Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Costume dramas and sewing at home (spoiler alert)

Costume dramas (or period dramas) are my weakness. I love the clothes: corsets, lace, silk, and in the best productions, you also get authentic hand-stitched gowns to die for.  I also love the melodrama, I admit it, and the endless twists that are given to a cherished storyline.
Recently, I have discovered Russian costume drama. Before I go on to discuss the costumes of my latest binge-watch, Love in Chains (original title Krepostnaya, 2019) I should make a couple of more general observations. Adaptations of great classic novels made in Russia are usually quite spectacular - think of War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk. They tend to be in dialogue with the book upon which they are based and costumes and location are a strong focus.  A similar engagement with literature and history was also seen, in Western Europe, in masters such as the late  Luchino Visconti, who maniacally sought to recreate the period in which his stories, often inspired by cherished novels, were set, in the most authentic way (the legendary Piero Tosi was his costumier).

The Ukrainian/Russian production Love in Chains now available with English subtitles on a number of streaming services and acclaimed in Cannes for its lavishness, follows in that film-making tradition I have mentioned.  It is a melodrama but its reference point is the visual and narrative tradition of the  film masters of the 20th century, as well as the great novels of Europe. As Tara Prytsaetska, creative director of the production, said in an interview for Drama Quarterly:
 "we sought to create a layered, multi-character ‘novel,’ not just a telenovela. We wanted the viewer to be immersed in the story in the same way they used to be in novels by Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Maurice Druon. We were not interested in a predictable tale of love. We wanted to create a real world where passions would rage. And like a novel, the story was supposed to engage completely different audiences".
Love in Chains is about a bondmaid brought up as a noblewoman, but still, legally, a serf and is set in the 1850s, in Ukraine, which at the time was part of Imperial Russia.  For the record, serfs were emancipated in 1861 by the tsar Alexander II but in practice, serfdom continued until the October Revolution of 1917, which, as we know, changed the course of history with the birth of the now-defunct USSR.
Ukraine is not Russia but the cultural bonds between them are extremely tight,  so forgive me if in this post I use the adjective 'Russian' also with reference to Ukraine.

Love in Chains runs for two seasons and the end of season two is so incredibly tragic, one feels somewhat cheated having watched forty-eight episodes in which the heroine is abused and tortured, every time in a novel way. The male lead is killed off in series one, three episodes before the final one, though his death will dominate the story for the whole of season two; his replacement is murdered in episode 48, kicking off a new tragedy just as the episode is about to end, thus leaving the viewer wondering when the next season will be broadcast, because there HAS to be a resolution! We all know that this is what sustains drama series, this hope that it will all be resolved, in a 'just' way, in the next episode and thus new seasons are added, viewing rates soar and everyone is happy (well, almost).
That of the bondmaid seems to be a well-loved subject in Russian TV series and movies. There have been quite a few stories in which the heroine is a highly educated, refined bondmaid, on appearance indistinguishable from a noblewoman (though noblewomen often reveal to be pretty crass in their speech and demeanour) but always only property, a thing with no rights, so she could be punished very harshly, depending on the master's whim. The landlord owned a serf's labour, not the soul, but sometimes this difference was not clear. The dynamics at play in such stories are very interesting and there is definitely a reflection on the contemporary ills of Russian society, where there are now no serfs, but authoritarian rule continues to be the norm and corruption is rampant, as it was in Old Russia.  Tara Prystaetska, reflecting on the global success of Love in Chains says :
"we achieved our goal of creating a story that captivates viewers in the same way the best novels captivate readers. Viewers were immersed in the story and rooting for their favourite characters. The values, traditions and rituals in the show form part of the cultural code of the Eastern European audience, while modern viewers can relate to the problems Love in Chains addresses, such as abuse, difficult family dynamics and post-traumatic stress disorder. The relevance and timelessness of our dramatic elements played a vital role in the success of our project".

