Apr 27th, 2022, 06:40 PM

From the Streets of Besieged Sarajevo to Angelina Jolie’s Desk

By Danijela Mitrovic
How Meliha Varešanović proved fashion persists as a form of symbolic communication and resistance even in times of war and political strife.


Meliha Varešanović unconsciously enchanted the world with her beauty and style and while people in the UK, France, and Italy were talking about her, Meliha was just thinking about how to survive another day in the war-ridden Sarajevo. 

For years, Bosnian women could not get from one place to another without fear of losing their life. How do you resist grenades, psychological torture, and trained, hidden snipers, when you are just an ordinary woman trying to survive? How do you maintain normalcy when your world is turned upside down? The answer to these questions was: put on your lipstick, wear your best clothes, keep your head high and go to work every day.

“I wore one of my favorite dresses and sandals. I remember it was the first morning I went out with short hair because there was no water and no shampoo, so I got a haircut, but I curled my hair and it turned out to be a real hairstyle. I put on lipstick, mascara, fixed nail polish. I walked slowly, heads held high. I never ran, especially in the war. I didn't want to let those who watched me through the sniper know that I was scared. I always took care of myself, but then, it seems to me, even more. During the war, I wore all the best I had in my closet,“ said Varešanović in an interview with Balkans Aljazeera. 

Sarajevo was under siege for 1,460 days. Despite the shortage and basic groceries, no electricity, and water, the women of Sarajevo found a way to rebel against the cruel circumstances of the world they were living in. 

It was Spring 1995 in the besieged Sarajevo. 38 year old Meliha Varešanović walked proudly alongside the streets of  Sarajevo, head held high and lipstick on her lips, high heels, and a colorful dress. Her appearance, attitude, gait, and neatness were her only weapons, which she "perfected to perfection" and with which she fought against the aggressors. 

At the time she passed the shelter with sandbags, shooting started. But she continued to walk, not flinching. This is the time her world-famous photograph was taken by the English photojournalist Tom Stoddart. 

The moment he captured perfectly represented the dignity and glamour of Bosnian women and Meliha was a true example of how women carried themselves in that time period. Despite the shortage and basic groceries, the women of Sarajevo found a way to rebel against the cruel circumstances of the world they were living in.

Normal dress codes were followed until the state of emergency was declared. What you wore depended on your occupation. However, in the 1990s, all the rules were rejected. Hairdressers worked in bomb shelters, and most of them did not even charge for their services. Women did not give up their leather and fur coats, hats, handbags, and heels, even when they had to walk for miles.

They used clothes and glamorous looks as a means of expression, and in this way sent a message that they did not want to just wait at home for the war to end.

The message these women were trying to send was not only a response to the people who were mercilessly killing them, who were trying to defeat them by cutting off their food, water, and electricity — robbing them of any comfort they might have felt. This was their response to the foreign media and all of the people who humiliated them. 

“I remember that foreign journalists only painted covered women, poor women fleeing what they found themselves in, in tattered things…. And that was the truth, the terrible truth, but it was also the truth that the women in Sarajevo did their best to at least fix that ugly image of the war with their appearance, “ said Meliha in the same interview.

Meliha’s photo became famous all over the world, and Meliha didn't even know that someone had taken it. Later, that photo ended up in the study of the actress Angelina Jolie, it served as the inspiration for her Bosnian set movie “In the Land of Blood and Honey”, which was about the Balkan Wars at the period when the photo of Meliha was taken. 

“When Angelina Jolie was making her Bosnian-set movie she asked for a copy of the original photo because she said it inspired her. She had it pinned up on the wall while she was editing the film," recounted Tom Stoddart for ChronicleLive.

Clothing can convey a lot of messages non-verbally. In addition to those visible at first glance, such as the position in society, social status, or belonging to a certain group, there are also those more hidden that, when found in certain circumstances, serve as a response to the existing situation. In that way, Meliha's dress became much more than a piece of clothing - it became a symbol of resistance.

“When the shots were fired near me, around me, I didn’t run, nor did I take the smile off my face. My message was simple - you will not conquer us. And I persisted in that. “  - Meliha Verasanovic