While putzing down an unfamiliar road, trying to find my way to a four-year-old's birthday party, I'm listening to Threads of Life, a brilliant book by Clare Hunter unpacking one of my favorite subjects—the massive and meaningful role of textiles in the history of the world. I'm rapt. But wait, my ears lean in—is she really spinning the story of Ukrainian cultural identity in needlework while my head is reeling from the heinous reports of Russia's assault on this proud country? My finger keeps pressing repeat to take in the full import of her words. Finally, I pull over into a gas station to give her my full attention.
1922. When the Soviet Union is formed, she is saying, the people of Ukraine are forbidden to wear their traditional embroidery. Those who wear it are imprisoned; each museum is instructed to destroy their costume collection. The Soviets want to corrode Ukrainian identity; and, as in all political oppression, that begins with dress.
That's lamentable enough, but this next bit is what saddens me more. She explains that the Soviets don't just banish the costume altogether, lest it become a symbol of defiance. Rather, they sanitize it. They design a secularized version of traditional dress and insist that their denuded version be worn for public festivals, thereby staying in control of the message. It's that powerful. Clothing is identity.
Embroidery has always meant something. In Ukraine, strong red and black threads on white linen layer symbols of pre-Christian goddesses, the Tree of Life, fertility lozenges, the Great Ring of Light and earthly fields, rivers and serpents, mountains and snakes—talismanic, protective, spiritual symbols found on relics as far back as the 5th century, so ancient is their use. No woman would simply copy another's pattern of thread, but write her own, as Ukrainians speak of this work, creating magic with her needle and thread. In the Soviet's hands, all of this power was reduced to an arrangement of pleasing circles, branches, and spirals meaning nothing.
When the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991, Ukrainians had to grope their way back to their own cultural legacy. They returned to traditional dress, now permanently eroded and robbed of the stories underneath each stitch, but still, their own. On May 21 each year, the Ukrainian diaspora wear their traditional vyshyvanka - Ukraine's heavily embroidered blouse and shirt—in a bold display of national loyalty made stronger by the threat to its life. And now. . .
I pull out of the gas station, find the birthday party in full swing, and watch my precious four year friend dance freely in a vivid rainbow dress of her choice. But I am still pondering the vyshyvanka, still feeling the proud heart of Ukraine, dressed in colors and patterns and the power of its past, even through the fog of shelling in Mariupol, the obliteration of monuments in Kyiv.
As I join in her joy, I say a silent prayer for my young friend and for the many children in Ukraine, wanting only to wear their own proud colors, to inhabit their mother's magical threads, and to dance together in the world, enchanted with this life we're meant to love.
All the Best,