Brazen by Julia Haart
This is the story of a woman’s life, or rather two lives. Julia Haart, now an immensely influential fashion designer and “one of the most powerful people in fashion”, dates her life as a seasoned international traveller and businesswoman as being under ten years old. Before that she was a very different person in difficult circumstances, living in ultra-orthodox religious communities, in a marriage that was virtually arranged, and with the four children which was regarded as a very small tally. A process of change which could be seen as a transformation, but which she sees as a difficult transition, was born of several needs, for a different way of life for her children, for financial security, but ultimately about freedom for herself as a person. Written in the first person, Julia comes over as a determined woman who directed her immense energy into being the most observant girl and woman she could be for the first forty years of her life. This is not a spoiler in that the book is related to a Netflix programme called “My Unorthodox Life”, and is subtitled “My unorthodox journey from long sleeves to lingerie”.
This book proceeds with the furious energy that Julia shows in her life, from what I gather from the text. Like her parents, she was born in Russia, and when they became secret converts to Judaism as a young couple, it was still very risky to be publicly active in religion. They managed to escape the fairly tough regime of the time, and were offered sanctuary in America after some time in a transit camp in Rome. This proved to be a move into an intensely religious community, where not only the laws of Judaism were kept, but also the extra strict requirements of a particular sect. Not only was Julia sent to a religious girls only school, but her home life was an extremely strict regime. Though there were moves which meant a slight relaxation of the rules, essentially Julia was brought up with the expectation of early marriage to a husband who she barely knew, no chance of a secular college education, and multiple pregnancies in a society where eight children was not considered remarkable. As her mother embraced every aspect of a Jewish woman’s life, after a ten year gap she gave birth to several children, and Julia records how she was effectively their main carer as well as continuing her studies until her marriage at the age of nineteen.
The sense of this book is that Julia was and is extremely driven. When her family became so involved in their faith, she seems to have embraced it as her life in every aspect. It was not just that her family and community expected her to wear suitable clothing, restrict her food to kosher in every respect, and never watch television or have non jewish friends, but that she felt guilty if she deviated from the requirements. She recalls lengthy times spent in private prayer on a daily basis, a confessional journal, and the very real fear that she would suffer terrible consequences if she failed to be the most observant person she knew.
This is a book that does not hold back on any point, in terms of the intensely personal sexual ignorance she shared with her husband, and her refections on her failures in both her religious life and secular transistion period. This is a book which reveals her to be an intense person who may well have been aware of the extent of the unfair and unreasonable pressure on her for the first forty years, but who chose to conform in many ways. It is an honest book, which made me aware of how the particular form of religious belief that she followed affected every tiny detail of her life. There is no concealment of her difficult decisions. She comes over as someone who has always been aware of her own abilities, her own striving to succeed in her life, whatever the demands made on her at the time. It is an impressive book on many topics, and succeeds in offering real insight in the ways that women are treated in an intensely religious, fundamental setting and in the world of international fashion. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book, and recommend it to those interested in the role of women in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.