Letter from Portugal: To a Portuguese Nun


First Person

Around the sixth day of my trip to Portugal, I forced myself to accept the fact that I would not be returning home with vast quantities of convent-made lingerie, replete with handwork and bobbin lace. Not, I assure you, for lack of trying. When something doesn’t exist, as a hundred thousand visitors to Loch Ness will tell you, finding it makes for very tough work.

Why the obsession, you ask? Well, I will tell you. First, I happened to reread Rebecca just before we left. Do you remember when Mrs. Danvers shows the narrator Rebecca’s exquisite nightdress, folded and left waiting for her in a silk case? “Here is her nightdress … how soft and light it is, isn’t it? … They were specially made by nuns of St. Claire.” This alone would have been enough to fire my imagination: this one garment, after all, serves as a symbol of Rebecca’s unattainable perfection: delicate, beautiful, worthy not merely of the most exquisite things but of the work it entails. Somehow both ethereally pure and erotically charged. A sex goddess blessed by Brides of Christ. No wonder the nameless narrator is intimidated.

Then, flipping through D.V., I ran across the passage wherein Mrs. Vreeland describes her London lingerie atelier:

The most beautiful work was done in a Spanish convent in London, and that’s where I spent my time. There was a brief period in my life when I spent all my time in convents. I was never not on my way to see the mother superior for the afternoon. “I want it rolled!” I’d say. “I don’t want it hemmed, I want it r-r-r-rolled!”

And a conviction grew in my breast: I would return to New York with a wearable piece of the Old World. Who, after all, would not want to be swathed in the finest of silks and laces, like a belle epoque heiress setting out to conquer Europe? I didn’t demand a trousseau, just a nightgown. Maybe a matching robe (although obviously in this case it would be a peignoir). And even as I realized that inflation would probably render the garment somewhat more expensive than the twelve dollars Mrs. Vreeland cites and that I probably wouldn’t have time for the three fittings she mentions, the whole thing seemed very manageable from my Manhattan living room.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Portugal? Nothing, I know: I may be a fool, but am not quite a total ignoramus. I know perfectly well that the bulk of religious orders were dissolved in 1833. But I liked my chances: Wasn’t Madeira famous for its embroidery? Can’t one still get perfectly fitted gloves at Luvaria Ulisses or shirts at Camisaria Pitta? I kept reading about different sweets made by nuns in the Azores; surely between bouts of candymaking they had time for a little hem rolling?

Sure, one can buy exquisite things in New York. Many are the hours I’ve whiled away fondling the Carine Gilson creations in the Barneys lingerie department like some kind of creepy pervert or longingly wandering the floor of Kiki de Montparnasse. But even if I could justify such expenditures, at best I’d be play-acting at being wealthy. And what I wanted was to evoke another time: a time when, for all its faults, quality was an affordable luxury and beauty was given its due. Or so I told myself.

In New York, it is easy to worship at the altar of the sepia toned. We mourn as bits of our history slip away, victims of developers and chain stores, and anything more than fifty years old begins to take on a certain value: vintage neon, the ghosts of faded signs on the side of a freshly revealed brick wall. It is meet and right so to do. Old is good; preservation is sacred, or ought to be. I relish my meals at restaurants long past their prime and congratulate myself on supporting the small family businesses.

Go to another country, of course, and our treasures seem paltry indeed. History is measured differently. These ancient places can afford to be spendthrift with their gifts. Tourists love Portugal in part because so much of it seems to our eyes preserved in amber, a function not merely of an innate respect for the country’s history, but of its poverty and, of course, the deliberate efforts of decades of repressive government. The Salazar regime was devoted to the preservation of traditional crafts and industries—the beautifully packaged sardines and storefronts seemingly untouched by time are wonderful, and delight a traveler’s eye, but then, it’s a tourist’s prerogative to ignore ambivalence and complication and go back to our hotels at the end of the day.

I guess, in my imaginings, I’d just stumble about dozens of tiny shops filled with the nun-made lingerie. I hadn’t really thought it through all that well. When a few days’ wandering failed to uncover any, I tried the unreliable Internet at my pension and quickly discovered that it is supremely unwise to type nuns and lingerie into the same search field.

I don’t want to suggest I didn’t see anything of an unmentionable nature. There were neighborhood stores selling utilitarian goods; I tried to make a purchase in each one I entered and ended up with a small pile of cotton boy shorts. I encountered one lingerie place, apparently a national chain, again and again: the neon bra in the window had shiny, bejeweled bits of metal for straps, invariably sided by a particularly grotesque pair of men’s briefs with a picture of a cartoonish, squalling baby over the crotch, displayed on a well-endowed plastic half-mannequin.

In Sintra, I visited a promising shop selling slightly dowdy, expensive silk robes. I asked hopefully where they had been made. South Africa, I was told.

I minded less the longer I was there, as my imaginings gave over to a far more interesting reality. We made friends. Many of the young people we met were eager to come to New York. “Everything here is old,” shrugged one student, dismissively. I did not ask anyone where to find lingerie made by nuns. The sisters I did see on the cobbled streets were in full habits. They looked like they had better things to do than ruin their eyes clothing tourists.

On our very last day, I found myself passing a large lingerie shop, and almost out of habit, I detoured in. It was a pleasant space made over to resemble a vintage boudoir, with sweeping draperies and soft pink walls. Many of the wares were delightfully retro—fifties-styled sets that immediately caught my eye. I asked for a dressing room in fumbling Portuguese, although it soon turned out that the clerk, Magdalene, spoke excellent English. She led me to a curtained alcove on an upper floor. I did not need the complimentary fitting—the Orthodox savants on New York’s Lower East Side saw to that years ago—but this being Europe, she hung around anyway while I tried things on. Although slightly curious—I didn’t really understand why she needed to see how the whole set fit—this was less awkward than it might seem, and we soon got to chatting. Her parents were from Spain. She loved Lisbon but longed to visit New York. She and all the women in her family were an awkward size to fit, so she liked helping other women find the right bra.

“Your mother must be happy to have an expert in the family,” I said, laying aside the pieces we’d decided fit best.

“Yes,” she said. “But at first she was disappointed. She is very old-fashioned. She wanted me to be a nun.”

The next morning, we returned home.