Photos by the incredibly talented Jason of Citizen Couture
I’m a quarter Czech – East/Central European blood inherited from my father’s side of the family. At this time of year the roots become, if not stronger, then just a little more apparent. In a synthesis between English and Czech tradition, my family hold celebrations on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Preparations for the former include the making of Czech cookies (crumbly chocolate hazelnut biscuits with orange zest for one set, and vanilla moons for another), cooking fish soup, making potato salad and frying schnitzel. These dishes are our modified version of Czech cuisine. There are stories of previous generations with carp swimming in their baths in the lead up to the event – but we just make do with shop-bought haddock. Similarly, the schnitzel is technically Austrian, but feels just European (and delicious) enough to suffice.
All four of us dress up. This year I wore a vintage black dress with a velvet bodice and taffeta skirt that my mum had bought at a jumble sale when she was my age, offset with a vintage red belt from my Babi (you can see it on my Facebook page here). We set the table with candles, enjoy the meal and then head upstairs to peer from darkened windows to ‘spot’ the brightest star in the sky – even if it’s cloudy. Although my brother is now old enough to have unraveled the make-believe, we continue with the habit of one person staying downstairs to ‘clear the table’. A mysterious small bell is heard below and we descend for presents and further festivities.
This ritual has taken place for seventeen years, beginning before I could walk. It has shifted now from something excitedly anticipated for days to a more practical occasion – one in which I can help with the cooking, but also the clearing up. Christmas in general has lost that month-long aura of glitter that it used to have; replaced with a deeper appreciation for several days of family, friendship and very good food.
The sense of heritage is particularly strong on Christmas Eve though. It is a night when we share some of the actions played out by ancestors. During the rest of the year, my Czech encounters are limited mainly to my Babi’s (Grandma's) stories, and my own reading of Eastern/Central European literature. Knowledge of the language extends only to greetings, cheering another’s health, or insulting them with some raucous swearing. We haven't yet visited the Czech Republic, despite my desire to explore Prague.
Of course, the other form of access to my family heritage is found in my wardrobe. My Babi - whose clothes are so often scattered across this blog - has been a rich source of dresses, coats, bags, belts and hats in the past few years.
Her life has been equally measured out in tragedy and joy. In 1948 her family fled persecution in Czechoslovakia – my great-grandfather’s life in danger. They skied over the border disguised as tourists. As glamorous or dashing as that sounds, the reality was one of great hardship and subsequent suffering. Her mother, father and sister escaped with only the clothes on their backs and possessions in their pockets. My grandmother, who was at boarding school in Switzerland at the time, suddenly had to share the contents of her term-time clothes trunk with mother and sister. This meant only several pairs of knickers, one chemise and a limited number of garments between them. It wasn’t so much starting again from scratch, but starting again from stitch. To go from that state of loss through to amassing thrift-store-found couture and tailored coats with real Chanel buttons is the classic tale of rags to riches. But those relative riches were still hard won, never easily gained.
One of the riches recently given to me is this coat – a blue sheepskin beauty with Hungarian hand embroidery. My Babi’s husband (my late grandfather) bought it for his adored wife on impulse when they went to Innsbruck, Austria for the Winter Olympic Games in 1964. Little did she know then that within four years she would face the untimely death of her husband. But neither did she know that also in Innsbruck at exactly the same time, watching the Olympics was her far-in-the-future partner – a man that she would not meet for another nearly three decades. This stroke of serendipity, recognised only in hindsight, was enhanced when they later realized that a relative of this then young man was working at the shop where this coat was purchased. So it represents a bridge between old and new, past and present, taking on a new layer of resonance in being passed on to me.
It felt a suitably warm and bright piece to wear for meeting Jason of Citizen Couture. I was forty-five minutes late for the visit to Somerset House to see both him and the delightful Vanessa, but the time- lag proved fortuitous. I arrived just as the golden curls of late afternoon sun had reached the sandstone. We moved around to the back, escaping the crowds at the ice rink, before heading down to the embankment beneath. The red door - perfectly matching the details of the coat - was discovered under the bridge. It was a very enjoyable afternoon of camera snapping and socialising. I paired the coat with a blue vintage dress, grey heeled vintage boots from eBay and a saddle bag also passed on to me by my Babi. This outing, the first time of wearing it, signaled a new beginning for this special coat – continuing the pattern of renewal and refreshment that my grandma has practised for her whole life.
It seems an appropriate point to add that I hope everyone has a very happy new year full of festivities and cheer. I’m dizzily excited about what 2013 holds and am hugely grateful to all who have read, commented, emailed or otherwise interacted with this blog and with me in the past year. And finally on the theme of ‘renewal’, I wrote an article recently for Young Minds, about watching my dad go through extremely debilitating clinical depression.