In Norwegian folklore, a story recounts that a woman washed only half her children when God paid a visit. Ashamed of the dirty ones, she hid them. God decreed that those that she hid would be hidden from humanity. They became know as the hulders, or hidden people, the shapeshifting spirits of the mountains who visited the human world to carry out abductions and strengthen their own gene pool.
Midsummer was the high season for attack, as the doors to the spiritual world would open and these supernatural beings were released. Rites of passage, especially around the time of weddings and baptisms, made Norwegians especially vulnerable.
Silver, believed to have protective qualities that reflects such spirits back onto themselves, became a rural Norwegian’s armor. Ladies wore brooches while men wore silver collar pins, shoe buckles, coat buttons and decorative knives, which served as a spell-breaking tool.
The brooches came in varieties of styles. More ornate ones had pendants in the shape of an even-sided cross, cut-out sun wheels or diamonds. But the most fetching were the byggkornring or barley-kernal ring brooches. These were presumably made by hudrefolk themselves, who were expert silversmiths and created pieces more beautiful than any human hand could make. How Norwegians obtained these pieces can be explained in their folklore.
The legend of The Interrupted Wedding describes the possible origin of these supernaturalbrooches. In one version of the tale, a young maiden named Elli Bakken was alone up in the summer cabin weaving when her fiance entered in a panic and insisted they get married right away. When she saw her dog glaring and growling at him, Elli become suspicious. Then a crowd of people entered the cabin. Two somber-looking women stood a distance from the others. “Your dog doesn’t seem to like people,” one of them said with a wink. “It might be best to let him out.” Elli had a hunch that these people might in fact be hudrefolk. She took the dog out to the edge of the woods, tied a red ribbon around his neck as a signal for help, and sent him home. She went back into the cabin to prepare for the wedding. As one of the women pinned a large filigree brooch at her neck, she whispered, “Stay calm, help will come.” Then Elli remembered that years ago two girls had disappeared from that very cabin, and she knew that it was those girls who were trying to help her now, so she cooperated.
Down on the farm, the dog entered the house and barked with all his might at the gun that was hanging on the wall. When Elli’s mother spotted the warning ribbon, her father saddled his horse as fast as he could, then rode up to the farm of Lars, Elli’s real sweetheart. When the two men arrived at the cabin, they saw a long row of saddled horses. They looked inside to see a table piled high with food for a party, and Elli dressed as a bride. The men fired a shot over the top of the cabin. “In Jesus’ name!” Elli exclaimed, and crossed her hands over her throat. The hudrefolk quickly tore off Elli’s bridal finery, but could not pry the brooch that Elli held tight to her chest. The hudrefolk rushed out of the door like tumblweed and Elli was saved.
The Russian Baths are a 100+ year-old bathhouse in the East Village. I go about twice a week. It’s my church. It’s a sacred experience and a shared one, where bathers sweat together in 350 degree heat. Something sort of psychedelic takes place down there, in the dungeon-like bowels of 10th Street in New York, a sort of collective energy where bathers’ bodies reach death-defying levels of heat as their brains respond with a flood of chemicals-dopamine to be exact-in response to the body’s belief that it is dying. At least that’s how it’s been explained to me anyway.
There’s a shared high happening. I think it has something to do with the feel-good chemicals that promote bonding as well as the fact that this is a ritual, and group rituals are a collaborative effort towards a common goal. The goal here is to cleanse. Detox the body and the soul. When I exit the baths back out onto the streets, it’s as if anything toxic that ever took place above ground has fallen away.
It’s also an exercise in slaying the ego. Doing anything that is uncomfortable and you are keeping your ego in check. You are showing the part of you that likes to be in control who’s really boss and who is really boss is your true self, before it got corrupted by family, religion, society, etc., whoever told you who you need to be in order to survive in the physical world. Which is a bunch of baloney anyway so it’s good to quiet the ego.
