Photo Essay “Seasons of Vera”

Vera Zenko chased after the Nazi wagon carrying away her mother who was pregnant with her younger sister. The soldiers took pity and threw the mother off the carriage. Today, Vera is 91 years old. She calls her current life her “final seasons” and tells her biography to photographer Tatiana Tkacheva through the contents of her dress closet.

I first saw Vera in Volozhin, Belarus, when she was walking to the pharmacy. Vera was wearing enormous sunglasses, a checkered dress and raspberry-colored socks and shoes. It was love at first sight. I walked up to her to make her acquaintance and, five minutes later, we were sitting in her home and she was showing me her outfits and narrating their history. Later, I visited and stayed with Vera in Volozhin several more times.

She has lived her whole life here, during which time, the multicultural Polish city of Volozhin came under Soviet rule and later became Belorusian. Vera’s four brothers and sisters were scattered all over Ukraine and Belarus. Vasil and Olga are, by now, deceased, survived by siblings Nina and the youngest, Galina. Their parents came from a peasant background: the mother tilled the fields, while the father, who was literate, worked for the local, as they say today, “self-governing authorities”. Vera stayed in her native city. Here, she got married, taking the last name Perepecha, gave birth to three children, worked and eventually raised her grandchildren.

This past January 1st, Vera turned 91 years old. She is not afraid of old age. Once, Vera told me that she is living out her final seasons, when every spring can become the last. She loves to dress up. The closet contains her entire life: each dress comes with its own story, its own memory.

“This is the end of my life. Everything important already happened and passed. Childhood, famine, war, love, children. Papa was executed by the Germans. Mama was left alone, pregnant with Galina, with the four of us children. In memory of Papa, I keep a hand-woven belt. He never beat us but I was mischievous and, once, he threatened to punish me if I don’t stop making trouble. I got scared. Stopped acting out of spite. I keep the belt to this day.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera went to buy a gold-accented fabric for her daughter’s prom dress. She was going to have the dress sewn in the House of Fashion in Minsk. But the atelier in Volozhin refused to sell the textile without a dress order. So, she had them make this lilac dress, just so that they would sell her the prom dress fabric. 

“I saw myself in the mirror for the first time when I was around ten years of age. We were selling sorrel to local Jews. Their house had a mirror. I became upset when I saw my reflection — I was pale, skinny and wearing an ugly dress. I ran home and cried. Mama stood me by a pail of water and said that I am the most beautiful. For one baggie of sorrel, we were paid five kopeks. My sister and I bought necklaces. I chose the lettuce-colored one. Went to the well for water, bent down to see if it’s deep or not and — whoosh — my necklace flew down. How I cried! It is probably still down there.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera’s outfit with a hat. She purchased the hat when she worked at the passport office in Volozhin. The hat is Vera’s favorite accessory.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera bought this dress for her daughter, as to not let money go to waste after the collapse of the USSR. The daughter got married. The dress stayed with Vera. On the right: Vera in her daughter’s wedding dress.

“So much happened over those years. I had to obtain everything on my own: education, work. Back then, major literacy was not required. I had four years of Polish school, then we were overtaken by the Soviets and studied under them for one year, then the Germans arrived. I stayed away from their school. They were recruiting into the Yunak — that’s like the Young Pioneers for the Soviets. Me and a few other kids got scared and ran away. After the war, I completed tenth grade through night school. By then, I was already working in the passport office. I had nice handwriting and was instantly hired. I started having money. I could now sew and buy outfits. The dresses invented themselves. The styles we drew from pedestrians in the city streets. Mama made patterns. My sisters and I did the stitching. I really loved hats. When I would go to Minsk on a business trip, I would buy myself a new hat.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera wearing the belt she keeps in memory of her father.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera wearing a skirt she turned into a dress with straps. The shirt was sewn by her daughter to wear for school military training. On the right: A suit Vera bought in a second-hand store to wear at her granddaughter’s wedding.

“I was trendy. I liked getting dolled up. And I had plenty of suitors. But I loved Sergey, my husband. For five years we had a friendship. He spotted me for the first time when my girlfriend and I were strolling the street, in the wintertime. That was a thing to do in our town: the young would get together and promenade back and forth along the streets. The boys would check out the girls. And then walk them home.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, wearing a dress handed down from a girlfriend. Purple is Vera’s favorite color.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing a transparent white blouse and a patterned skirt. Such white blouses were popular in Vera’s youth.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera, in a dress created by her daughter for her seamstress exam. The necklace comes from France, brought by Vera’s sister.

