Back-to-School Clothes, Back in the U.S.S.R.

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When summer winds down and my teenage daughter gets ready to start the new school year, she and I go through a ritual. I open her closet and take things out. She wrinkles her nose, rolls her eyes and ignores me, her eyes firmly glued to a screen. I pile clothes on her bed, taking them off hangers or rescuing them from drawers filled to such capacity that opening them is a challenge. She takes her eyes off Instagram for a moment, and says:

“Mother, I don’t want to go through this now. Can’t we do it another day?”

I keep going.

Eventually she sighs a great, big sigh, puts away her phone and joins me. The process of separating clothes into three piles begins. One for charity, another one for the local second-hand-sale Facebook group, and yet another for out-of-season storage (we live in Europe, where our closets are too small to hold several seasons worth of clothes). It’ll take us a couple of hours to go through all of her stuff, but for me, it’s not work. It’s a welcome bonding experience that pulls my daughter away from her usual pursuits: maintaining her Snapchat streaks, talking with friends on WhatsApp and bingeing on recent Netflix releases.

When I was a teenager, my mother and I also often bonded over clothes — but in a very different way.

I grew up in Moscow in the Soviet era, and my peers and I despised the apparel churned out at the time by the planned Soviet economy. Constantly on the hunt for foreign-made clothes, we spared no time, effort or ingenuity to find a pair of pants, a dress or a blouse that didn’t look as if it came off the conveyor belt in the textile center Ivanovo. We saved money to purchase them on the black market, begged to borrow them from classmates fortunate enough to have parents who traveled to Warsaw Pact countries, or — in my case — made them ourselves.

In 1980s Moscow, the fashion magazine BurdaModen — a German monthly — was second only in popularity to bootlegged tapes of Vladimir Vysotsky, Russia’s outspoken bard. Smuggled in by those lucky enough to travel abroad, each issue that made it behind the Iron Curtain created a fury of organizing activity in the Soviet workplace. At the Economic Institute where my mother worked on generating five-year plans and at the state gas company, Gazprom, where my father designed pipelines, a sheet of paper made the rounds as soon as the new issue of Burda came into someone’s possession. By the end of the day that paper was full of names of co-workers desperate to borrow the magazine. With access to its pages limited to just a couple of days for each person on the list, we quickly replicated patterns that caught our eye and then passed it to the next fortunate soul.

My mother and I pored over the magazine the very night she brought it home. We discussed silhouette lines, we considered the potential ease or difficulty of the job, and we estimated the availability of compatible cloth in the empty Soviet stores. In the end, with the decision made on what was to be my next skirt or my next pair of pants, I copied the patterns from Burda onto the old front pages of Moskovsky Komsomolets, the daily newspaper of Moscow’s Komsomol chapter.

My mother, meanwhile, scouted the city for fabric on her lunch breaks. If the magazine model wore plaid, she had to find plaid. If it was stripes, she looked for stripes. If polka-dot seemed in style, she crisscrossed the city searching for polka-dot. Occasionally someone would buy the same fabric for the same Burda pattern and later we’d run into each other on the metro, dressed as if we had stood in the same queue at GUM, Moscow’s central department store, to partake in a rare apparel shipment from one of our Eastern Bloc allies

Once my mother and I started each new sewing project, we worked on it for days, stealing an hour or two during the week from homework and housework and teaming up with my grandmother on the weekends. To the hum of the sewing machine and the squeak of our old scissors, I learned to spread the fabric flat on the kitchen table, pin the pattern to it and trace it with chalk. I practiced eyeballing a one-centimeter margin when cutting it out and I mastered threading and rethreading our clunky Tula, the Soviet-made sewing machine. Each fitting brought me closer to finishing a blouse meant for the New Year’s Eve celebration, to putting final touches on the sarafan destined for the spring dance, and to owning the pants I wore on my first date with a boy I liked.

While we worked, we talked: about fashion, about school, about the demise of the latest Politburo leader, and about which banned samizdat book we were reading. We drank tea: sometimes with jam, conserved the summer before by my grandmother, and sometimes with my mother’s famous sharlotka, or apple cake. When we finished a garment — several fittings and often weeks later — I ironed it and hung it in my closet along with our previous creations. Then I wore it day in and day out. There was no rule that stipulated a daily change of clothes in the Soviet Union. We didn’t own enough garments to warrant that.

It’s now been over 30 years since I last traced a pattern or basted a seam. I no longer own a sewing machine and most of my clothes come off sale racks at the local Zara. When I want a skirt hemmed or a pair of pants taken in I go to a tailor. My only connection with needle and thread is an occasional sock that needs mending or a button that has to be reattached. Unfortunately my daughter doesn’t even know how to do that. With cheap clothes readily available in our neighborhood, teaching her to make her own didn’t seem essential. I never showed her how to sew.

She knows how to shop, though. Every year she declares that she needs to overhaul her closet and disappears into Pull&Bear, her favorite store. There she assembles the styles she’s seen and liked either on the streets of Madrid, on television or among her friends. Rather than planning each outfit, buying the fabric and stitching the garments, her new wardrobe quickly materializes in shopping bags. But the concept is the same: She cares about controlling the image she presents to the world just as I did at that age.

She’s excited about each new item, but clothes don’t mean nearly as much to her as they did to me as a teenager.

Yet they do their job: My daughter and I talk while we sort, and once every season I can count on her closet to guarantee some together time.