Something that I find underlines the baths camaraderie is the attire. You’re given a robe, swim trunks, or a towel. Or you my B.Y.O. bathing suit. But gone is your real world armor and self-expression. The baths uniform is the great equalizer. I tend to judge guys based in part on the shoes they wear, but here, all men are created equal in their salmon-colored, plastic shower sandals. You can see celebrities down there-but you almost wouldn’t know it. Reclining about in their sad, thin bath towel, they look and therefore are treated just like civilians.
So we sweat and suffer together, half-naked and non-judgemental in our half-nakedness. And it gets me wondering something I tend to not like to wonder about because I love clothes-is this sort of physical uniformity and nakedness something that supports our goal here? We destroy our ego and whittle ourselves down to a spirit level. Our true self can’t hide behind the clothes we choose, with our ego-affirming convictions. I am *this person* so I wear *that* kind-of-intention. Without our above-ground, real world clothes, we are our true and transcendent selves, free of any public face or phoniness.
It’s always funny when you make friends with someone , and then run into them at checkout or whatever, and they are back in the clothes they’ve selected for themselves for the day. I’ve met perfectly cool people down there who I later saw above ground and was horrified to learn they wore crocs or a stupid hat and then I make all sorts of judgement calls on who they are based on my own prism. Suddenly you no longer see them in their pure “beingness.” You see a person that you are now applying and projecting all your judgements onto. And I fancy myself in the upper echelon of the enlightened, yet I’m so obviously not if I’m put off by someone for their choice in footwear.
The spiritual path can be challenging when you are also a fashion person. The basis of spirituality is that we are just beings on this earth plane, and our true being-ness is what matters before our public face, the clothes we wear, the language we speak. So how do you reconcile that with a judgemental take on a guy’s shoes, or the fact that you own five fur coats (not going to apologize here but…I work in vintage)? Obviously I don’t think clothes and spirituality are mutually exclusive-the whole basis of this blog is that they are deeply tethered to each other. But I wonder if the moment I’ll reach actual spiritual attainment is when I am not tethered to the clothes. I can walk in that guy’s dumb shoes and still feel intrinsically me.
I think the idea of this kind of spiritual attainment is you want to feel like you do at the baths. I am me and you are you, not, you are Michael and I am American and we are in New York. Because none of that stuff matters. We want to be/are stripped down, naked, star stuff that transcends the physical plane and can’t be summarized in words or a pair of shoes.
The opening scene in the 1969 Soviet film The Color of Pomegranates, an abstract narrative of an Armenian poet’s life,shows three of the forbidden fruits bleeding through a crisp white tablecloth. Perhaps the scene alludes to the pomegranate’s symbol of the spilled blood of Dionysus, or it could stand for the holy trinity that bled for us and our sins. But the same color red mysteriously permeates throughout the film, notably in dress and textile: the towel of the baths masseur, the liturgical robes of the priests, the carpets woven by the eerie, wailing weavers, all display a stark red against an otherwise flat backdrop. And while the role of the fruit in the poet’s fate is ambiguous, its function as a signifier of religious sentiment is clear.
Such an example of the cryptic occult power of the pomegranate is in keeping with its history, as its meaning has always evaded man. “About the pomegranate I must say nothing,” notes the traveller Pausanias in the 2nd century, “for its story is somewhat of a holy mystery.”
The Bible sees it as representing the the universe one oneness, where the multiplicity and diversity of all things (the seeds) is reconciled in a single unit (the shell). In Christianity, depictions of pomegranates are often woven into church vestments and wall hangings, the broken fruit bursting with seeds symbolizing Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
In Jewish tradition, it is said that the seeds are 613 in total, corresponding to the number of Commandments of the Torah. In the Old Testament, it is written that representations of the fruit were embroidered onto the hem of the robe worn by the Hebrew high priest.
The decidedly sexual-looking fruit appears often in relation to the divine feminine. In the major arcana of the Tarot, the robes of the pregnant Empress display its motif, as she signifies fertility for ideas and the creative bearing of fruit. The mythological priests of Attis, the castrated consort of the earth goddess Cybele, wore pomegranates on their heads in wreaths. The calyx of the fruit was first worn as a crown by the Greek Goddess Hera and would go on to inspire the tiara.
