Saturday, 2 June 2012


In case you missed it, among the remarkable presents I received for my birthday was a personal shopper. When Morag announced it at my reception, my first thought was: “Oh my god, are they saying that I have such a bad taste in clothes that I need assistance?” I hope that they didn't mean it so, but still this unusual present has provided some food for thought.

I have now met my personal shopper, Jane, to talk through our plans, and in a way it was as strong a shock as a session in therapy. She asked me about my colour preferences, and what kind of clothes I have and feel comfortable with, and how many pairs of shoes I have, and whether I wear jewellery, and how long it takes me in the morning to decide what to wear. And I told her that I hated pink and yellow, that since thirty years ago I always wear sensible shoes, that shopping is a nightmare, and that I am highly aware of what I am wearing because I myself always watch what other people are wearing. And that I was open for all ideas and prepared for a total makeover.

Since she is obviously a professional, she seemed to understand everything I was saying. As we parted, agreeing that I would take pictures of myself in different outfits, I couldn't but go on thinking about my complex sartorial attitudes.

I have some pictures of myself as a very young child wearing unbelievably ugly clothes, but it was over fifty years ago and in a country where consumer goods were not the first and not even second priority. But I also have pictures – and memories – of very pretty clothes, which, as I realise now, originated from a skeleton in the family wardrobe and stopped when the skeleton was removed. After that, my mother or the family seamstress made most of my clothes. Some were horrible scratchy knitted things that I hated. But most of them were, looking back, quite nice – only they were different. Nobody I knew had pleated skirts, nobody had winter coats with fur-trimmed hoods, other girls didn't wear trousers. I really admire my mother who managed to get me decent outfits, but she never asked me whether I liked my clothes, and the few times I refused to put something on she called me an ungrateful pig. Mind, my mother was always elegant, at home, at work, at parties and on holidays. I set my standards after her.

When I was fourteen, one of my mother's friends said to her: “Why does your daughter always wear such ugly clothes? She is a young lady, you must get her nice things”. Which resulted in my mother getting me nice things on the black market, which I know was not cheap. She even got me a pair of Levi's which must have cost a fortune. Just to give you an idea: a pair of jeans or a pair of boots cost about an average monthly salary. Don't ask me how people managed. To complement clothes from the black market, we all went on knitting (when we could get hold of wool) and making dresses, blouses, skirts and even trousers (when we could get hold of fabrics). Patterns were valuable and generously shared, as were buttons, hooks, zippers and ribbons.

But there were many things you couldn't make that suddenly became fashionable, like turtle-neck shirts or even T-shirts, net stockings, leather coats and jackets, and of course shoes and boots were always a problem. Everybody knew the black market prices, so wearing certain clothes was a matter of prestige. Tights were tremendously expensive, even when they were occasionally available in shops (I mean, expensive as in a tenth of your salary), therefore trousers came as a blessing: you could always wear tights with ladders under trousers. It took, however, years before trousers were accepted as women's attire. I remember I wore trousers in my second university year and was considered exceptionally brave. I wasn't expelled though, which could easily had happened some years before. 

To anticipate the question where things came from, I hurry to say: I don't know. There was always a friend of a friend of a friend. When there was something on offer you bought it whether you needed it or not, because there would always be someone who wanted it. You didn't think whether the piece fit with what you had. You weren't particular about sizes or colours.

If you think all this makes one's attitudes to clothes somewhat traumatic, you are absolutely right.

To be continued.


Stroppy Author said...

That is so interesting, Maria. But please could you explain what you mean about the things that originated with the skeleton? I have a vision of skeleton sitting in the wardrobe making things you didn't like!

Maria Nikolajeva said...

No, it's much more prosaic. There was a person who most likely, 99% sure was my biological grandfather. He was accompanist to a world-famous violinist, and they would go on world tours. He would bring me pretty clothes and toys. Then suddenly he wasn't longer accepted in our family, and there were no more presents.