This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). It is part one of a three-part series.
“Roupa não tem importância. Moda tem. É história, criação, liberdade.”
“Clothing does not matter. Fashion does. It is history, creation, freedom.” - Zuzu Angel.
STITCHES FOR A SON
The Brazilian designer Zuleika ‘Zuzu’ Angel began her fashion career by making clothes for friends and relatives, before taking a seamstress job during the 1950s. Working in Rio de Janeiro, the heart of Brazilian fashion and culture at the time, Zuzu began gaining widespread attention throughout the following decade. With numerous international showcases under her belt, she opened a shop in Ipanema in 1970 and filled it with the patterned lace, silk ribbons and pearly shells that she loved to use in her designs.
She took inspiration from Brazil’s native plants, animals and colours: cheetahs, parrots and butterflies ran, flew and floated across the fabric. She made her name with her re-imagination of the beauty and boldness of traditional Brazilian culture. Her trademark was an angel; that was until her son was dragged behind a military jeep with his mouth attached to the exhaust pipe. Then things changed.
Her son, Stuart Angel, was a member of a resistance group called Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (MR-8) in the late 1960s. The group was an offshoot of the Brazilian Communist Party, whose aim was to engage in armed resistance against the military dictatorship ruling in Brazil until 1985, after the deposition of João Goulart in April 1964. A previous effort by the government to wipe out rebel groups had destroyed the original MR-8. Stuart’s resistance group took up the same name as an act of defiance.
Stuart joined the second incarnation of MR-8 while still a student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro - a popular recruiting ground for leftist dissidents. He was an enthusiastic and active member, even marrying a fellow activist, Sonia Maria Morais. But in June 1971, under the leadership of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, he was arrested without charge and taken to the headquarters of the Aeronautics Information Centre (Centro de Informações da Aeronáutica - CISA), where it is claimed he was tortured and killed.
The cause of Stuart’s death remains officially unconfirmed; the government refused to give any details on the incarceration of political prisoners at the time, and his body was never found. Details of Stuart’s horrific death instead came from a fellow prisoner, Alex Polari de Alverga, who wrote to Zuzu about the details of their incarceration. Polari de Alverga’s account was substantiated in 2013 by José Bezerra da Silva, a soldier at the CISA at the time, during a session of the State Commission for Justice in Rio de Janeiro, which was set up to investigate internal persecution in the Ministry of Aeronautics during the dictatorship.
After reading the letter from Polari de Alverga, Zuzu made it the basis of the campaign she carried out in Brazil and America, to gain justice for her son. The contacts and influence she had obtained during her time working in America meant she was able to appeal to senior government figures such as Ted Kennedy, senator and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, who then brought up the case at a session of the Senate. She also personally delivered a letter about Stuart’s death to Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to Richard Nixon, president at the time.
Their influence eventually resulted in the dismissal of Brigadier João Paulo Burnier, whom Polari de Alverga named responsible for Stuart’s arrest, and the Minister for Aeronautics and head of CISA, Márcio de Sousa Melo. However, American influence could not uncover any details about Stuart’s death. Zuzu was never able to discover the true cause of why her son died, or finally bury his body.
Despite trying to gain justice through diplomatic and political avenues, she also turned to her designing as an alternative means of protest and expression. Zuzu’s angel logo had once been a decoration and play on her name; now it was a symbol of her son’s death and her own helplessness.
Her grief and anger were the basis of her ‘Helpless Angel’ collection, which was shown at the house of the Brazilian consulate general in New York. The collection included dresses with traditional bands of mourning on the sleeves, but the highlights were the three white dresses embroidered with multi-coloured child-like designs of military caps, jeeps, and suns behind bars. The bright, simple symbols read as a deliberate contrast to the gravity of the events they represented.
With the inclusion of traditional mourning bands, and the white cotton dresses reminiscent of First Holy Communion gowns, her collection and her own choice of clothing appeared sympathetic to Catholic tradition. After the collection had been shown, Zuzu appeared in full mourning, complete with the lace mantilla - a veil usually seen worn at Catholic funerals. Instead of the standard rosary, she wore a belt of crucifixes.
Zuzu played on the contrast between her designs and her maternal mourning. The image of a grieving mother is always powerful, especially in Southern America, where there are strong associations with the maternal figure. Zuzu had forcibly had her role taken away from her and, as such, crafted herself a new identity. She had always dressed chicly but flamboyantly - most photographs show her nestled in furs - and her choice to appear in black, covered by a veil, was a powerful expression of the change she had undergone. The clothes were not the work of a designer, but of a grieving mother.
Words: Lucy Garrett
Image source: Vogue.globo.com