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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