Katerina on her wedding day (Drama Quarterly)

 I said my real interest was in the clothes, so let's discuss them. The costumes in Love in Chains are spectacular.  The visual style of the drama is inspired by old paintings and this principle is also applied to the clothing, its texture and colours. According to press releases, "it took kilometres of materials to make the costumes for the characters. More than 200 dresses were tailored, some of them were created in two or three copies. The heaviest dress weighed above 10 kg, and for the most luxurious one, it took over 12 metres of the material to create."
The nobles, both men and women, wear beautifully cut clothes and there is an abundance of crinolined gowns. Noblewomen wrap themselves in silk embroidered shawls over their morning housecoat when breakfasting, then changing into more elaborate stay-at-home dresses or riding clothes if they go horse-riding (most of the characters in this drama are excellent riders). Corsets are all the rage, so we have a few scenes in which the young ladies look like sylphs and are prone to fainting because they cannot breathe.
The serfs also wear, for church and for celebrations, such as their own weddings - they could marry but always only with their owner's permission -  beautifully embroidered skirts (women), pants (men) blouses and tunics, headcovers, ribbons, which are all part of the traditional country wear of Ukrainians.  There is an abundance of beautifully ribboned braids, as the latter symbolised honour in Old Russia;  the noblewomen, however, do wear their long hair in more fancy updos, some copied from magazines full of news about Paris, the capital of fashion since the days of Louis XIV.
Having watched both seasons of Love in Chains totally engrossed in the story, I am now watching select episodes again, going back and forth, just to look at the clothes and see whether I can possibly copy any of them.

The Chervinskys with two of their bondmaids, Katerina and Galya

 I love sewing and during lockdown I started being a bit more creative, joining a couple of Facebook groups about hand sewing and 19th-century sewing as well as one for fashion historians and lovers of fashion history.
I am only able to stitch simple things at the moment but I love looking at this splendid wear and who knows, I might, just might, be able to make myself a housecoat. For now, it's enough to dream of it!
(For those interested in sewing historical costumes as a hobby see these podcasts by Jennifer Rosbrugh)

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Friendships, boundaries and dealbreakers

Raffella and Elena (Lila and Lenu) from My Brilliant Friend . Photo: Eduardo Castaldo / Courtesy of HBO, Vogue

We all have an implicit friendship scale -  for our peace of mind, that is - even though we may not be fully aware of it.  Some friends are closer than others, inevitably so, but we do not reveal to our friends where we put them on that scale, out of politeness and to spare the hurt. No one likes being told 'Oh you are a friend, but on a scale of 1 to 10, you would be a 4'.  We just say 'we are friends'; the rest is implicit. I wonder, however, whether, in fact, we ought to be more explicit about this, to avoid misunderstandings.
Experience has taught me that excessive closeness and familiarity with anyone,  even family, breeds contempt, so I like some emotional distance when dealing with friends - and family too! -, no matter whether they live close by or at the other end of the globe. In any case, with modern technology, long-distance friendships are definitely possible, except that one has to remember time zones when communicating. During lockdown even friends living in the same city or village felt as physically distant as those who lived in another country, all communication was online.
The way we understand friendship evolves as we grow older, in other words, we think of friends in a newer way at different stages in our life.
Boundaries in all personal relationships are essential, with family, colleagues, neighbours, and, of course, friends. I used to be a passive-aggressive sort of person, I would tolerate transgressions and be furious inside until something happened which made me see red and then it was goodbye, but not in a nice way.
It happens less often these days, I try to be more careful, but there are still people who bulldoze themselves into one's life, with the expectation that everything they say or do should be of interest to you because you are "a friend and sharing is what friends do".  No. These 'friends' end up draining so much of my energy I have no choice but throw them out of my life.

