Remembering Anita Sarko


The vintage store in the West Village where I work as a buyer is an interesting study in the emotional hold clothes can have over us. We get people that come in trying to sell anything from Chanel to their ratty gym clothes. Often we assign different value to the piece than the seller does-either it’s worth nothing to us or it might have more value than they’d realized. That makes it a delicate process of negotiating with someone’s feelings about their belongings. It also reveals the story of their clothes…The meaning they imbue the garments with, the reason it might be time to let go or why it’s hard to give up what is essentially an extension of yourself.

We started getting a new regular, a seller. He would come in with the same battered leather attache case carrying about 15-20 pieces of clothing. Clients have the option to watch as we price their pieces and he always wanted to watch. He would patiently wait his turn and never argued with pricing. He was hard to get a gage on-we had the feeling only that it was difficult for him to sell the pieces. He seemed like a really nice guy.

The clothes were always womenswear. Really avant garde vintage. Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Biba. Obscure or unknown labels that reflected discerning taste. Stuff that made us wonder who this woman was. You knew she was on the fringe, that she had a really offbeat sensibility. There was this kind of language to the clothes she wore. She knew what she was doing.

Curiosity eventually got the best of us and Alma asked the seller where the clothes were coming from. They belonged to his wife. Anita Sarko. She had passed. Slowly he’s getting rid of stuff. There was just too much stuff. We felt for him, this nice, quiet guy who seemed attached to the treasures he was losing. We couldn’t help but want to know more about his story, or her story. So we googled.

She was a big nightlife personality in the 80s. A dj at a time when women didn’t really dj. She worked Mudd Club and runway shows for Vivienne Westwood and was Prince’s personal favorite. She was one of the first to play hip-hop downtown. She introduced Madonna and the Beastie Boys at Danceteria. Once she had ashtrays thrown at her for playing an extended set of African music. She was a pioneer.

We learned that as years passed, fame dwindled. She got fewer jobs. It seemed there wasn’t really a demand for a lady dj of-a-certain-age. Then about a year ago, she ended her life.

If you go to her instagram that her husband now runs, more parts of the puzzle come together. He references “the shitty 80s New York crew” throughout. The fairweather friends and colleagues who eventually wrote her off as washed up or fired her for being irrelevant. It’s one post after another. Enemies are photoshopped to look like a distorted caricature of themselves, or get a caption in angry red letters to say things like, “Fuck David ‘Cheap & Ugly’_____.” Her account is a shrine to her memory but also a shit list of those who wronged her.

One night, Liz, Mattie and Tyler were at Dylan Flannery’s show-Dylan creates this really avant garde music. Anita came up in conversation. What a tragic story about such a cool woman. And as they were talking, they realized-every one of them was wearing the clothes that her husband had sold in. Yet each had a totally different aesthetic from one another and found a way to make her beautiful pieces their own creation. So there they were, at this event to support their experimental art friend Dylan, and in a way they are all boundary-pushers in their time, wearing the clothes of this remarkable woman who pushed boundaries in hers.

Liz posted a photo of Anita on her instagram that night. She’s wearing a red bustier at the turntables. Liz commented, “tfw you realize you’re wearing the clothes of an NYC legend and all-around inspiring woman.” The husband must have seen the post. He must have known that we knew whose things we were buying in. He came in the next day and expressed how touched he was. He was thankful to learn that the clothes were getting the respect that they deserved. Because at the end of her life, Anita didn’t feel respected and that’s why she ended things. As a woman in a sexist, agist industry, she just didn’t get that respect. There’s a powerful message there. For someone so outside the box, who was such a pioneer, she still felt defeated. And no artist or woman of any age should ever have to feel that.

Mattie’s bridesmaids in Anita’s crazy-beautiful Vivienne Westwood corsets
Liz in Anita’s  1930s Chinese dragon-and-Phoenix  jacket and “Wearable Energy” by Frances Colon two-piece (if anyone has any leads on this amazing label, let us know!!!)

The Psychic Life of Clothes

*Originally published in The Babe Collective Magazine.

The cycle of life, from birth to death to the ritualistic period of fertility in between, is told in the threads we weave and wear. Women are the creators of life and weaving is women’s work. Therefore behind the veil of human history is a story about the feminine, creative magic of dress and the occult power of our everyday pieces.        

When Hera needed to seduce Zeus away from the battlefield, she borrowed Aphrodite’s belt of one hundred tassels, and successfully lured the lovestruck god from Troy. Consequently, the power of the Goddess’s girdle played out among mortals, as Latvian women later adopted it as a signal of their fertility. Motifs like the sun or a cross-hatch star symbolized sexual readiness while fringe evoked what lay beneath, as told in a folk song.

Turn your back young maiden. 

So that I can see if the ends of your belt are bushy;

If they are,

You will be my bride.

A woman’s shawl in early Slovak and Bohemian societies shared the same suggestive “bushy” fringe. Visually complex patterning contained motifs that promoted fertility and also protected it by befuddling the gaze of the evil eye. Later, during her disgraced, three- to six-week fluid emission period upon childbirth, she faced social segregation, and the bridal shawl became a protective screen that hung from her bed of confinement.

The Romanian blouse is woven by the wearer. She embroiders motifs of fertility and abundance, or may “write” her own love spell at the neckline, arm holes and any other entry point for evil spirits. She is a woman weaving and willing her own fate.

Shoes represent the power of the female sex organ and the story of Cinderella alludes to this. A shoe-fetishist’s account of Chinese footbinding in Records of Gathering Fragrance tells several stories of men stealing lotus shoes for masturbation. Shoes may signify sexual union when tied to the departing car of the betrothed after a wedding. The stiletto asserts domination.

Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols defines ornamentation as “a way out of chaos.” Jewelry ritualizes the human experience and provides extra weight to ground us. Earrings show a rite of passage into sexual maturation as the piercing of the lobe is analogous with the breaking of the hymen. A ring may mean fidelity, it’s cyclical shape ensuring eternity. Norwegians, believing silver reflected evil spirits back onto themselves, once wore brooches to protect their newborn babies from the huldrefolk, or forest-dwelling shape-shifters.

The color indigo expresses all stages of a woman’s life. In the Middle East, it is the color of mourning when used in funerary dress and textiles, or stained on the cheeks. Or it may signify new life when smeared on the face to announce a birth in the family. The Bedouins mark it on their bodies to display virility. In the dye hut in Asia, it shares traditions in obstetrics as the vat functions symbolically as the womb and the indigo blood, the fetus. This belief in this is so powerful that pregnant or menstruating women, considered a threat to the dying process, are banned from the hut.

Contrary to modern-day associations, the apron was once the seat and sign of supernatural and sexual powers. A bone figurine of venus wearing a string apron dates back to 20,000 B.C.E., noting its original relation to the feminine form, although Tantric sorcerers of Tibet and Siberian shamans usurped and masculinized it for more worldly power purposes. Folk beliefs well into the last century held that strategically placed motifs on the everyday apron, notably near the reproductive organs, both safeguarded from evil and called attention to the area.

Ever since Homer wrote of the love goddess’s girdle, we have used clothes to connect with our supernatural selves. We dress our bodies as we dress our altar. To “dress a candle” is to imbue it with oils and herbs, giving it the power to do what you ask. To dress yourself is to call upon a part of yourself you want to show up or protect. With this in mind, we walk in the footsteps of goddess sisters Isis and Nephthys, history’s first weavers, and create with our will our own tapestry of life.