cold-weather helmet liner bathing suit

This has become an annual tradition for me, a kind of tribute to my mother. I apologize to those who have read it before, but I have new readers who I think will enjoy it.

It’s bathing suit season, in preparation for the unveiling of the bathing suit I have been collaborating on, I think reposting this old story about my mother is appropriate. If you haven’t read it before I hope you enjoy it. 

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During World War II, my parents became refugees and ended up in a DP (displaced persons) camp in Germany, where they were taken care of by an organization that eventually became a part of the United Nations. This is a picture of my mother, in a bathing suit she made there, out of cold-weather helmet liners. When my parents fled from Latvia they had been able to bring, like refugees everywhere at every time, only what they could pack in one suitcase. 

What they also had was pride. Riga, the capital of Latvia, has sometimes been called the Paris of Eastern Europe. With that moniker comes pride in the beauty of the city, of course, and pride in the vibrant cultural life—but also pride in the way the population dresses. Latvians are known for their taste, as well as the quality and tailoring of their clothes.

My mother, the daughter of a tailor, was especially proud of her fashion sense and style; all the women in her family were. Even as refugees, living in barracks and with uncertain futures ahead of them, pride extended to the way one presented oneself to the world. 

The camps, situated mostly in Germany, were like little autonomous cities. People had jobs, went to makeshift schools, governed themselves, played sports, celebrated and mourned. Everyone sewed, tore apart and resewed, darned, knit and did what they could to keep themselves nicely and appropriately clothed for the life of the camp. 

One day my mother decided she needed a bathing suit. She was able to obtain, I do not know how, cold-weather helmet liners from American soldiers. (No jokes please, she was a good girl! I’m guessing spring came and the guys took pity on the pretty refugee.) Being a good Latvian seamstress, she was able to fashion the bathing suit you see below.

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Whether you think a bathing suit in a DP camp is a necessity or not, in this case it was the mother of invention. People had so very little, but what they had was the best they could take with them from their little Paris, and they cared for it with pride.

My mom went a step further, thanks to the American soldiers who provided her with cold-weather helmet liners!

Anita

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20 Comments

  • Remarkable story! And she was a beauty, as well as being a talented seamstress, and a resourceful woman!

  • Alana says:

    I grew up among a number of World War II refugees who had moved to New York City and were establishing new lives. They included the parents of the person who became my childhood best friend. They rarely talked about their experiences. I loved this post, which gave me a glimpse into what may have been part of their experience.

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Alana,

      I’m really glad this jogged some good memories for you. Yes, some people talk about their war time stories others don’t, or can’t. My parents and their friends did talk. Then we hear about holocaust survivors that never ever talk about what they went through. I always find that absolutely understandable. I know my parents didn’t tell me absolutely everything.

  • I love this story and the photos of your mother are priceless. You do look like her:-)

  • What an inspiring story! Somehow style seems almost genetic, if you have it not matter what the circumstance you will always “make it work”. A true beauty.

    Accidental Icon
    http://www.accidentalicon.com

  • Haralee says:

    That is incredible styling and sewing! The original refashioner. The subtext is so much more than just making the suit.

  • Anna Pagowski says:

    What a wonderful story, Anita! Keep ’em coming! I’m glad your parents opened up about some experiences – not easy for anyone involved in a traumatic situation, but so important & healthy for others, such as the children, to know if their experiences! Paldies!

  • Anita, this is an amazing story! And what a woman your mother was; being able to create that bathing suit under those circumstances, I really am in awe. And such lovely pictures, how precious they must be to you! Esther xx

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Esther,

      The pictures have become precious, over time. I didn’t always appreciate them. Now, they have become great stories that lead me to believe that there is some sense in what I’m doing. Talking about the beauty of women and how even in adversity they can create beauty. Anita xx

  • Elena Peters says:

    Anita, my parents were also in those camps, having fled from Lithuania. For many years, they did not speak of that period of time and they have no pictures. Your mother was quite ingenious and it just shows you how industrious people could be in very bad circumstances.

  • Karen warner says:

    I like this. I really like this. Thank you.

  • Haralee says:

    It is such a great story is is worthy of running every bathing suit season!

  • Mary B. says:

    What a wonderful heritage you have! And now you are continuing to pass on your family’s sense of style to a new audience. Thanks for an uplifting story.

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