The Romanian Blouse

Romania-my father’s country-is a place so mystical in beliefs and traditions that it’s really known for little else. Fortune-tellers, vampires and gypsies are generally people’s go-to associations (much to Dad’s resentment-he’s a scientist and long-time American citizen, eschewing any witchy, old-world identity). But there is actually a deep spirituality in the people that goes beyond the Disneyfication stuff and it plays out in really authentic, magic-making ways.

The blouse is the totem of Romanian folk dress and most people’s idea of a peasant top, with dense bands of embroidered geometric motifs and long, exaggerated sleeves. It’s has been co-opted up and down the fashion spectrum, from dumb, fast fashion brands like Urban Outfitters to amazing designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier. It got art world glory when Matisse painted it so vibrantly in his “La Blouse Roumaine” as an antidote to the darkest wartime years. Queen Mary of Romania made it her signature to show allegiance with her people.

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But beyond the pop celebration of the blouse is its secret life-a mystical narrative that has gotten a bit lost in so many generations of appropriation.

The magic is in the making. Designed and woven by a woman essentially writing her own destiny, it’s a powerful tool for manifestation. Every stitch in the motif is intentional and meaningful as she embroiders her wishes and will into the piece with symbols of fertility, love and spells against evil. There is an alphabet to it. A tree or branch represents wisdom and renewal. The sunflower means abundance-an especially meaningful symbol if you understand the importance of the sun in Romania, a traditionally agricultural society.

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On the rather witchy national holiday of Sanziene, or the Festival of Fairies, village women wear their blouse and handwoven crown of flowers, grab their love interest, and dance with them around a bonfire. Then a bizarre and somewhat macabre tradition ensues: the crowns are thrown onto the roofs of the village houses. If the crown falls, it’s said that death will befall the owners; if it stays up, then they see good harvest and abundance.

It’s said that later that night, the heavens open up, making it a favorable time for magic spells. Also, plants harvested have magical powers.

I own a few Romanian blouses. And a strange thing about wearing it is I feel more…intrinsically me. Like I’ve become a stripped down, transcendental version of myself. I exist in relation to nothing. I feel free of references. Or maybe I exist only in relation to myself. I am my own source. So is this an ego-dissolving exercise? Or maybe a reinforcement of cultural identity (the opposite of dissolving the ego I guess…maybe there is conflict there..hmm). It’s not a new idea, to clothe ourselves in the dress of our ancestors in effort to connect with them. In any case, I feel at home.

A funny thing happened as I was searching for images for this post. I stumbled upon a photo of Smaranda Braescu, the first Romanian pilot and record-breaking parachutist, nicknamed the Queen of Heights. She is seated in a cockpit, perhaps about to take off. I studied her image: her expression-a devilish grin-shows she is immensely pleased with herself. The twist of her body as she seems to be turning to onlookers and saying, “Goodbye and fuck you, I am going to go live my life!” Her hair, tied into two braids, so nationalistic and proud.  And then there is the blouse. An odd choice for a flight suit, totally out-of-context and yet fitting because it supports this powerful air of defiance and irreverence that she has.

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So I stare at this image-and burst into tears. She looks free. Superfluously happy, uncaring, ready to soar into the sky, conceding to no one’s idea of what it meant for a woman to fly and to jump out of airplanes in the 1920s. She’s who I aspire to be. And this moment is all wrapped up in these other beloved associations I’m having right now: The blouse and this girl-they are about Dad, about roots, about the divine feminine and probably a bunch of other stuff but I’m too emotional to sort it out completely.

And the blouse is this billowy, breezy armor shielding her from any outside crap. It shelters and separates. Like the proverbial veil between two worlds-the physical and the spiritual. She should be in her bomber jacket, being protected from sub zero temperatures but right now she is shrouded in a more spiritual kind of protection.

What can I say-this post is coming out differently than I had thought. And this blouse feels even more transportive than when I set out to write about it. I want to be this girl, and that’s why I’m getting myself into a tizzy, but really these are kind of cathartic tears of love. I have love for her and I want to inhabit such a kind of place in this world as she. I want to find all the joy, autonomy and creative fulfillment that she has. But I’ve got my blouse, and the protection of my ancestors and my own kind of magical narrative that I write for myself, so I think I’ll get to where I’m going. Xo

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Marchesa Luisa Casati

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A lot has been said about Marchesa Luisa Casati but the words of her lover Augustus John take the cake: “She should be shot, stuffed and displayed in a glass case,” he wrote after their affair. It’s hard to gage whether this was spoken with affection or bitterness but the comment reveals his admiration. I can only hope someone speaks of me some day with such violence! casati4

It’s hard to pin down exactly what she did to earn such fame. She was an heiress, a socialite, an occultist, a muse and patron of the arts. But more notable was what she stood for in this sometimes-basic world. She was a destroyer of mediocrity and creature of her own design-or what she referred to herself as, “a living work of art.” It’s why we are still inspired by her, decades after her Gilded Age heyday. And the reason I’m writing about her. The Marchesa was an early pioneer in the law of manifesting. Create the life you want, build yourself as the person you want to be. You are your own canvas.

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Who did she want to be so badly? I think her eccentricities are surface level to us at this point. We know what she wore and who she slept with. Otherwise she seems impossibly mysterious to me. To sit down with her and pick her brain…that’s the person in history I’d have dinner with. I can’t imagine she was very accessible even in her time. I mean, she dined with wax figures of herself just to freak people out and conducted seances, generally eschewing normal interpersonal relationships. And was so on the fringe of what was fashionable or acceptable that I think she had no choice but to feel cut off. She spoke to this aloneness when asked to comment on a trip to New York:

“Women of the world today all dress alike. They are like so many loaves of bread. To be beautiful one must be unhurried. Personality is needed. There is too much sameness. The world seems to have only a desire for more of this sameness. To be different is to be alone. I do not like what is average. So I am alone.” Substitute “bread” with “Louboutins” and truer words were never spoken even today.

