On one level, this movie is fluffy fairy tale. On another, it’s parable. Let’s look at that angle.
Simple plot: London cleaning lady sees a wealthy employer’s Dior dress and longs for one. The beautiful garment sets Mrs. Harris’ imagination flying; no practical considerations interfere. A long, improbable sequence results where she eventually accumulates enough money, flies to Paris and attends a designer fashion show. As she watches one beautiful garment after another on a series of graceful models, the look on her face is pure delight. A war widow, her usual attire is shabby apron. She is more accustomed to hanging, cleaning and mending other peoples’ clothes than owning anything lovely herself. Her cheeky cockney comments puncture the other-worldly atmosphere of French haute couture. Again defying reality, she makes friends there and orders her dress.
The only realistic note in this sugar-spun tale is the garbage collector’s strike, so scenes of Paris are strewn with piles of rubbish even the formidable Mrs. Harris can’t clean up. (She has briskly arranged a romance, threatened a garment workers’ strike and helped direct the house of Dior towards a more sustainable future, marketing an accessible, affordable line.) But like Cinderella, she returns to her dismal London flat and lonely life. With a few last-minute saves, the film ends on a happy note. But more important elements of parable underlie the plot.
Garment metaphors in Scripture begin with God’s gentle question to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:1-21, “who told you that you were naked?” In the final verse of that passage, God like a protective mum makes soft “garments of skin” to clothe them. Isaiah 61:10 says that God clothes us as bride and bridegroom adorn themselves. The father of the prodigal son clothes him with “the best” robe, sandals and ring to restore his lost dignity (Luke 15:11-32). Our identity is affected by what we wear: contrast the doctor or nurse in white coat or scrubs with their at-home attire of jeans and sweats. Sometimes in a new shirt, we feel like “hot stuff.”
African-American theologian and author Howard Thurman learned from his grandmother that knowing one was God’s daughter or son affirmed the dignity even of slaves. He writes in Jesus and the Disinherited: “And you know, when my grandmother said that she would unconsciously straighten up, head high and chest out, and a faraway look would come on her face.”
Ah, Mrs. Harris, internal daughter of royalty beneath your apron and beyond your floor scrubbing! If we truly believe in our inherent dignity and preciousness to God, then aren’t we all the cleaning lady lifted into the swishing beauty, the dream of what-could-be?