Like me, Elena (or Helena as her friends call her) is a member of the Governors’ Board at a local NHS Mental Health Trust. I am always impressed by her keen sense of style and the fact that she makes her own clothes. Here she is at a recent meeting with her home made blouse and waistcoat. She says “you should point out that I have issues with the sleeves as one is higher than the other. Chiffon is a difficult material to use – especially for a beginner”.
Last week I went to see her at home – she lives in a lovely sheltered flat in Greenwich – where she treated me to tea and apple cake.
“I am Czechoslovakia – Slovakian – from a very disadvantaged family. Not a poor family, but from a background that meant we faced discrimination first from the Nazis, and then later under the Soviet Union. I was born in 1947 after the Nazi occupation and the war had ended – one of three children. My father loved clothes – maybe more than you would expect for a man – who knows? We had a dressmaker who made clothes for my mother, my sister and me. We used to get fashion magazines and catalogues and decide what we would like to have made. I really loved the process – it was a little bit of luxury. In these graduation pictures my mother, my sister and I are all wearing tailor made clothes. My father too. You can see his suit is superior to my brothers’ which was off the peg.”
“The Slovaks had their own culture, but of course this was not acceptable to the Germans, or the Russians. So national identity was something that was suppressed. To a certain extent some dancing and singing groups were allowed – this allowed us to keep our traditions alive. Each Slovakian region has its own national dress – some are brightly coloured and some use embroidery. They only use natural fabrics and usually include hand made lace.”
“Here is a photograph of me from my First Communion. The lace that was used came from a local factory – I know it was very expensive.”
“My friend and I are wearing red velvet dresses in this photograph (below L) – the dresses were made from the same piece of cloth. It was Christmas time. And the other dress (below R) was pale blue bound with blue and white binding – these were in the 1950s. I always like the idea of made to measure – something only I could have. The lady who made our clothes – she was a seamstress on the side – her normal job was as a clerk. The fabric was usually bought from a foreign currency shop so it was special. I brought one of the dresses she made for me to the UK, but because had grown too big for it – I sold it. I remember getting about £30 for it.”
“I qualified as a doctor, then as a cardiologist. I moved to Prague where I worked with people with leukemia. It was very sad work. I worked locally for two decades but came to London in 1982. It was difficult to find work as a doctor so I retrained in Psychology. I became an expert in eating disorders, until I retired. I still love clothes. I have a sewing machine. I have been to classes to learn how to cut patterns, but I am still learning. I like making cushions and painting on silk too.”
Elena showed me a range of brightly coloured cushions and a patchwork quilt she had made for her bed – this should be on show alongside Tracy Emin’s if you ask me! The second shot shows Elena, in a skirt and top she had made from fabric that was, unbelievably, only £1 a metre from the table outside a shop in Lewisham owned by a Russian. She is sitting on a patchwork cushion she made herself from scraps of velvet and corduroy.