“I procured myself a plush coat. An uncle fastened wooden heels to the rubber booties. Mama would tie a beautiful scarf on me and pin it with a brooch, so that all the flowers were visible. Sergey fell in love with that scarf. Later, he would say that he did not see me or my girlfriend, just the scarf. I was wondering why that little soldier was following us around everywhere. We lived together for thirty one years. Raised three children. Lived in peace. There was no time to quarrel.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera, in a dress from her daughter-in-law. Vera was already retired when her son got married. The bride’s parents were against the union. Vera let the newlywed couple live with her and helped raise their firstborn. On the right: Vera’s daughter-in-law wore this dress when she first started dating her son.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera in the plush coat she got through special connections in a store in Volozhin region. She is wearing a floral pattern scarf called “shalinovka”. Vera was wearing this scarf when she first met her future husband, Sergey.

“Gold teeth used to be in fashion. I really wanted to put in golden crowns. Sergey tried to talk me out of it. But I did it anyway. I frequently recall how he sat me on his lap, hugged me and kept saying that he loves me. Sergey died from cancer after Chernobyl. He disintegrated in mere months. With him died all his money. I was left alone. The children were still in school and needed help. I handed all my pension over to them and tightened my belt. My mother-in-law, when she was dying, gave me her notebooks with prayers. Once I helped a woman cure her finger just by praying over her. The finger healed. Then, people started coming to me, asking for help. I did not deny them.”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Vera is wearing slacks she bought when she was hospitalizedl with cancer. Vera does not like slacks. In everyday life, she prefers skirts and dresses. But in the cancer ward where Vera was hospitalized, everyone wore trousers.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

On the left: Vera is wearing her daughter’s prom dress. To obtain this fabric so that it could be turned into a dress at the House of Fashion in Minsk, Vera had to commission another dress for herself in the Volozhin atelier (see lilac dress in first photo.) On the right: skirt and blouse, purchased by Vera at a department store 10-15 years ago.

“I did not accept money, but I did not reject food. That is how I survived. I am ugly, long-nosed. When I compliment myself, then I start to see — it’s true, I am beautiful. Each face works well with its own nose. All the young are beautiful. There is a whole album of these photographs. But life flew by as if in one day. Yours will fly by too. I’ve been thinking that it’s time to start giving away my dresses. What good are they to me? If I die, they will start to throw them out. This way, I will give them away to people myself. I don’t have a favorite dress. Whichever one I am wearing is my favorite. Let me show you what treasures I have. I am so rich except I don’t have a father or a mom…”

© Tatiana Tkacheva

A gray coat  worn by Vera’s daughter when she was a college freshman.

© Tatiana Tkacheva

Dress and shoes Vera set aside for her funeral.

*   *   *   *   *

*NOTE FROM THE TRANSLATOR:

I found this to be a very compelling human interest story and wanted to bring it to English-reading audiences. I had to take a few liberties and adjust the translation for easier readability / flow in English (mostly in the photo captions) — but I tried to stay true to the original voices of the author of the article and especially Vera, with her particular minimalist style of expression.

The original story in Russian was published on March 16, 2018, by Tatiana Tkacheva, on the website www.takiedela.ru that serves as the information portal for the charitable project “Nuzhna Pomosch” (“Help Needed”). I am not affiliated with them, though I do come across their posts sometimes and it appears that they do good work. They certainly deliver an admirable social service with releasing stories such as this one, from all over the vast expanse of Russia, giving publicity to people and places overlooked or forgotten by “the world at large”. 

For Background Extras in TV and Movies, High Heels Are Still a Sexist Double Standard

male female feet high heels shoes dance floor disco

There are unavoidable occupational hazards out there in the modern American workplace but having to wear high heels should not be one of them.

If this is not self-evident already, let’s recall that:

— Wearing high heels leads to significant long term damage to one’s health, causing a lot of pain in the process.

— Other than stroking our dysmorphic sense of aesthetics, high heels are useless in the workplace. Wearing heels does not enhance productivity of any particular task. On the contrary, high heels impede most physical performance as they literally limit one’s ability to walk.

— Wearing high heels is expected only from women, making it a sexist requirement and I have a problem with that.

Being a freelance writer, I don’t even have to put pants on every day, never mind formal footwear. So, I have kind of forgotten that high heels were a “thing” out there, still forced on women as part of their professional uniform. That is until I started moonlighting in the show business which, turned out to be a “shoe business” I cannot abide by.

