Polish Costume

Julie and Jannett, 1978. One of a few first generation Polish American friends I had growing up. So cute, we could have sold you swampland in Florida

My Polish folk costume lived in a blouse box, not a sturdy one, but one that folded at the corners. The box always kept its shape because it lived in my parents’ bedroom closet on the top shelf. I say lived because referring to the costume was like talking about a living thing.

It was stored energy that would only come out during important church and Polish events. I would crane my neck up at the impossibly high shelf and wait for my mother to put the box on the bed. I loved to open it. I would run my fingers around the white baguette beads and the multi-colored sequins, cold to my fingertips, until I touched the black velvet. I loved touching it so much I wanted to pull the beads off– not to destroy it but to appreciate how it was put together.

Wearing it was like synchronizing my breath with someone or something else. At age 6, it felt sacred.

I wonder if the Queen feels this way about her crown jewels- walks around with them like they’re breathing, knows that history and culture sit on top of her head.

Flower head wreath

When I was home for Christmas and snooping about the house, I came across my flower wreath that I wore in the picture above. It was wrapped in a clear plastic baggie sitting on top of porcelain dinner plates in the kitchen china cabinet. In the old days, at my childhood home, the crown lived separate in a built-into-the-wall credenza, probably to give it more breathing room. It sat on the highest shelf next to the lead crystal cordial glasses. Same plastic baggie, it appears. My mother’s love for plastic wrapped items is the reason I still have 33 year old paper Christmas ornaments in mint condition. I would make fun of this more, but it’s too easy for me to see my love for antiques and documentaries stemming from this care. You should see my scrapbooks.

Other things mom wraps in plastic

I thought about how much I loved wearing the paper flower crown. How it didn’t occur to me then, that I would outgrow my costume. I remember begging for a new one. I was hoping for an even flashier one like I had seen on some of the older women with thick ribbons running off their shoulders, hand-painted roses running down each strip. Their velvet bodices were a lush carpet of sequins. But no one was coming or going from Poland in the early 80s. So I never got another one. My parents shushed us every time the news came on. I asked them what Martial Law meant.

In just a few quick years, the costume became baby stuff. Pride turned to self-consciousness. I didn’t want to be caught dead in anything Polish. I wanted Levi’s. I wanted Carvel Ice Cream cake birthday parties. I wanted clothes from the Gap, not Zayres or Stuarts.

If I remember correctly, my Krakowianka costume was a gift from Kazimiera Wojciechowicz, otherwise known as Babcia, my mother’s mother. She bought it for me. I don’t think my mother ever owned anything like this in her life. I can be pretty sure of that, because she had to share her shoes with her sisters. My costume got passed on to my nieces. I’m sure it’s in one of their attics now, in the same box waiting to be opened by the next small hand.

What sticks with me the most is that everything about my costume was delicate, especially the necklace. It was made of layered strands of pink, blue, silver and red beads. Actually, bead doesn’t feel like quite the right word.

The glass balls were more like tiny strands of Barbie Christmas ornaments that got larger toward the center. If I pressed just right, I could easily crack one between my fingers.

And I did, just to know its fragility.