and North America, and the dress itself is a modern viscose, but with elegant enough details and very nice buttons, all intact. I talk the woman down from 25 euro to 5 euro.
Another goal was to find a piece of silk to wrap around my neck as a scarf. I do find a nice piece, black sheer with stripes and lines of gold thread. The woman tells me she’ll be back the next day with far more, and I talk her down as much as I can. She tells me the fabric is from the 1930s and if I don’t want it, someone else will surely buy it. She’s a tough one, and doesn’t realize I am experienced in the ways of fabric. Nonetheless I leave with the silk and anticipation for the following day, Easter .
The brocante has doubled, nay tripled overnight, and we decide to take it slow and go through as much as we can in the light rain. There are many beautiful fashions, most of them out of my price range. A woman has a stall with much designer vintage, and I notice again how expensive vintage fashions are in Paris compared to in Toronto. Things we would see as common on our vintage circuit are priced much higher in the vintage shops and at brocantes here, although the quality is very good and there is far more designer vintage here in Paris.
A portly man with poor mobility has a stall of fashions and antique hats and jewelry. He talks up his wares, as I dig through the pile. Slowly pulling out what I believed at first to be a scarf, I discover a deceptively simple dress, plaid burnout velvet on black sheer, in a straight cut and without any frills or accoutrements. It strikes me as a perfect garment: so comfortable to wear, very elegant, easy to dress up or down, and sexy without even trying. The layout of the lines in the plaid are intelligently executed, with coverage where needed and sheer windows open to excite. There is no label, and as I examine the workmanship and quality I realize that this is someone’s carefully homemade garment. I love the idea of some French woman making this dress only for it later to find its way into my wardrobe. It seems as though it’s always been in my wardrobe. He asks only 15 euro, but I tell him in French that I will only give him 8 for it. He acts disgusted at first, as they all do, huffing and puffing and behaving as though I’ve insulted him, and then a breath later agrees, “Oui, oui Madame, huit euro...” ... I also make off with a tiny black wool skull-cap, made with simple lines and reminiscent of my beloved harlequin, on an elastic strap for 1 euro.
I remain judicial and discriminatory as I continue my search. There is a woman with a stall of gorgeous antique bed jackets and night dresses, linens, lace and fabrics, all so tempting, but far too expensive. The same woman from the day before has quadrupled her messy tent, and standing broadly in her aprons, seems to gather the most fashionable women from the brocante to dig through her piles. Her friend is helping her today, a small woman in a cardigan who resembles Harry Potter and has eyes like a bird. She suggests a few items to me and I almost purchase 3 metres of black sheer fabric with black tulips on it, but it’s not silk and the price is a bit too high, though I am still wishing today I could have taken it and just forsaken eating or some other pleasure.
At the last stall I visit, as we grow weary, a brocade fabric glows out at me from the crack in a suitcase. I pull it out to reveal a small jacket of dense jewel tones in a unique pattern, colourful and golden, shiny and austere. It is unlike anything I would ever think of wanting but it draws me in despite its ostentatious appearance. The pattern is geometric and bold, staring at me like so many eyes, and reminds me of something a child would receive to wear to a party. I put it on to the delight of many onlookers. The woman at the stall holds up a mirror. Men nearby nod in satisfaction. A small cluster of women hover, ready to make a move should I turn the garment down. But its bright shine has pierced my heart and I am had. At the small price of 8 euro, I am delighted, ending my rummage on a high.
We float to a nearby bar, a comfortable place that is not touristy and where we are treated well by the staff. Others from the sale recognize us and compare their wares. The brocade jacket gleams out of my bag, turning the heads of other young ladies at the bar. I feel satisfied and charmed by my finds over the last two weeks. Slowly drinking the evening away with friends seems the perfect way to contemplate my new bevy of old treasures from the brocantes of Paris.