New York City is basically a real-size movie set for many Hollywood productions. And so, to break up the isolated, sedentary work cycle of the home office, I occasionally sign up as a non-union “background extra” for TV shows and movies.

Even though the pay is nothing to write home about, there is no denying that it’s a fascinating scene. You get a behind-the-curtain look at how movie magic is made. The sets are amazing, the logistics of production are awe-inspiring and the background extras are a funky bunch of New York dwellers that are fun to get to know and to observe.

Sure, the hours are dismal: you can easily start at 6 a.m. and go for fourteen hours. And then need to come back at 7 a.m. the next day. Your time is divided between shooting the actual scenes and the be-ready-at-any-moment waiting outside the set to be called back in. Many hours of this can be quite grueling, without opportunity to sit down for long stretches of time and involving uncomfortably cold or hot temperatures.

But I can work with all that!! Because, frankly, the life of an NYC freelance writer / language translator is no less intense than the show biz — but with none of the ego dividends! My schedule can be erratic, gigs come in spurts and, when they do, I go on deadline-driven writing / researching binges for days and nights non-stop. During those peaks, I can get pretty underslept and malnourished, while the rest of the time is filled with mounting anxiety about what’s next. These are the occupational hazards of what I do.

In comparison, ten-plus hours on the movie set is not so bad! Being a background extra is all about physicality, energy, attitude and doing what one is told. I get to use my attention span for following instructions and getting into the spirit of the scene, not generating knowledge or catching subtle errors. This kind of work allows my overactive brain to rest and I gratefully welcome the relief.

But, you guys, I just can’t with the fucking high heels!

I realize it’s cinema and it’s all about things appearing exactly right. But is it fair to expect people (ahem women) to wreck their orthopedic health for an illusion? We shouldn’t risk it for anything, ideally, but definitely not for the sake of being a visually pleasing blur in the background of a 1-second shot. At near-minimum wage. With no benefits.

The last movie shoot I did involved a very high-energy dance scene that took several hours to wrap up. It required a prior fitting during which I was assigned a pair of 4.5 inch high heel boots that could have only been concocted by Satan himself on a day he was in a particularly foul mood.

But actually, those torture devices posing as shoes were made by a certain well-known New York fashion designer who shall not be named for purely comedic purposes. Instead, he will be referred to by an alias created from scrambling his first and last name: Space Zon.

And so, I wonder if Space Zon ever tried on his own creations. Mr. Zon is a fashionable man, known around town for wearing heeled footwear himself  — just nothing like the towering beartraps he crafts for women!

Mind you, 4.5 inch heels might not even be the end of the world, if they are remotely designed for human functionality. But these puppies were super unbalanced in the heel and if that weren’t barbaric enough, the toes were pointed up.

I invite everyone reading this right now to take a moment to do a mock recreation of this scenario with your own foot:

—  First, stand on your tiptoes where the foot is at about an 80-degree angle upwards from the toes.

— Now, try to stretch those all-your-weight-bearing toes UPWARDS.

A physical near-impossibility, no? But women wear crazy footwear like this all the time! Yet, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t do this to ourselves without social pressures or financial incentives. Even sexual masochists might want to keep away from shoes like these. Knee surgery is not sexy and neither are the bills.

Anyway, at the fitting, after trying on the abominable Space Zon boots, I asked the wardrobe people to please give me something more humane. But because the outfits have already been lined up and photographed, they were not keen to switch out the boots and assured me that I would be fine. “You look absolutely killer in them,” they said, as if that helped. Hearing the word “killer”, I actually imagined myself tumbling dramatically down the movie set stairs to my death, Space Zon smarmily smiling and waving buh-bye at me from the top of the staircase…

I’ve never had any beef with this particular designer but now that I’ve had the personal displeasure of wearing one of your creations, you’re on my radar Space Zon. Consider yourself my **arch** nemesis…

I went home after that fitting session with major anxiety welling up. I knew for a fact that agony was coming my way on the day of the shoot — and that there would be lasting hell to pay afterwards. I spent the next week buying up knee and ankle support sleeves and rubbing crazy amounts of castor oil into my joints.

Each day leading up to the shoot, the nervousness got worse. And the anger started creeping in too. How the hell is it even legal to expect people to sacrifice their bodies for this bullshit??

And this is where the gender inequality is apparent: male extras do not have to decide between working and injuring themselves or not working at all — but it’s a choice women in the same position have to make on the daily.

