Material Girl

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To think about clothes is a distraction, even in strange and, at times, dramatic circumstances. A lot comes to mind. My daughter and I are considering a little yard sale: selling clothes we don’t wear anymore, and thus raising money for the needs of Ukraine. It won’t be much money, for sure. And yet, I open my closet and start sorting my clothes. A yellow dress, a grey skirt, a pair of black pants. It is highly ironic that I have something to sell for the sake of the state, taking into account a truly Orwellian beginning of my material life: in the Soviet Union, where it began, to buy clothes – or anything from the category of basic “stuff” – was not an easy endeavor.

It is hard to describe how we lived and what kinds of things we wore. Lenore Goralik, a contemporary Russian writer, once wrote an essay about Soviet fashion. The latter was not dictated by the style icons or the Cosmopolitan magazine equivalents, but by sheer availability, always meager. Basically, Lenore Goralik collected “oral histories” of sowing, fixing, mending, and buying clothes under the table. Honestly, each and every one of us could recall such stories. The state invested money in weapons, but not in the everyday life of its citizens, who were forced to fare for themselves. You enter the store and see empty shelves, over and over again. I remember how my grandmother would turn my mother’s dresses into mine, or how my parents bought me a pair of shoes from the traveling Poles (the businessmen and entrepreneurs of the Soviet and near-Soviet world, these brave people went by car to the neighboring countries and sold clothes off their car hoods). We cherished every item, and we wore them till they, literally, fell apart. There was no way to replace them. One season I wore sandals till the temperature fell below zero, Centigrade; my boots died last winter, and it took a while to find new ones. Now, I try to explain this kind of a life to my daughter; my stories are funny, because absurdity is funny. I tell her that while living in Ukraine, I used to have “the pants” or “the skirt” – with the definite article because they were the only ones. The Ones. We laugh.

In a country that has never heard of a Walmart, the status of a “thing” becomes elevated. Along with being functional, “things” are symbolic. The loss of a pair of glasses for us back then was literally the loss of sight, that is, the world itself. It was an apocalypse, and not just a temporary annoyance. “Things” were rare and unique, hunting for them dangerous and costly. To imagine this situation better, think about the protagonist of Orwell’s 1984 and his search for razors. The first time I visited Krakow, Poland, my future Fulbright research site, was not to go to the museums or libraries, but to shop – not in the stores, but at a cheap wholesale market on the outskirts, which was all the post-Soviets could afford. One time my parents spent several months trying to buy a pair of scissors. They asked relatives and friends who worked as shop assistants for help. The scissors were successfully bought and then lost (by me), which could have easily resulted in an episode of domestic violence, but somehow I got lucky.

“Things” were objects of desire, and sites of unhealthy attachments and bitter regrets. They were cosmic. Paradoxically, there formed a veritable cult of “things” in a society that called itself materialist. Freedom from “things” meant the worst kind of dependency on them. Nowadays, we talk about the dangers of mass production of “things” and their mechanical reproducibility, which causes alienation and over-consumption. But I also remember our fixation on a “unique” “thing” which was not necessarily unique, just unavailable. I am skeptical of any idealization of societies where there is less “stuff.” Technically, the “stuff” is in our heads. Excessive humanization is as dangerous as dehumanization. We were obsessed with “things” because we did not have them. We loved them, and we coveted them. There was danger in them, as there is always danger in great love.

I am looking at the clothes that I decided to give away and thinking, thank God, I do not love them.










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