Elena and Raffaella from "My brilliant friend" a novel about friendship by Elena Ferrante now a major TV drama series

Someone I know recently had a bad experience with a person whom I also happened to know, and whom they thought was a dear friend of theirs.  It was a messy story, which set me thinking.
It made me look long and hard at friendship, the need for boundaries and the ability to be clear about one's boundaries and somehow finding a way to articulate them. Those people who have been friends since kindergarten are also people who have clear boundaries and respect them, without feeling hurt by the existence of such boundaries. I firmly believe that boundaries actually strengthen a friendship.
Allow me to give you a few examples, drawn from my experience.
Like most of us, I have friends and also a large circle of acquaintances. I have 'friends' on social media but I regard them precisely that, social media friends - likes on their feed, the occasional birthday wish, some witty comment, the occasional share. That's all that is expected from me and I expect from them.
I have a friend whom I have known since my schooldays. We are no longer bosom pals as we used to be when we shared homework, studied together, bitched together about our teachers and passed comments on boys.  All that is irrelevant to our lives today, it is just a  pleasant memory. But we are in touch, we can talk to each other quite easily, though there are firm boundaries in place eg we don't discuss partners and we avoid all kind of gossip. We live in different countries but that is not in itself an obstacle to our friendship. We had a moment a few weeks ago that with someone else could have ended up in a massive row, but not with us. She sent me several videos about the COVID19 pandemic. I told her politely that perhaps she should just put them on social media rather than in private messages, I was not happy about receiving them. She did not take umbrage and my saying so did not signal the end of our friendship. She merely took heed of my preferences and I was not afraid to voice them. I have known her for so long, I knew she would react the right way. More recently,  we spoke on the phone, she is actively helping me to locate some documents I need. There were times in our lives when we did not speak at all, but it never made any difference, we are always able to take it where we left off. Respectfully.

I have friends with whom I share primarily work interests. I have the greatest regard for them professionally and am happy to talk with them, at length, about work-related issues.  With most of them, we are on the same page, we think of each other as a bit more than colleagues and as 'general' friends. However, if they begin to discuss very personal matters,  I begin to squirm - I do not wish to be involved, so I find ways to convey my disinclination to go into such details. Most of the time this is understood, when it is not, that's when problems may begin. And this is when one should clearly articulate one's boundaries,  to avoid major fall-outs.
Personally, I draw a line between friendship and professional counselling or friendship and the role of what, for Catholics, would be that of a confessor. Worse still are those 'friends' who expect legal advice ('oh hear me out, what if I do this or that'), even if you tell them that you are not qualified to dispense such advice - someone I knew, whom I otherwise thought highly of,  did that, incessantly, as she was involved in a lengthy legal battle with her employers and I stopped taking her calls, till she finally got the hint. I no longer hear from her. I miss her, in some ways,  but I do not miss her obsessive behaviour.
No. If a friend attempts to put me in one of those roles, that's the end of our friendship. For me, it is a dealbreaker.
 I also cut off those people who text incessantly, long messages that are more like essays, about the most trivial things. Or those who attempt to psychologise me - I hold a certificate in psychotherapy, only I chose never to set up a practice. Imagine how I relish an amateur doing a bit of armchair psychology on me. Out they go.

Lenu and Lila , My Brilliant Friend, HBO drama adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel

Finally,  I avoid lending money to friends, knowing that in most cases I will never see it back. I never borrow from friends - I may do that with family but never, ever with friends, I did it once and until I returned the whole amount, a paltry sum, in fact,  I was in great turmoil. It's awkward to ask and would not put myself in that position ever again. Thus, I do not take kindly to those 'friends' who don't think twice about it and demand you should oblige  'because we are friends'. 
We are all different. Some people may think my tolerance threshold is rather low. Honestly, I do not care. These are my boundaries and dealbreakers, take it or leave it.
 I am also a firm believer that it is better to be alone than in bad company, as George Washington said.
And you, what are your dealbreakers? 
(I have chosen to illustrate this post with images from 'My brilliant friend' which is Ferrante's  interesting take on female friendship, to be discussed in another post)

