The Psychic Life of Indigo

Indigo denotes the sixth chakra, the third eye, the doorway to the occult and the east.

Indigo expresses the beginning and end of life and period of creation in between. It is the color of death in funerary dress and textiles in the Middle East. Women of ancient Egypt would smear their cheeks with the dye as a mourning ritual. The mourning period in that part of the world is still measured by the length of time it takes for the last indigo stain to fade from the skin. In the Arab World, 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.

The indigo dying process shares traditions with obstetrics in parts of the world like Indonesia, where indigo dyers are medicine women who borrow from systems of menstrual regulation and fertility control. The same ingredients are used to control the “bleeding” of the cloth and the bleeding of women. The extract is used as a contraceptive and abortifacient in Nigeria. In Southeast Asia, the dye vat is seen as the uterus and the indigo “blood,” the fetus. Pregnant or menstruating women are banned from the shack as their life-giving blood threatens the black blood of the dead plant and both birthing processes can be corrupted.

Indigo dyestuffs are believed to have magical properties. Among the Omani bedouin, it wards off evil spirits and is nicknamed haras, or “the guard.” The indigo-dyed turban in parts of Asia prevents headaches and protects from the desert-dwelling, shape-shifting jinn.

In some societies, indigo is considered an agent for transmitting evil. Dyers using other dyestuffs seclude themselves from the indigo dyer. In India, he gets his own subcaste within a caste of weavers.

When he cuts down his plant, it turns black with death. In the dye hut, it steeps in the vat until it turns yellow and then green again before finally becoming a deep, soulful blue. Therefore the plant returns to life. He is in effect a kind of alchemist.

A dyer in A Thousand and One Nights  informs us that the secret to indigo is carefully guarded as it is passed down through generations. What other mysteries and paradoxes it contains is a many-fold riddle in this magical part of history.

The Mythology of Weaving

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In many weaving cultures, the upper crossbeam of a loom is called, “the beam of heaven.” The bottom of the loom represents earth. Therefore what you have in the middle is the world of creation.


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In all mythology, weaving is born in the divine world and so there must always be a single flaw in the pattern – to serve as a reminder of the imperfection of the physical world.

Which is why master weaver and Goddess Athena turned her mortal pupil Arachne into a spider when she boasted her weaving was superior to any goddess’s. Arachnids, the family of spiders (and expert weavers), borrow her name.

Clothes can be likened to language, where words are to the formation of syntax as threads are to fabric. “Text” and “textile” share a common root, meaning “to weave.” We have expressions: “the vocabulary of fashion” or “the fashion conversation.” We may “spin a story.” The Dogon tribe of Mali refer to the loom as secret speech and say that to be nude is “to be without words.”

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Weaving is made up of a horizontal warp and a vertical weft, which criss-cross each other like time and space and result in the so-called tapestry of life.

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With this thread of life, we weave mankind’s narrative and alter it. To dress ourselves can be to commit a sacred act. Our bodies are our altar, our  weaving is our prayer. The clothes are our collective stories.

 

The Whirling Dervish

 

16th century --- 16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes --- Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

 

Morocco

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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