Becoming Herstory

Zula Rabikowska

2021 - Ongoing

London, England, United Kingdom

This is a photographic meditation on the idea of home, belonging, and identity. Most migration journeys are fuelled by hope, desire for change, and a fresh start. I was born in Poland, in the year that the Berlin Wall came down, a new dawn for Eastern Europe, and it was my mum’s desperation and craving for a new beginning and better future that encouraged her to uproot her family and move to the UK. We came to Scotland 20 years ago and this move created a physical and cultural rupture with my family and Polish society.

In this project, I explore the concept of migration as a starting point, but also look at its relationship with the past. Using self-portraiture, I wear my ancestors’ clothes, connect with my family heritage and highlight the war-torn complexity of Eastern Europe, in order to come to terms with my own migrant identity.

I created this project during the 2020/21 winter lockdown and was my own creative director, stylist, assistant, model, and photographer. The images were inspired by a personal need to reconcile parts of my family history and conversations with my mum.

My mum spent years bringing clothes and glassware from Poland to the UK, as these enabled her to maintain a physical bond with Polish culture. Keeping them facilitated a connection with the past and helped us cultivate the feeling of home, something that we struggled to achieve whilst living in the UK. Amongst many others, I include my mum’s first kitchen curtains, a handmade sheep coat, Coca Cola towels won in a radio competition, a New Years’ Eve collar smuggled from Thailand, and my mum’s dowry, all of which my mum has kept in our house over the years. I include items that are products of different migration journeys, some of which were smuggled across various borders during Communism in Poland. The process of temporarily “becoming” different women in my family was highly important in this project, as wearing these outfits, has enabled me to momentarily inhabit my mum’s, grandmothers’, and aunts’ lives and reconnect with my own identity as an immigrant in the UK. It was through this process that I had been able to acknowledge a significant part of my identity, which I felt I had to conceal in order to be accepted in British society.

Clothes contain archival information and are carriers of collective and public memory, they function as reminders of past moments and allow the memories of the deceased to exist within the present. I, therefore “wear” and “perform” my family history and reflect on how the memories and experiences of women in my family have shaped my identity.

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  • Nylon Revolution.

    Nylon first entered the Polish fashion market in the 1970s and largely replaced cotton. At the time this material was seen as fashionable, yet difficult to obtain. It was often perceived as sensational and for many people, it symbolised post-war Western modernity and foreign aspirations. In this self-portrait, I wear one of my grandmother’s favourite nylon blouses. People, but particularly women, yearned to wear nylon clothing to demonstrate how in-tune they were with changing fashion trends and went to great lengths to obtain nylon clothing, which was almost impossible to buy in the shops. I created the background using a blanket with images of cats, which my grandparents bought for me as a young child. To this day, cat motifs are frequently seen in Polish homes.

  • Cigarettes were for men and prisoners.

    This self-portrait is based on a photo of my grandma pretending to smoke. I wear her cherished top from the 70s, which my mum brought over from Poland with us. My grandma wore this top on holiday and told her friends that it made her feel liberated and feminine. My grandma loved wearing the colour red, but did not wear this top, or smoke in front of her children. My mum was surprised when she saw a photo of her mother pretending to smoke, as cigarettes were seen as unfeminine and harsh. Smoking was an activity that was largely reserved for men and it was shocking to see women smoke. I did my hair and makeup in the way that my grandma used to, using her favourite shade of blue for the eyeshadow. For the background, I use my mum’s Christmas tablecloth which has been in our family for many years and is only used for special occasions.

  • We didn’t have bananas as children.

    My mum told me of the excitement in the 1990s when the Berlin Wall fell and it became possible to buy bananas, an item which most Polish people only saw on TV, if they were fortunate enough to have one. She distinctly remembers seeing non-European food for the first time and how “Western” it made her feel as a young adult. I use oranges and bananas, now wildly accessible and often eaten at home, and hold my grandma’s fruit platter and wear her favourite Sunday outfit, which she often wore to Church. The background is made up of different neck scarves, which in Polish have a distinct term: “apaszki.” Women in my family-owned multiple neck scarves for every occasion and I used them to create this background collage.

  • The best way get new clothes was to knit them yourself.

    I use a traditional folklore head scarf which was handknitted by my great-grandma and was passed through generations. This design was frequently seen in the Polish countryside, where my grandma’s family are from, and this scarf was given to me as a child. Women often made such scarves during cold winter months to keep busy and wore these over their heads to keep warm. Wearing the scarf over your head and hair as a woman was very popular for my grandparent’s generation and was a sign of respect. To this day, older family members recommend that women cover their hair when entering a Church. I also wear my grandma’s favourite blue dress, which she often wore to host parties. In Poland tea is drunk with lemon and sugar, rather than with milk, and I use both of these items in the photo to hint at that tradition.

