The Blue Velvet Dress

Johana Trejtnar
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Written by Johana Trejtnar, aged seventeen (a story that starts with my great-grandmother)

– 1933 –

Milada Steinerova Kavkova wearing her own dress | Photo: archive of  Johana Trejtnar

This month had been such a blessing so far, the sun seemed to be smiling down on Milada as the whole world conspired in her favor. The days were beautiful, leaves and flowers budded, a warm breeze fluttered around and she, Milada, was going to be a seamstress! Milada was from a little village with one square, a church, a cemetery and a pub. To her, the vastness of the world was reduced to a sprinkle of towns and villages in the Czech Orlické mountains. The hills were named after the river Orlice, which thrummed its way through Milada’s world before colliding with the more famous Labe in Hradec Králové and forfeiting its name for that of the larger river, which then carried its contents all the way to the Northern sea. The villages had always been far from the industrialized world, both geographically and in their way of life. Yet the war and new republic had rocked the region’s rigidity and while the people still lived in a very closed-off community and pigs and wheat remained their everyday occupation, in the last decades their eyes had been forced open to a bigger world. Every woman worth anything had a subscription to the magazine Czechoslovak Woman, the pictures opened in a nearby town and became an instant hit, people adopted ideologies faster than they could milk a cow, but nowhere was the awe for worldly ways felt more poignantly than in fashion.

Milada learned to sew with a matronly neighborhood seamstress Mrs. Michaličková, a friend of her mother’s, in her house alongside fifteen other young girls. There she stitched quilts, darned stockings, embroidered collars, attached buttons and sewed aprons with incredulous precision. Some of the apprentices stayed for a week and learned the basics to keep a household of torn pants and holey socks afloat. Some stayed for the whole winter and learned not only how to mend, but to create clothes for their future families. And a few, including Milada, stayed for over three years. They were the future seamstresses by profession, the providers of wedding dresses and mourning clothes for an entire village.

Dresses that she made | Photo: archive of  Johana Trejtnar

And most importantly, they learned to love the craft. Milada was no exception. She adored it all, but what she loved most were the glimpses of beautiful city dresses in newspapers, magazines and, then she was lucky, movies. She begged her father for stray pennies to buy elaborate patterns, shiny beads and how-to magazines and scrutinized every fancy piece of clothing she knew city folk were wearing. She couldn’t wait to start sewing such clothes of her own.

The way everything worked, before the red star cast its shadow upon half of the modern world, was that in one region only a limited number of women could call themselves seamstress. The reason was obvious, if anyone could be a seamstress, they would soon be driven out of business because the competition would be too great and the prices too low. And if only a few chosen ones could sell their clothes, the quality of work and the security of the seamstress’ livelihoods would be guaranteed.

Economic practicality aside, this meant that a young Milada, fully knowledgeable in the art of clothes and even keener to put her knowledge into practice, could not be a seamstress while all the seamstresses in the region lived and worked. And since, at seventeen, no village boy had come to claim her hand, she got a job as a governess in a not too distant town.

She liked the children and the town was pleasant enough, but the work was exhausting and her restlessness grew with every passing month. Each night she prayed that a seamstress position would open up and she could open a business of her very own.

Dresses that she made | Photo: archive of  Johana Trejtnar

And then, one fateful morning in the middle of January, just as she was about to take the children out on a walk and worrying about where she put the baby’s bonnet, she got a letter. After that, so much happened in days that, looking back, she remembered only glimpses. A clamor of children clinging to their departing nanny. The sun reflecting on the roof of her childhood house. Her parents’ faces when she told them the news. Both proud and practical. Joyous and knowing. The golden print on a shiny dark sewing machine left to her by her predecessor. And finally, the scissors handed to her by her beaming brother – a brass pair she had always wanted, sharpened specially for cutting slippery fabric, with a rich red ribbon attached to the handle. That way everyone would know that those scissors were hers alone, the young new seamstress’s prized possession.

She couldn’t wait to make her first wedding dress.

She couldn’t wait to welcome little apprentice girls into her house.

She couldn’t wait to grow old with her spools of thread and little needles. She reveled in seeing herself as the granny she would one day be, her life a path of garments strewn along the path she had tread.