You be the judge. There are both men and women on the set of a movie shoot, alternating between acting and standing around for hours waiting to be called in. But one group is doing it in loafers and athletic flats, while most members of the other group are teetering on stilt-like foot contraptions. For at least ten hours straight. Can it really be said that the two groups are working the same job? Seems like one of them is laboring harder and, more importantly, in a hazardous environment.

They say American women make only 79 cents on a man’s dollar (well, that’s a statistic about white women, while African American, Native American and Latina women make even less than that…) But it’s not just the salary: it’s health compromises that figure into the wage gap equation too. In this particular job as a non-unionized background extra in the film / TV industry, while both men and women get paid the same [pittance], the women are doing lasting damage to their bodies that will, in no uncertain terms, cost them more money down the road!

Anyway, back to the movie set. My worry was completely confirmed on the day of the shoot: the boots did not get any more wearable since I tried them on during fitting. Everyone was directed to act wildly enthusiastic. The whole time I was hobble-jumping around that dance floor with an ecstatic smile plastered across my face, my mind was going:

…OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT

OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD

JUST PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

DON’T LET ME FALL

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT…

It wasn’t even about the pain, which was considerable, but, like most women, I’m used to grinning and dissociating myself from whatever is going on “down yonder in the foot regions”. It was about the very real possibility of wiping out on that dance floor because either one or both of my ankles would eventually snap to the side and bring me down. Or I could very easily slip or be pushed by another dancer — and these leather foot binds were NOT made for regaining one’s balance, were they, Mr. Space Zon? Gravity is fake news and equilibrium is overrated anyway.

Could I have spoken up some more? Yes. And risk being branded a problematic presence on the set. The pressure to do what one is told on a mega-budget movie set cannot be overstated. It crackles through the air like electricity. If superstar leading actors like Uma Thurman can be bullied into doing a stunt she knew would get her injured, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Extras are really there to be animated furniture. Talking on or off the set is not in the job description. Complaining gums up the rapid-fire works of the filming dynamics. It is pretty understood that you just suck it up and do what you gotta do. It’s true: the crew has a lot to pay attention to and babysitting extras isn’t part of the plan (and most of the time they are quite gracious about it.)

And I am very down with cooperating and staying the hell out of everyone’s way. But the bottom line is that it was dangerous for me to spend hours dancing in the cruel Space Zon hellboots and though, by some miracle, I didn’t take a spill that night, lasting damage was still added to my body.

Since that time, I only sign up for the dowdier background roles, where I am allowed to bring my own shoes that are not high heels. As you can imagine, this cuts down my options significantly.

But, like I said, I just can’t with the high heels, not anymore. I spent over a decade of my physical prime running around in skyscraper pumps that would put RuPaul’s drag queen brigade to shame. I was that chick on the dance floor doing pirouettes in breakneck platforms. Because catering to the male gaze was the default behavior at the time and I was classically too immature to not be flattered by the attention and too shortsighted to care about future health fallout.

And then there is the fact that, until recent years, flats were not an available retail option for young women: ladies’ footwear almost always had some sort of unnatural elevation, it was just a question of degree of discomfort.

But now, we have sophisticated foams, gels and goos to cushion our overworked extremities!! And kick-ass athletic footwear. And I’m sure attractive “feminine” shoes could also be designed with better materials and health priorities in mind (are you listening, Space Zon & Co.?) No one should subject themselves to torture by bad footwear when memory foam technology exists. I love it so much, I even have a marketing slogan for them:

“It’s Memory Foam — or Go Hoam!”

Memory Foam, if you’re reading this, it’s my humble gift to you for enhancing my mobility.

For what it’s worth, even pampered celebrities are giving up high heels because the self-abuse is too much. Of all people, Victoria Beckham, the poster child for strappy stilettos, has tossed the pumps for flats and seems pretty unashamed about it. Is this the Apocalypse?? Or is it that, once women mature out of needing to please everyone, they can take a critical look at all the unhealthy, self-destructive vanity practices they engage in to impress men and “society at large” and decide that they are over it?

Well, that’s one part of it. The other, sadder, factor is that after many years of mistreatment, our limbs just give out and refuse to function under stressful, unnatural conditions, leaving us no choice but to start wearing “comfort shoes”…

And so, it’s pretty much good-bye to being a film extra for me. Being that I am not even an actor, this is mercifully not a big deal, though I’m pretty bummed to have to give up work over sexist double-standards.

