Then & Now | Babushkas

The babushka, in terms of Cleveland history, seems eternally linked to perogies and polkas, and in some ways that is valid – all relate to central and eastern European life, a life made large in our city by the many immigrants who came from those areas and perpetuated their customs in the city. But the story of this simple head covering is much more complex.

Its name, which means grandmother in Russian, immediately stereotypes the babushka as something worn by older women.  But that does not hold.  Its utility, a simple square of patterned cloth folded into a triangle and then worn by tying the two ends at the end of the fold under the chin, meant that it was a good solution to a bad hair day, or more importantly, an adequate covering to attend church if one did not have the funds for a fancy hat. Then too, in a church, the babushka was a reminder of the simple veil worn by Mary – humble and respectful. It was and remains a signifier of religious belief and custom.

Wearing it downtown for shopping in the post-World War II era did, indeed, seem to brand someone as being “ethnic”, at least in the opinion of one well-born Clevelander who complained about the dress of women visiting the shopping district – he was particularly hard on sloppy shoes and babushkas. Yet, that too was a bit off the mark because by the 1960s the babushka has gone “Hollywood” – after all Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis and Brigette Bardot wore them, Hepburn most famously in Charade. So maybe mother, or her style conscious daughter in the 1950s and 1960s, was combining heritage with fashion.

Certainly, that seems to be the case today as babushkas (aka head scarves) are making appearances in Vogue and other fashion magazines and everyone who is “anybody” seems to be adopting them. But you can certainly bet that one could buy a whole lot of perogies for the cost of one of these fashionable head coverings — so thanks grandma (and mom) for knowing what good fashion was, long before it became fashionable.