That Frock from Le Bon Marché

That Frock from Le Bon Marché. 

Today I am looking for that frock from Le Bon Marché.

I don’t know what that frock looks like, except that it would be circa 1904 and matches a coral necklace. I can’t be specific about the date of the dress. 

‘I wore that frock from the B Marche paris and the coral necklace …’ 

Those are the words of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Molly says her father’s friend, Mrs Stanhope, sent it to her. Lucky Molly! The ‘B Marche paris’ is, of course, Le Bon Marché River Gauche, the large department store on the corner of three streets: rue de Sèvres, rue de Babylone, and rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement of Paris.

Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838, and completely remodeled into the current opulent building opened in 1852. The novel Ulysses is set on one day: 16 June 1904. This is two years after James Joyce first went to Paris as a twenty-year old in 1902. 

It wasn’t until 1920 that Joyce returned to Paris. He commenced Ulysses in 1914, and it was completed and published in Paris in 1922. 

Rather cleverly, Joyce had Molly refer to the dress as ‘that frock’—which makes the date fluid. It is even possible ‘that frock’ was from 1903, but I think 1904 is more likely. 

James and Nora Joyce once lived in the Hotel Victoria Palace at 6 rue Blaise Desgoffe, a ten-minute walk from Le Bon Marché. For a whole year, actually, from August 1923 to October 1924, although notably after the publication of Ulysses. From the Hotel Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail where they stayed at the end of 1939, before evacuating Paris due to the war, Le Bon Marché is a mere five-minute walk down the street. It is such a grand store that Nora would definitely have visited whenever her husband was paid royalties for his writings. 

I depart from the vicinity of the Luxembourg Garden and travel along rue de Vaugirard, a long and interesting street. But I am not travelling its full distance. I cross Boulevard Raspail and rue de Rennes and head down rue Saint-Placide to rue de Sèvres.

Even before I see the impressive building of Le Bon Marché, I see the snaking line of masked customers, keeping one-metre social distancing, before entering in limited numbers. The two-month lockdown in France due to the Coronavirus pandemic was lifted on 11 May, but rules and restrictions apply, taking the fun out of shopping. Having visited Le Bon Marché multiple times, I don’t enter today. 

Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut instigated the construction of Le Bon Marché and commissioned architect Louis-Charles Boileau and engineer Gustave Eiffel—of Eiffel Tower fame. It was the first department store in the world, and therefore worth a visit in its own right. The three-floor mall-style building has a simple façade, because the focus was on the feature-laden interior. 

In any case, I would hardly find a turn-of the-20th-century frock in the store today, but I was looking for an excuse to shop. A coral necklace would certainly have been found. In this case, I prefer to shop in boutique stores along rue Saint-Placide—a far less restrictive experience. 

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