  • First Day at Work.

    I wear my mum’s favourite suit, known as a “kostium.” To get an outfit made by a local seamstress in the 80s, people had to buy the fabric, zips and buttons separately, and later attend multiple “try on” sessions. During my mum’s youth going to the seamstress to have your measurements taken was often a “girls’ day out.” Female friends would get together to visit their favourite seamstress and spend hours together trying on different combinations of material and designs. My mum had this outfit made when she first started working as a teacher in the local secondary school. The matching top and skirt were considered professional and highly respectable. My mum had many similar outfits made for different days of the week at work. For the background, I used my sister’s special birthday blanket she received as a child.

  • Sometimes we went to church to warm up.

    Winters in Poland used to be very harsh, with temperatures frequently falling below 20, sometimes 30 degrees. Going to a Catholic Church was risky during communism in Poland, but my mum told me of occasions when people would go to church in order to warm up. I wear my great-grandma's former crimplene dress from the 50s, which was handmade in Bzów, the village where my family is from. Crimplene was a synthetic fashionable material, which was highly popular as it did not have to be ironed. I also wear my mum’s favourite winter coat, which she often wore to mass as a young woman. The background is made from a traditional Christmas tablecloth.

  • We all kept some animals, either for eating or for making clothes.

    I wear my aunt’s first sheepskin coat, known as “kozuch.” When my aunt was growing up harsh winters were the norm, with temperatures falling way below minus 20 degrees and it was important to own multiple thick coats. It was impossible to buy such coats and often people kept their own animals at home, which they used to make clothing independently, and later consume the meat. There was a profound lack of everything in society at the time, so nothing was wasted. The background is created from a folkloric scarf bought in Poland. Floral motifs and the colour red were popular across Eastern Europe and to this day make up the cultural landscape and are now mass-produced. Traditionally, these scarves were worn by women over their heads, but now these designs have been reinterpreted and appear in contemporary clothing, like the skirt in this image.

  • Save it for the Sanatorium.

    During Communism, it was the norm for families to go on state-funded holidays, often to health spas, known as sanatoria. Sanatoria were constructed across the Soviet bloc as part of the communist propaganda, which promoted leisure and wellbeing. Every year my grandparents and other family members prepared extensively for such trips. In this photo, I wear my grandma’s cherished swimming suit, that she wore to sanatoria treatments, which my mum had kept over the years. My grandma didn’t know how to swim until her 60s, so she bought this outfit with the state holidays in mind. For the background, I use a birthday blanket I received as a child.

  • Show the neighbours we are Western.

    Before the Berlin Wall fell down items associated with capitalism, and what to this day older generations call the “West” were smuggled into Poland. In the early 1990s when such items, like Coca-Cola, entered the market freely, people aspired to have them in their homes. After 1989, such items became “legal” displays of being Western and moving away from the communist past. My family won these red and white towels in a radio competition, the colours resemble the white and red Polish flag, and the text “Zimna” translates into the word “Cold.” I wear my grandma’s favourite nightgown, which she only wore on holiday, and never at home as it was seen as too provocative.

  • We queued to go to the shops, but there was nothing to buy.

    Due to severe shortages and widespread lack of sundry items during Communism, it was normal for families to go on “trading holidays”. It was the custom in my family to go to other Communist countries during the 60s-80s to trade and barter items such as coffee, foreign currency, or jewellery, for clothes, fabric or household appliances that could not be easily obtained in Poland. Such trips required extensive planning and crossing multiple borders between other Soviet bloc countries and Yugoslavia. Being caught at the border with items that were forbidden during communism, such as American Dollars, had severe consequences. I wear one of my grandma’s favourite tops, which was a product of an extensive barter journey through Bulgaria, Romania and Russia, with various materials being smuggled into Poland and later made into outfits. The background is created from my mum’s kitchen curtains that she had made when she moved out for her parents’ house after she got married.

  • We didn’t want to pray in Russian.

    Poland is a very Catholic country, but during the Communist regime Catholicism was largely suppressed and replaced by the Russian Orthodox Church, with Catholic celebrations being pushed underground. It was risky for Polish people under Communism to attend mass, or celebrate weddings, baptisms, or other religious holidays. In this photo, I use a traditional Easter tablecloth visible in the background. I also wear my mum’s jumper, which she wore as a young adult, replicating her hair and pose from family photos.

  • Even though we didn’t have money, getting a perm was necessary.

    Even though, Communist Poland suffered from severe lack, many people, such as women in my family, still had high fashion aspirations. At the time Poles aspired to be seen as “Western” and most of fashion inspiration came from smuggled store catalogues from Western Germany from a popular store called “Burda.” Local seamstresses used these catalogues to create portfolios for their clients. People saw these catalogues as fashion compasses and often blindly copied these designs in their determination to appear less Eastern European. In this self-portrait, wear my grandma’s favourite party blouse, which she chose from the “Burda” store catalogue, and I use a special name day blanket for the background.