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casati9casati6-2 casati7-2True that she didn’t look like anybody else. She wore black during a time when it was considered only a color for mourning. She bleached her skin white and dyed her hair red. Lined her eyes in coal, glued false eyelashes and strips of black velvet along her lids. And perhaps most terrifyingly – took regular doses of the poisonous, pupil-dilating plant Belladonna to further accentuate her phantom-like gaze. She wasn’t interested in food (preferring to graze on gin and opium) and stood six feet. I think even by today’s standards, she would be a spectacle.

She had homes all over the world which she decked out to a maximum fantasy-like space. She literally feathered her nest, keeping a menagerie of albino peacocks for pets, as well as cheetahs on diamond leashes, pink-powdered greyhounds, a gorilla, a boa constrictor (which sometimes stood in for a necklace when the mood struck her), and of course her lamentable nude and nubian gold-painted servants. They cohabited together in her jungle villa on the Venice canal.

There, she hosted extravagant parties to showcase her outrageous costumes. A dress made of light bulbs powered by a generator. A suit of armor pierced with electrified arrows (that nearly killed her). Always with the intention to commission her own immortality, she made sure such fashion moments were captured. She was muse to all the greats of her time, including Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Giovanni Boldini and Romaine Brooks.  

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By the end of her life, she was penniless but more enigmatic than ever, wearing newspaper for a scarf and communicating with loved ones only via telepathy. She died in her one-room flat after a seance. She was buried with her taxidermied pekinese.

The final chapter is dark but I think she achieved what she set out to do-she’s managed to be an ongoing and ceaseless work of art as inspiration to so many still today. And I would point out that she never seemed to have a grasp of moderation, squandering her savings on drugs, parties, image-making and magic spells. Anyone who really wants to manifest must remember to keep their feet on the ground as they keep their dreams alive. A bit of a cautionary tale.

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So I Created My Life

I’ve magically come into so many pieces of clothing that I coveted that one day my homegirl/Goddess sister/co-witch who I discuss magic and manifestation with said, “You’ve got to start writing this stuff down.” And thus this project was birthed.

Sometimes it’s through very intentional, magical thinking and sometimes it’s just pure serendipity. Like the time I decided one day that I wanted a blue or black Polo baseball cap. I announced it to whoever was listening at work: “I want a Polo baseball hat.” Five hours later, on my way home from the office, I stumbled upon said-hat hat strewn on the sidewalk, a few buildings away from my apartment (I laundered it). It was blue. Which supports a theory I have-when we want something, there is power in words. It’s good to “set your intention” and pray but if you say it out loud, I think the vibration is stronger. 

Then there was the time I regrettably gave away this leather and brass feather pendant. I loved that pendant, but a girlfriend admired it so much that I gave it to her. I immediately felt the pang of losing it but told myself, “it will come back to you.” The universe has laws and this is one of them. You gave and so you will get back. I searched for it on ebay but it was too expensive, like in the hundreds, so I decided to just let it magically arrive in whatever way it saw fit. A week later, I found the very same pendant in a vintage store in Brooklyn. I spent about 10 bucks on it.

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One day I decided to really get organized about what and how I might best manifest. I made two to-do lists: One for myself and one for the universe (I can’t take credit for this idea-Read “Ask and It Is Given,” a classic book on manifesting by Esther and Jerry Hicks). Because the act of creation is a two-part process: ASK for what you want from your higher power and intend it through prayer/spells/conversations with Goddess and then be in a place of expecting and receiving. Feel that it is yours before it is yours. Because this is an emotional universe that operates on feelings.

So here are my lists:

to do – ME
Meditate
Brush up on Italian
Cut back on candy

to do – THE UNIVERSE
Keep me in the flow of well-being
Bring me a work promotion
Deliver me a Chanel bag

There were more items on the list but you get the gist. “The flow of well-being” is an expression I read that more or less means you encounter serendipity and good luck wherever you go. You’re in flow. And I threw Chanel in for fun. Because making this list is really just playtime. Why not ask for the holy grail? You have nothing to lose! I imagined what I might wear it with, where I might take it. I’ve been wanting to go to Polo Bar, wouldn’t it be fun to take my new Chanel bag? I realize this is all so silly, but that’s the point. This is your creative time and no one needs to know anything unless you blog about it. 

So I did my part. I meditated on getting more out of my job. I cut back on sweets. I listened to Italian radio. And in my meditations and daydreams, I would imagine my boss delivering the news of my promotion, and celebrating with my quilted Chanel bag at Polo Bar. 

About a week after I made that list, my sister texted. “Pere (her husband) gave me a new Chanel. Do you want my old one?”

About 6 months later, I got that promotion.

Was I being kept in the flow of well-being? I guess that’s a pretty intangible wish, subject to debate. But with my new bag and promotion I feel like it’s safe to say that I am.

I’ve since then gone back and made a list of all the things I’ve manifested and in parenthesis, noted how long it took for them to manifest. It’s an interesting exercise and I recommend trying it. Patterns pop out. What strikes me is that the less important the wish (Chanel bag, feather pendant, just…stuff), the quicker it’s delivered. But jobs and people that I have wanted, those took anywhere from six months to ten years. I think there’s a lesson in there. When it really matters-when we’re talking about the stuff that really counts and not just a bag-we have to exercise patience in the universe bringing to us what we ask. And trust that it will be delivered to us when the time or way is right and not necessarily when or how we want it. Be patient, do your part, ask and it is given.

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“My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” -Coco Chanel