The pomegranate tree’s bark has been a source for tannin used in curing leather. Its rind and flowers may be used as a textile dye. In the fifteenth century, the Mesopotamia-born motif found popularity in Central Asia, Europe and the Ottoman textiles. In the 19th century Americas, Navajo silversmiths co-opted the form from Mexican silver ornaments found on clothing, horse gear and jewelry. It’s now an archetypal symbol firmly entrenched in the collective psyche.
Its arousing beauty explains its prevalence in dress throughout the ages while its luteal interior, abundant with life-giving seeds and blood-like juice, accounts for its enduring mystery. But history-long attempts at insight into its psychic life show it’s a code that can’t be cracked.
I wear a lot of headscarves. It’s a go-to in my closet for work, travel, errands, anything. It all started when my mother and I began collecting Hermès scarves and I couldn’t find a place for them on my body that didn’t make me feel like one of those basics who follow the Parisian fashion blogs, layering it with their pearls or blue blazer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”). But wrapping them around my head made me feel worldly and enigmatic. I became a woman with a fascinating story, who has a lot of lovers and secrets and who maybe lives some exotic “life apart.”
Then the fixation grew for reasons of convenience/laziness. I have hair that I loathe-unfashionably frizzy and unruly in most weather-that I can simply renounce with the twist of a scarf.
And then I started traveling to countries where I’m expected to cover my head out of deference to the local culture. I grew up punk and feminist and the Riot Grrrl in me asked herself if this was a conflict-but I secretly liked covering my head in Egypt…and my ankles in Morocco and my knees in Thailand. I think my self-satisfaction over dutifully abiding by another country’s cultural/religious values in the end supersedes my rebellion against those of my own country. Like, I will question my own culture but not someone else’s.
So I began to associate the scarf with far-flung parts of the world that I wanted to be lost in. A relic of ancient civilizations and spiritual traditions I wanted to be a part of. I wore it and was transported to another place or time where I’m anonymous and left to my own devices (I don’t know if you call this fetishizing…Sorry if it is)
Then I started to like the act of shrouding myself. There’s something about covering your head that makes you feel safe. Archetypally, to wear a scarf or veil is to cloister yourself from worldly life. I had a scarf on at the bank the other day when the clerk asked if I had the day off-as if to assume that I had to just duck out of the house for a moment and my scarf signaled that I didn’t want to be too engaged in the world (I did not have the day off-I wear my scarves to work-maybe because I don’t want to be there?).
These days, I’ve assigned another meaning to the headscarf. It also signifies aging gracefully (the Riot Grrrl in me definitely does not like this expression). At 36, I think about how I will adjust to changes in my appearance and what pieces might not work anymore. But my scarf is ever more a staple. In it, I feel wise and Empress-like. In my knowing. I have a station in life. And if I am ever unsure or feel too exposed to the elements, at least my headscarf has got me covered.
Sufism is the mystical form of Islam. It’s peace-loving and pluralistic and predicates that love is the path to the divine. Communication with God is a personal experience so you may dance, sing, or bang on a drum and that’s a way of speaking with God. For this reason, it’s been banned in many societies by orthodox Muslims and puritan powers-that-be, who consider ritualistic song and dance outside of Quranic Law. So Sufism is kind of the wild child of Islam.
The whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism are probably the West’s first association with Sufism. We know the dance, or at least the expression – “like a whirling dervish” – to characterize a frenetic or spastic person…a funny thing to say if you know the dervishes are actually in a state of Zen.
Because these whirlers are not dancing but praying. They pray to one of the great truths-that everything in the world is whirling, from the smallest cell to the galaxies of the universe. Everything is turning. Everything is in a state of flux/vibration/change. So to whirl is to join in this universal prayer.
Their equally-recognizable clerical uniform also performs the role of conveying a spiritual message and prayer. If, for example, a member is on a higher plane, a sash is wrapped around the hat, signifying the gravestone that will one day stand at the head of their graves.