  • You had to conform, or faced being denounced.

    My grandparents often told me that during communism neighbours, friends and colleagues were encouraged to actively participate in “social surveillance”. People were asked to report one another if they were doing anything suspicious, capitalist or Western. Among many other things, this included being in possession of American literature, or English books. People were always on guard in fear of being reported to the state. In this photo I also hold my grana’s special wooden jewellery box, which my mum has kept over the years, which was prefect for hiding “Western” memorabilia. The background is created from a special blanket my mum bought in a Polish market and continues to use it on a daily basis.

  • Why are you carrying these eggs to Church?.

    Easter is one of the most important days in the calendar, which is celebrated by taking an egg basket to church. When we first moved to the UK with my mum and my sister, we lived in a small northern town in Lancashire, and people would stare at us as we carried wicker baskets filled with eggs, horseradish, ham and bread to a local Church and asked the priest to bless it with water. My mum held onto these preparations as a way to stay connected with Polish traditions, rather than out of religious belief. In this photo I hold a traditional Easter basket, which my family used in Poland for decades, with a traditional handmade Easter decoration visible in the background. I also wear my grandma’s Baltic Sea amber necklace, a material which is referred to as a “native” gemstone of Poland is locally known as “Polish gold.”

  • I wasn’t allowed to move out from home until I was married.

    As a young adult, my mum was forbidden from moving out from home until she was married. Even when she was accepted to a prestigious Polish university, she was not allowed to rent her own flat or live in student accommodation, as my grandparents saw that as “too liberal” for a young woman. In this photo, I wear one of my mum’s favourite work suits, which she had made after a work promotion. I also use her former briefcase, which she carried to work every day. The red and black blanket is particularly important, as my mum bought it when she got her own first flat in Glasgow after she divorced my dad.

  • You need to wear brown clothes to be respected in England.

    Before moving to the UK, women in my family advised my mum to stop wearing colourful clothes, to make her stand out less and assimilate into the British society. As a result, before her departure, my mum purchased many new items, such as the dress in this portrait, in various shade of brown and beige, with hope that this will mask her migrant background. In the photo I hold my grandma’s cherished hand mirror with the Eiffel Tower, which was bought in Paris by her brother. The background is a traditional birthday blanket my mum has kept over the years.

  • I lit the candle on her grave.

    My grandma passed away suddenly in 2010, which really impacted my mum and our relationship with Poland. After her death, our connection with Poland stared to erase over time, as she was an anchor linking us back to “home”. My mum has kept my grandma’s funeral candle over the years, and I hold it in this photo in her memory. I also wear her favourite red jacket, and use a traditional Polish table cloth, which we often use for various holidays, birthdays and name-days.

  • We never threw anything out, you never knew when you might need it again.

    My family was raised in a perpetual fear of lack. This lack not only extended to food, but to household items, clothes as well as furniture. My mum carried this fear with her when she moved to the UK, which impact the way she continues to hoard various items from Poland, which she no longer uses. In this photo, I used bedsheets, which my sister received for her christening in Poland over two decades ago, which are never used, but my mum is too afraid to throw them away. I also wear my grandma’s favourite summer dress, which over the years has become a staple in my wardrobe.

  • My Mother's Dowry.

    New Year’s Eve is one of the most celebrated days in Poland, and for my grandma and mum, it was an occasion to get dressed up. In this self-portrait, I wear what was referred to as the Nefertiti Collar. This collar belonged to my grandma, which she bought from an independent seller from Thailand. I used a red sequin material, which my dad used to sell in his clothes shop in Poland in the 90s, and in my hand, I hold a crystal glass, which was part of my mum’s dowry. My grandparents bought crystal from local sellers, or smuggled it from other Eastern European countries, to create a dowry for their daughters. During Communism in Poland cash was worthless due to extreme inflation and people often invested in crystal, which was later passed down through the generations. It was also common for people to have their own crystal productions in gardens and sell such items, this glass was bought from my neighbours in Poland.

  • When I arrived at London Victoria there was nobody to greet me.

    My mum moved to the UK in 2000 before Poland was part of the European Union. For many months ahead of her move, the whole family saved to help her to buy her coach ticket to London. At the time catching a plane was completely unaffordable so travelling by coach was the only option. These are the clothes which she bought purposely for the coach journey from Katowice (Poland) to London Victoria. She wore this very backpack and carried the two suitcases, transporting her life over from one country to the next. For the background, I use an old sleeping bag, which was one of the first items my mum bought in the UK after she arrived.