What Life in Communist Romania Taught Me About Fashion
I don’t harbor any nostalgia for communism, but I can’t deny the influence it had on my relationship with fashion.
Imagine Romania, circa 1980’s: rationed food, rationed gas, rationed hot and cold water, car curfews on Sundays, two hours of TV a day, freezing-cold apartments and exactly one “house of fashion” in each major city.
Although “Casa Modei” was only a pretentious tailor shop located in an elegant Main Street building, it gave status to its customers. In a society that demanded uniformity, where everyone drove the same type of car and lived in similar apartments, some of us saw fashion as a rare opportunity to be different.
Being well dressed required connections (to stores or factories producing for the West), a good eye and creativity. Having relatives who lived “Outside”, was also an advantage. Lucky for me, I had an uncle who not only lived in New York, but was also gay. He was impossibly stylish and very generous. He understood how to mix high end luxury pieces (that he would send me) with whatever I could get my hands on there, so he sent me trendy bags, designer sunglasses, jeans, designer jackets, cashmere sweaters (unheard of in Romania) and beautiful accessories. That was my first lesson in combining splurge/steal clothing.
While we wouldn’t want to recreate the conditions under which I developed my fashion sensibilities, I am happy to share with you important takeaways:
ALL YOUR CLOTHES SHOULD MAKE YOU HAPPY.
I had more than one dress as a teenager, but I can count them all on one hand. Most of them had the same story of origin. I designed it and found the right fabric and Grandma sewed it on her manual Singer Sewing Machine. My dresses were made with love and they made me happy. Like the one I wore to my first boyfriend’s birthday party. It was there I discovered that I wasn’t his only “girlfriend” invited to the party, but that doesn’t mar my fond memories for the floral, flounce hem, spaghetti strapped midi dress that saved the day for me.
NO MONEY? NO PROBLEM. YOUR CREATIVITY WILL KICK IN.
We didn’t have money, and most certainly we didn’t have Instagram to tell us how to look. We had to create, improvise, learn skills and take fashion risks.
Like making my prom dress from a dreamy Christian Dior nightgown sent to my mom by my uncle. A very feminine white gauzy cotton 1970s peasant style nightgown got an easy makeover with the help of an elastic waistband and a shirred hem. The result was a long and flowy bohemian number. I had such a good time dancing the night away in it, that I was able to let go of any ill-will I could have harbored against Courtney Love for getting credited for starting the lingerie dress trend in the nineties.
BUY QUALITY OR YOU’LL PAY TOO MUCH.
As I said, overspending was discouraged. At one point the food was so scarce that if someone was discovered with food rations (sugar, flower, oil) larger than a month’s supply, she could go to jail for six months. So I learned to recognize high quality clothing. Natural fabrics, metal zippers, buttons, good thread, and finished seams are all indicators of a quality item that was made to last, not just to be sold. There was a saying back then, “I am too poor to buy cheap stuff,” but its meaning is timeless and universal. So much so, I’m going to make it my personal mission to bring that expression back. (And while I’m at it, I’m also going to get the word out about Courtney Love taking credit for my idea!)
I miss those days of fashion freedom when the creative process was just as important as the end result. It’s a great lesson in the power of the human spirit and how adversity forces people to look for alternative pathways. I suppose it’s fitting this week to give thanks for all the experiences that life brings to us, because we never know where they might lead to. (Or what outfits we might get out of the situation.)
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