The long tunic denotes a dervish’s worldly life, and when he casts it off during the whirling ceremony, he is turning his back on the world in order to get closer to God.
The rida is a woolen, waist-length jacket that is worn by the sheikh of the dervish lodge. Made up of two equal pieces of cloth, the left side represents shari’a, or Islamic law, while the right side stands for education and truth.
A sash, or kemer, is used as closure and is wound around the man’s waist three times to represent the knowledge of God, the seeing of God and the stage of true existence.
After the republic of Turkey was established in 1923, a series of laws were promulgated to eliminate any reminders of the Ottoman Empire. The Dervishes were outlawed and went underground. Clandestine ceremonies are still performed. But you can no longer see the clerical garb in public save for tourist attractions.
But we have runways to thank for recreating the past through appropriation. Traditions are kept alive through designers’ reinterpreted creations. Carolina Herrera, Tia Cibani, Damir Doma, and Josie Natori:
The dervishes serve as a reminder that anything can happen. Today does not define tomorrow. Everything in the world is vibrating, including you and I. Our current situation is just that – our current situation. It does not dictate tomorrow. Let’s celebrate the mutable nature of the universe and the fact that we are constantly operating in the field of potentiality. And remember that anything can change/turn/go in reverse at any moment.
I had written a post about the burqua but then Trump won and now I don’t know what to say about it. Everything feels different. Maybe I’ll write another one another day. So here’s this. Peace and Love.
I’ve been meditating for about 2 years now. I knew I’d gotten to my next level in meditation when I saw what I later learned is called, “the Blue Pearl.” A luminous, spiraling ball of blue fire that centers itself in your crown chakra and overwhelms you with a feeling of peace and chill. I’ve only experienced the Blue Pearl twice since then. Once in another mediation and later, encountered it in Morocco.
It’s been a lifelong dream to see Tangiers. All my favorites found inspiration here – Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Bowles, the Rolling Stones. It’s known for being a bit of a salty city, and I love dark corners.
The souks are choc-o-bloc with everything I’ve ever wanted. If I had to pick a favorite design aesthetic, Moroccan is it. The latticework, complex geometry and talismanic motifs – it’s like they contain some sort of esoteric algorithm behind the meaning of the human experience. What are you really seeing in a mandala? It’s a plan that represents the cosmos and hidden workings of the universe. It’s man expressing his existence in print and pattern.
I trawl the souks and feel dizzy. I actually love the crap for tourists but it’s the older, artisan-made pieces that really grab me – those exude magic powers.
The Evil Eye is one of my auspicious omens. I carry one with me at all times, and look for it when I need a sign from the universe that it’s all good. This metal, hand-stamped purse makes a good wall hanging.
The Hand of Fatima wards off the evil eye and it’s another one of my omens. I don’t have to look far for it when in Morocco, home to the nomadic Berber people who know its powers.
Deepak Chopra talks a lot about the Law of Least Effort. Try too hard for something or be too attached to it and you will jeopardize your chances of getting it. Release that sicky, yearning, have-to-have-it feeling and let it come to you.
There was a single shop in the city that I had been trying to find in the winding, Kafkaesque passages of the casbah that I had spent hours looking for when I finally gave up. The next day, I wandered aimlessly into a space with the most beautiful collection of objects I had ever seen and realized – this is the place I had been looking for! I spent the afternoon talking to the proprietor, a man who had been collecting treasures around the world for decades until he turned his collection into a shop and showroom. I asked him what his favorite piece was when he showed me a colossal amber necklace made of beads the size of golf balls (not for sale). He served tea and told me a story about how it took him 10 years and one sacrificial goat to convince the owner – an African tribesgirl who needed money for a dowry – to sell the necklace bead-by-bead. I was forbidden to photograph but I surreptitiously got in a shot of some wall hangings.