– 1959 –

It was a cold, glum evening and Mrs. Milada Kavková’s hands shook as she used her brass scissors to cut symmetrical pieces of fabric out of the luscious dark blue velvet. Her scissors weren’t as shiny as they once were, she could see that even by candlelight, nor did the pretty red ribbon decorate their handle. One of her children untied it to play with years ago and it must have gotten lost in the hurricane of time. This used to be easier. She thought of all the hours in her youth when such cutting was like a second nature to her. The scissors used to be an extension of her hand. Sometimes she thought about how one day doing something can be your whole soul, your essence and then another day, a few years later, that same thing can be as foreign to you as shackling a horse. But what can one do, that comes with the progress of time. Yesterday your fingers knew perfectly how to thread a needle, today you’re expert in the right way to grip a cow udder. Time moves on, dreams dissipate, that’s just the way things go. It wasn’t often that her mind skirted such reflections. Where was one to get the time? What with the kids and job and cooking and cleaning and five-year plans and modern milking machines and new ways of the world she was lucky to scratch up the time to utter a few words to God before collapsing in bed and facing another day on the morrow.

She couldn’t complain though. Not when her fate was so much better than that of so many others. There was the farmer who just disappeared one day, they say that he ended up somewhere in the mountains, far away from his family and former life. There were the neighbors down the hill, poor souls, who lost everything and the husband went mad and hung himself. There was the little Novák girl from the next village over who suddenly couldn’t marry good old Franta because of all the fancy modern terms no one could get straight at first. Bourgeoisie. Such words, sharp as icicles, soon became so ingrained no one could even remember a time when they didn’t exist. She sometimes wondered whether there even was such a time.

Milada Steinerova Kavkova with their own cow when she was old | Photo: archive of  Johana Trejtnar

She was lucky, she knew, but still, sitting there by candlelight, stitching away, knowing that tomorrow at four in the morning the cows would need her, or, more precisely, the five-year plan would need her, was a little grueling. Ah, what became of the times when she reveled in treating lines of eager villagers to the newest city fashion? But alas, she was glad she never joined the nationalized sewing workshop in town.

She wasn’t like the other seamstresses, who could go gawking about anywhere just to earn a penny and sew god knows what with god knows whom under god knows whose command. The woman who taught her to sew once said that a real seamstress wouldn’t be able to live without her sewing. Milada agreed with her then, but today she knew better. How foolish they all were. It was never about the sewing. It was about the apprentice girls and the smell of a workshop and seeing your neighbor's daughter in that wedding dress you made her. Besides, Milada’s husband never thought her sewing was a respectable occupation, so at least he could be happy. He always said that women who sewed danced with the devil.

Who did women working in cowsheds dance with?

She touched the soft material for the future dress, buried her fingers in it, imagined her daughter, walking down the street in the beautiful blue velvet, and for a moment she got lost in the back of her mind, in a maze of spools and buttons and years long past. Only the toll of the faraway church bell urged her to get up, blow out the candle, carefully fold the fabric into the darkness of a closet to be continued the next day and get to bed.

– 2021 –

from the left: Johana Trejtnar,  Rade Meech-Tatić,  Michael Lovitt and Amelie Piper | Photo: Radio Prague International

I look at my grandmother, fussing over a blue velvet dress as I pull it over my sweater and jeans in her stuffy appartement. She had dug the garment up from the depths of her closet saying her mother must have made it for her 60 or 70 years ago when my grandmother was in her early twenties – a mother’s gift to her married daughter. The dress fits surprisingly well, considering my grandmother is about a head shorter than I am. She tells me it looks beautiful, better than it ever did on her. I don’t believe her.

Johana Trejtnar in the studio | Photo: Radio Prague International

There are holes that mice must have nibbled away over the years on the hem and under the right sleeve.

I’ll never be able to wear it, yet it is more beautiful than any dress I’ve ever seen. History is hidden in the stitches in the seams of this dress, the folds hide the fates of two young women, one of whom I’ll never know. I have only the marks her needles left behind.

Author: Johana Trejtnar
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