Blue Stocking

When life comes down to a suitcase

How many of us have looked, this terrible spring, at those photographs of refugees from Ukraine’s great cities – from Mariupol and Kharkiv, from Kyiv and Odesa, arriving in the alien forests and checkpoints of their neighbours – and wondered what they managed to fit in the suitcases they’ve manoeuvred across collapsed bridges, through rubble, under fire, often with children in their arms? What did they scramble to retrieve under unimaginably frightening conditions? What did they bring from the old life that must already seem like ancient history, and what will they miss?  

The banal truth is that most of the contents of those suitcases and stuffed holdalls will be clothing. What he or she wears is a very long way from being the most important choice a migrant fleeing terror or invasion has to make and yet, after food, shelter and safety it is one of the most drearily pressing ones. We must, after all, put clothes on for protection from the elements, for decency, to signify that we are still members of the human race. Any of us who’ve lost everything in fire or flood – or even just our favourite holiday outfits in some far-flung, airport baggage-handling incident – know how disconcerting it is to wake up and have only grubby, worn or unfamiliar clothes to put on.  

When our family home – a Thames barge – was gutted by fire in the early eighties, the thing I remember most, after the fear (we were all on board at the time, and more or less trapped in the hold), is having to borrow a boilersuit from the master of the neighbouring barge, a very kind and rather slender man whose hips were probably a foot narrower than mine, as we worked to clear out the cinders of our old life.  Looking unlike yourself, in clothes that don’t fit and you haven’t chosen, doesn’t figure on the scale of loss a refugee feels as she worries whether her husband, who stayed to fight, has died in the bombardment of their hometown, alongside her grandmother too sick to move – but it is a small insult added to injury. 

And clothes – or at least some clothes – are significant, rather in the way family photograph albums are: they hold memory, they hold meaning, they hold love. Approaching my sixtieth birthday I still have a sweater of my mother’s under my bed, full of moth-holes, harbouring only the ghost of her scent: she died 45 years ago. Think of a small child’s fanatical attachment to an old, shredded garment or their refusal to wear certain pairs of socks – and then think of the fleeing mother (and these refugees are principally women and children) who has to wrangle those preferences under fire, not knowing where she will sleep. And for the refugee who must rebuild a life elsewhere, as Linda Grant (whose grandparents arrived in England from Kyiv at the turn of the twentieth century) points out in her brilliant book, The Thoughtful Dresser: presentation matters, particularly when you’re on your uppers. (After the fire on our barge, my boyfriend bought me a £6.99 dress from Miss Selfridge, because I needed to go to job interviews. Reader, I married him.)

“As my grandparents found out,” writes Grant, “their clothing sent messages to the new country that they were themselves new arrivals, out of place and out of time, but by changing the clothes (which changed the message) they also changed themselves.” The immigrant needs to look his or her best – and at the same time both to hold on to her identity and to forge a new life, to fit in with the adopted country and to remember the old one.

In Kharkiv, writer Yuliya Iliukha’s account (Financial Times, 12 March) of the strange and desperate days as the Russian invasion moved from unthinkable to imminent to brutally, thunderingly dangerous, she tells that on the last day of normality she went to buy a leather jacket, because it would sharpen up her feminine look, go with her beautiful dresses, and because she had a book tour to think about. Within hours, the world those clothes promised had vanished, and Iliukha was in survival mode, packing for her son, averting her eyes from images of torn bodies in her city’s streets.  And yet she finishes her piece by saying that the only things she regrets leaving behind in the apartment were the Ukrainian flag and her embroidered shirts, equal emblems of her pride in her country.  

So clothes do matter, or why in Soviet Russia were blue jeans more prized than caviar? They matter as a tiny part of the greater freedom, the freedom to identify ourselves as what and who we are, and to take that with us wherever we have to go.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “The Widowercame out in May 2021

Arts & Culture

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