A couple of weeks ago in Berlin we went off down to where the square ladies shop.  There are a lot of square ladies in Berlin; small, veiled Turkish women who appear as wide as they are tall. These square ladies know their onions, so we shop where they shop to get the best and the freshest in fruit and vegetables. It was a bitterly cold day, cusping the harsh winter and the tentative beginning of spring and would be therefore, my last chance to don my gilet of multi-coloured fur.


As it was lunchtime, we went to the ‘Backshop’, chose our cheese and spinach pastries, our tri-corn chocolate nut cookies and our milchcaffes and as the café was crowded, took them outside to drink, sitting in the cane chairs on the pavement in front of the shop, wrapped in the fleece blankets provided.  When we first started going to Berlin I thought the Prussians must suffer a lot of lumbar problems to warrant so many ‘Backshops” which – in Dublin at least – sell ergonomic chairs and spine pain alleviating equipment.  Then, in Berlin, I saw not lumbar supports, in the windows, but loaves and rolls, and smelled the yeasty aroma.


We were sitting happily munching, watching the (mainly Turkish) world go by, when a couple of young guys passed, and one fellow looked in my direction, laughed to his friend and said “es ist Allerleirauh!” I only caught it as he passed and didn’t get a chance to jump up and hug him for recognizing my winter persona as an ancient fairytale princess (Long before ‘Frozen’!)


My reincarnation began last year on the feast of St André.  Each year on the first Tuesday of December the centre of the city of Annecy in the Haute Savoie in the French Alps (next stop Geneva) is taken over by a huge market.   There are stalls on every street and the shops put counters of sale stock outside their doors. Dealers arrive from all over the country in trucks full of cheap Asian clothing, wool socks and white porcelain from Limoges.  Amongst the whittled wooden Alpine artifacts and red and white table linens of the Savoie are the ubiquitous South American pan pipe players dressed in feathers and chamois.  Music also plays from the loudspeakers of CD vendors and from local groups (mainly middle age to elder) of folk dancers clogging it away a-top the open bed of a juggernaut, accompanied by myriad swaying accordions. The cold December air is full of the smell of roasting meat and chestnuts, melting cheese, boiling fat for frites and as darkness falls, the warm spicy aroma of vin chaud.  The favoured snack is a large baguette filled from the bubbling centre of a half moon of Reblochon, cooking on a spit.  Into the elastic liquid is pressed a shoveling of pommes frites and the whole is sandwiched together for eating on the hoof. We have one a year. Otherwise, one would die. 


Ubiquitous last year (2010) were scarves of bobbled rabbit fur and dresses and coats in synthetics and wool shoddy labelled “Tendence Desigual” – cheap designs based on the Spanish fashion company which uses patches of brightly coloured materials, strange collages and stitched narrative to make up their designs. There was also a stall selling fur clothing, fabricated no doubt in China and brought up by the vendors along the spine of the Alps from Provence. It was there I saw a sleeveless jacket, hip length, zipped, made from a patchwork of small pieces of multi-coloured fur – fox or lapin, maybe a mix of both.   I bought the jacket and when I put it on, instantly become the princess Allerleirauh “A Thousand Skins”.


Once upon a time there was a King who promised his wife on her deathbed he would only re-marry a woman as beautiful as she. Bereaved, for a long time he had no thoughts of taking a new wife, but was counseled that the kingdom needed a queen.  Messengers were sent to look for a woman whose beauty equalled that of his wife, but in the entire world, none was found. For years, the King remained a lonely widower. 


The King had a daughter, just as beautiful as her dead mother and in time she grew up and one day the King looked at the young woman and had an idea.  He told his councillors: “I will marry my daughter.” The councillors were shocked and warned that such a deed was against God and a crime from which no good would come.  The daughter was even more shocked when she learned of her father’s resolve. In an effort to stave off the evil day, she said that before the wedding could take place, she must have a dress as gold as the sun, a dress as silver as the moon, a dress as bright as the stars (both so fine they would fit inside a walnut shell) and a mantle of one thousand different furs woven together; one skin from every type of animal in the kingdom. The King sent out his hunters and summoned his cleverest seamstresses to create the clothing. When they were all ready, the King declared the wedding for the next day.


The Princess saw she there was no way out of the marriage except escape, so that night, she folded the dresses into the nutshell, put on her coat of a thousand furs, blackened her face and hands with soot and commending herself to God, sneaked out of the silent palace.  She walked all night long until at daybreak she reached a great forest where she fell asleep, hidden in a hollowed tree.


It so happened that the king of this particular forest was out hunting and when his dogs came to the tree, they ran around it, sniffing and barking. The King ordered his huntsmen to investigate what kind of animal was hiding there.  The huntsmen returned saying they had found a wondrous beast with fur of a thousand different kinds and the King ordered them to catch the beast. The Princess awoke in terror and cried out saying that she was just a poor deserted child, and begged that they would take pity on her and not harm her. “Allerleiruah” they said “thou wilt be useful in the kitchen, come with us and thou canst sweep up the ashes. ” They put her at the back of the carriage and took her to their palace where they showed her a closet under the stairs and said “Hairy animal, here canst thou live and sleep.” So the beautiful princess became Allerleiruah “A Thousand Skins” and for a long time she lived in great wretchedness, working in the kitchen, carrying wood and water, sweeping the hearth, plucking fowls, cleaning vegetables for the cook.


In stories, beautiful princesses who run away for the sake of their virtue do not continue to live in wretchedness all their lives….but you must read the story of Allerleiruah yourself to discover the ending……….


Meanwhile, back in the twenty first century as the Gulf Stream changes course, I am snug and warm in my coat of a thousand furs. On the last season of the “Ugly Betty” television series about a New York fashion magazine, their most stylish character appeared in a long, belted version of my patchwork fur and I saw the same in a Berlin shop for €2,000.  So throughout the winter I wear my gilet and the persona of the virtuous princess with pride.  That was why I was not annoyed but rather delighted, to be recognized on the streets of Berlin as Allerleiruah, “A Thousand Furs.”

January 2017 update: That was 2011….and seven years since I bought my gilet of a thousand furs.  Over the years, many have sniggered at my penchant for patchwork…but not any more. The past two seasons AW15/6 and AW 16/7 they are everywhere, in both real and fake fur.  

This morning, with snow on the ground in Berlin, the world in anguish at the loss of Barak Obama, and slowly being pulled down and drowning in a swampy mire of increasing murk where sexual perversions became gleeful hashtags, I was glad to see colour and fun…… but then, one is pulled back to reality, where a powerful ruler, deserts his wife in one city, to go live with his daughter in another. 


Isabel Healy

Isabel Healy

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    This sounds a little like the Peau d’Ane story (Perrault) and Jacques Démy film of the same name where Catherine Deneuve gets her deluded dad to make her 3 dresses ” l’une couleur du temps, l’autre couleur de lune, la dernière couleur du soleil”. When this fails to dissuade his misplaced ardours she requests another gown, this time obliging the king to make the ultimate sacrifice, his favourite, magic, money-making donkey ‘s skin. Inevitably donkey skin ends up in a kitchen baking cakes until a handsome ( hungry?) prince decides she makes the best cup cakes this side of Greenwich village…… and you know the end of the story.
    Multi coloured fox is definitely classier than a dead donkey Isabel – and especially waiting for the limo outside the airport! (well okay, your very own prince P). Lovely to read you.

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