Friday, 5 June 2020

Black Out Tuesday on Social Media

I did not post a blank black image on Instagram and  Facebook on June 2, 2020.
It is not because I was not outraged by the murder of George Floyd, I certainly thought his life and that of millions of black people DO matter.
But posting a black square seemed to be a trendy thing to do and many did it because they feared 'naming and shaming' - a bit like the NHS clapping, which soon after it was introduced became ridiculously perfunctory. 
Racism is a horrible disease that affects our society. I happen to be white; my son is not. I became aware of racism because as a mother of a mixed-race boy I had to confront it. However, I will never know what it is like to be discriminated against because of your skin colour, except by proxy.
But being white does not equate with being racist nor evil. Racism is a mindset which can be changed, through education,  

 (From Voice of America)
Let us also not forget that non-whites can be racist and violently so, to other ethnic groups. In Indonesia the #blacklivesmatter has turned into #papuanlivesmatter to encourage Indonesians to confront their own racism and violence towards the Papuans - the Jakarta Post reports of an incident that took place in 2016 in the city of Yogyakarta in which Obby Kogoya, a Papuan student, was stepped on by police in Yogyakarta. I do not remember anyone protesting against this, most people in the world would not even know where or what Papua is, even though the island is huge and extremely rich in oil - without Papua the Indonesian economy would collapse. Others who know about it happily turn a blind eye to the discriminatory practices of the Indonesian Government (if you wish to know more about Papua and its Indonesian occupation see here), regarding it 'an internal matter'.  And let's not mention the African genocides, which are still going on. 
There are many resources available for learning about ways to combat racism, just google 'how to educate yourself on black lives matter'. Celebrities such as Meghan Markle have also weighed in on the debates following the death of George Floyd, and it's worth listening to what they are saying. Hopefully, they will help people to become more aware of institutional racism and 'unconscious bias'. Prince Harry talked about it in an interview in the September issue of British Vogue 2019 - the issue guest-edited by his wife Meghan. Let us not forget that the Sussexes' exit from public life as royals was also fuelled by the veiled racism that accompanied Meghan at every step - even though many gossip columnists trivialised it as a competition between Kate and Meghan, totally missing the point. (or preferring to miss the point?). If prominent people like Meghan Markle, married into the British monarchy, can experience racism, imagine what it is like for people in a less exalted position. Actually, you need not imagine it. The fate of George Floyd exemplifies it. 

Thus we have seen a flurry of businesses, especially those operating in the creative industries, posting on social media on how they are taking racism seriously and how they are in the process of reviewing their procedures to hold "stakeholders accountable for discriminatory practices."  It's all very commendable, but why do I think that these are just words? Why do I think that next month, no, in two weeks time, these will simply be posts on social media superseded by a 'back to normal' reality? 
What really happened to sexism and sexual exploitation after the flurry of #metoo? That's something to reflect upon.  There is a convergence.
My ambivalence about the #blackouttuesday on social media was actually voiced, among others,  by anti-racism campaigner and footballer Kevin-Prince Boateng who plays for Tottenham. He said in an interview for Skysport that simply posting images of black squares is "too easy" and also a way of saying "I did it, I did my bit" and leave it at that.  Another (black) voice was even more critical. “Stop posting black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram,” Anthony James Williams wrote on Twitter. “It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online ... Tell me how this helps Black folk. It doesn’t, and in fact, makes things a lot worse. Tell your friends and fam to stop.” 

(From Kenya, VOA News)

Maybe I am cynical but posting black squares was also for many a way to obtain likes and increase following which is actually what businesses on social media are after.
So, without an ounce of shame, I admit that not only did I not post a black square, but I also did not frantically try to post images of me with black friends and colleagues as I saw many others do, to show that they mix with everyone and respect everyone - you could tell it was prompted by a desire to be seen on-trend because such images had never been posted before with the same eagerness, giving them so much prominence through the use of carefully selected hashtags. It does not mean that I don't like working with people of colour, I just don't think that posting such images was helpful to anyone.
What I did do was to go silent.  It may not have got me more followers, or singled me out as 'doing my bit' for combating racism' but at least I did not hinder access to helpful information and suppress images of protests through appropriating the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Social media silence is not connivance, at least not on this occasion.