Another serendipitous occurrence: The single restaurant on my to-do list was a little seafood place I’d heard about. It had like 10 colloquial names (the Saveur de Poisson, or Restaurant Populare, or Popeye’s, to name a few) and was run by this eccentric Moroccan man in a Fez who haphazardly circles the floor repeating the words, “waka waka waka.”
My first day in Tangiers and I was exhausted from the flight and struck by a sudden need to eat. I ducked into the first restaurant I could find and sat down. And what do you think I heard but, “waka waka waka”! I looked over and saw the lovely man in a Fez and knew this was meal was meant to be.
The food was amazing but the best part was at the end of my feast, “Popeye” approached my table and wordlessly beckoned me to the back of the restaurant (maybe he’s been saying “walk-a walk-a walk-a” this whole time?). I followed him to a storage room, where he thrust over my head a vintage 60s caftan, exclaiming “antique!” Tiny – just my size – with these swirling arabesques and a satin-ey finish. It had an unusual, otherworldly scent – something like a combination of flavored tobacco and clay (and it filled my suitcase and then my apartment for weeks after my return). And I walked out of the restaurant in it, joining all the other caftan-clad ladies of the casbah. I’ll never know the meaning of this gesture. Maybe he’d been saving that dress for just the right petite-sized magpie to pass through his door? Or maybe he was concerned I wasn’t dressed modestly enough (I wasn’t). In any case, it was the perfect memento of my magical time in Morocco.
I make a shopping pilgrimage to Chefchaouen, a town in the Rif Mountains (read: “Reefer;” it’s the epicenter of Morocco’s weed industry). I hear there’s good deals on Berber relics and I’m on a mission for an authentic Berber headpiece. Chefchaouen is a strange, Seussian world of ramshackle, blue-tinted buildings that give it a sort of supernatural energy (or maybe it’s all the pot).
Weeks after this trip, I look into what the blue was all about. I learn that the original Jewish residents established this tradition of painting the town top-to-bottom sky blue to mirror the heavens and remind them of God. And low and behold, I learn the nickname for this paranormal place – The Blue Pearl.
There was once this dress that I wanted. I found it in a secondhand shop in a size too large. But I coveted it. Like, this was my spirit dress. An ombre pleated shirt dress in all colors of the rainbow. It radiated magic. It spoke to me.
I hunted all over the internet to no avail. I was crestfallen.
I also had this boyfriend. Who I loved but on a daily basis I wanted to strangle. He’s an artist, with the classic handicap of an artist’s ego. I was always competing with his art for attention. In the end, I think it was a losing battle. You can never win in a battle against art for the attention of a lover because art will always win. I know that now, though. Because at this stage in who I am, anyone who would fight against my life’s purpose for my attention would lose. I didn’t understand that at the time I was with Christopher because I struggled with my creative self. And that was the crux of our problems. I wasn’t developed enough as a complete creative person so we fought (Also, he was just a dick-Christopher, I love you but you are also a total dick).
Back to the dress. I would will it. It was difficult to imagine how-it was out of production, from another season and a relatively small clothing label at the time. But the thing is, we can’t get caught up in HOW our wishes will be served. Manifestation/magical thinking isn’t logical. It’s not your business how the universe will arrange itself according to your desires. Your job is just to desire, set your intentions and believe. So I wrote a letter to anyone that would listen, putting in a cosmic order form, so-to-speak, for my dress. I lit a candle and said some witchy words.
I was in grad school at the time when one evening I was chatting with a classmate who had lost her glasses at school. I told her what I thought she might do to get them back-just believe. Like I believed about my dress. I told her-believe you will find them, see in your mind’s eye the security guard greeting you one day with glasses in hand, saying “Aren’t these yours?” Don’t worry about what the odds are or how this will happen. The odds are so often not good. Imagine all the times you’ve said, “It was just the right place at the right time.” Just walk this earth plane and engage and sooner or later you’ll find you’re walking the cosmic plane when you find yourself in right place at the right time.