One upside: not having to suffer through any more bone-bending squeezewear by the likes of Space Zon and his sadistic fashionati colleagues.

If there is a Hell, I hope they spend an eternity there walking around on 4.5 inch iron spikes nailed directly into the bottoms of their feet and wearing sausage casing from actual sausages that is several sizes too small to breathe or move in… I mean, that’s actually still not as painful as what their models have to endure on the runway, but let’s be generous with our hell-wishing.

“Sociologically Speaking” with Fashion Designer Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall, Shwetambari Mody

Fashion Forecasting Board, Fall 09/10 © Shwetambari Mody

I have been looking to start writing little sociological features on things and people outside of the immediate realm of the social sciences — to see how our worlds correspond. Fashion has been on my mind lately. And, as luck would have it, I just recently came upon a young international textile designer, who also turned out to be a lovely person, who fits the bill perfectly.

I first saw Shwetambari Mody in an online interview with ITV. She was talking about her work and, just for a moment, flashed images of these gorgeous neck-scarves she created. Those scarves made an impression on me with their colorful pastels and breezy stylishness.

Having just recently moved back to NYC, I was reconnecting with old friends and professional contacts, some in the fashion industry — and lo and behold, was introduced to Shwetambari Mody! She agreed to answer a few questions and even let me see some of her work.

As it turned out, those scarves I liked so much were special. Shwetambari and her sisters conceptualized three scarves as a gift to their mother for her 60th birthday. They came up with three phrases that would capture the different sides of their mother’s personality and Shwetambari then sketched and Photoshopped out the rest and brought them to life in light boxes.

Light Box Scarves Shwetambari Mody

Light Box Scarves © Shwetambari Mody

Now that I got a closer look at these scarves, I can explain their appeal to me better. First of all, they were made with love and you can feel it, somehow. I see a classic look with deeply personal details. As a human, I am drawn to the emotion behind them. As a semiotician, I think of it as intimate content, wrapped in luxury form, which is an attractive and, dare I say, seductive combination.

As a person who has watched multiple seasons of Project Runway, another comment that comes to mind is “it looks expensive”, which is another way of saying “high-fashion”, I think. Accessories tend to serve more than one purpose: they are a form of artistic expression and are supposed to compliment your look, but also, they are a calling card of sorts, announcing your socio-economic standing to the world. Some people consider it frivolous to think or talk about such things, but we take for granted how much social identity management most of us do on a regular basis.

There are very few among us who do not, to some degree, consciously or not, care about the status and class they are projecting, in addition to just looking nice. Getting teeth straightened or whitened is not typically a medical necessity. We invest into “looking healthy” because good health, hygiene, neatness and time to work on one’s appearance are a sign of economic prosperity and, implicitly, social trustworthiness. Getting nails polished? It’s a message you are sending that you don’t do manual labor.

Now that I have met Shwetambari, I am additionally impressed with her level headedness and ability to combine the artistic with the pragmatic, which is a struggle for many creative types. I asked her why and how she went for both, the design degree and an MBA in branding. She said it was because she is an artistic personality from an entrepreneurial family and was always encouraged to pursue her own ideas and interests, as long as she worked very hard at it and kept in mind the business side of things. 

Shwetambari sees too many designers in the industry, who think only in terms of artistic pursuits, but have no understanding of the structural, economic and logistical workings of the industry. As a result, they run into snags when their plans crash and burn against the financial realities of the fashion business.

This problem is actually endemic to many professions that forcefully combine the creative and the pragmatic. This is certainly true of academia: some professors exist in their own intellectual and ideological bubbles, unaware of how their salaries get paid, how academic enrollment works or what the student lives are like. Academic administrators can be equally out of touch with the faculty’s intellectual orientation and the students’ best  educational interests.

Creative freelancers can be lightening-fast at their craft but incredibly slow — and I would go as far as to say psychologically paralyzed — to promote themselves and to set reasonable, sustainable, consistent prices for their services. It is quite understandable: not all are raised and socialized to think in business terms, not everybody has the acumen for it and not everyone cares. But for most creative types, some business courses, books, internships, apprenticeships — any way to get an idea of how things run and what things cost, will spare one of having to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis, if / when one chooses to become self-employed.

I would like to thank Shwetambari Mody for showing me her beautiful work, sharing a bit of her story, explaining to me new things about the fashion industry and indulging my sociological rants. Maybe she will let me follow up, when she releases her collection of Indian Luxury accessories in the future.