And as I’m telling her this, I’m on my computer, mindlessly browsing the website of a store I actually loathe (but I like their candles) when I come across my dress! It’s been manufactured under a collaboration with said-dumb store (I just can’t tell you, it’s too embarrassing). But there it is. What are the odds?? It was like the universe had conspired to give me my dress in the form of a completely unlikely collaboration between a small-time fashion label and giant clothing retailer.
I don’t need to tell you that I bought it, immediately. I had it hanging on my wall for months when it wasn’t on my body. I liked to just look at my magic rainbow dress.
I have a Part Two to this story. Getting back to the fact that I wasn’t yet a fully formed, self-actualized person who was creating to her highest potential. So I was in the middle of finals when Christopher decided it would be fun if we put on an art show. The timing was terrible, as I was in my last weeks of graduate school, but I complied just to get him to stop bullying me. I hate to put it in such responsibility-evading terms but you have to understand Christopher is very tenacious when it comes to the needs of his ego and sometimes it’s easier to agree to do things with him/for him just to get him to back off. So I shouldn’t have but I agreed.
Here’s what I didn’t agree to: He wanted to use my dress in one of the pieces. He wanted to drape it over a framed painting and mount the whole situation on the wall of the gallery. No fucking way! My dress could snag, it could tear, I wasn’t willing to tolerate even a wrinkle for the cause. I said no.
A week before the show and in the midst of finals, Christopher asked (ordered?) that I buy some supplies for the show. We needed more pink and blue tape we were using in the design, and could I pick some up. Actually, I couldn’t, as I was studying for the most important exams of my life. We fought. He really needed that tape and wasn’t going to hear it. He announced with his usual authoritative tone, “I’ll be back in a few hours and I’m expecting to have that tape” (he literally talks like that). And shut the door behind him.
I stood in the middle of my studio, with a rage coming up from inside me that I thought might send my fist through the window. But instead I grabbed: the tape. I approached my front door. And began taping it shut. I taped all the cracks between the door and the frame, the door knob, the lock, I taped up the whole thing so well that no one from the other side stood a chance of getting in. Which was the idea. I wanted him the fuck out of my apartment, out of my finals week, out of my life.
Then I took my dress. I lay it against the door and mounted it with the pink and blue tape. It lay flattened against the door, like a kite caught in a tree, and I would’ve felt more remorse if it hadn’t felt so good to have put it up there. Like, “You want my fucking dress? You want some art? You want my soul? Here it is! Just don’t come back into my life. I have finals.”
A feeling of quietude washed over me. I sat down in a chair before the door and admired my creation. I was pretty pleased with myself. It looked good, but mostly it felt good. That was the first work of art I had made in ages. And it had come from such a deep place in myself that I guess it took the person I loved and hated the most in the world to inspire it. In a weird way I was thankful to him.
A few hours later, I heard him open the door to my building. I was still in the chair. I heard him come up. Use the keys in the lock. Try, try again, to open the door. My heart started pounding and I felt a lump in my throat. “Julia…?” He said. “I can’t get in, the door must be locked.” I started crying. I don’t know why. It felt good. I wasn’t mad at him anymore but still needed a few minutes of having that door between us. I just wanted to savor my newfound sense of self for a bit longer.
Christopher and I ended up having the show. With my dress in it. We also broke up. I treasure it all. Two years later and I can see now what that dress meant. I laid eyes on it and saw that it captured my soul/future self. And I also needed to be driven to madness and self destruction and also the destruction of my dress in order to build myself up again and be a creator of my own life.
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 very 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 fast fashion brands like Urban Outfitters to couturiers 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.
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.
On Romania’s summer solstice, known as 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 and harvesting plants for their 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 a self I lost a long time ago. I’ve shed associations I gained in the New World in favor of the old. It’s not a new idea, to wear the dress of our ancestors in effort to connect with them and dissolve the ego identity. In any case, I feel at home and a return to someone I once was.
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-suggests 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 as she defends her authentic self.
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 out entirely.
And the blouse is this billowy, breezy armor shielding her from any outside influence. 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
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!
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.
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.
True 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.
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.