Communist Dress

Early 1920s Soviet Fashion
Early 1920s Soviet Fashion

Communist dress appeared in diverse guises in Russia and East European countries during seventy-two years of communist rule, and both similarities and differences between them were informed by the political, economic, and social organization of society in the respective countries. The differences between those countries were twofold. The first group of differences is related to dogmatic implementation of communist orthodoxy, while the second refers to the fact that Soviet Russia turned to communism in 1917 and went through a series of very different communist practices, from Leninism through the NEP and its reintroduction of semicapitalism, to Stalinism, even before World War II. Soviet-style communism was imposed on other East European communist states, and after 1948 they were forced to reject their own fashion traditions and to officially accept the centralized Soviet model of clothes production and distribution. In that way, the periodization of communist dress codes from the 1950s onwards followed similar patterns in Soviet Russia and the East European countries. Still, practices of dress were diversified. Contrary to the prevailing image of communist dress as uniform and gray, three styles of clothing-official, everyday, and subversive-coexisted in communist societies, even though all communist regimes initially rejected the notion of fashion as decadent and bourgeois.

Bolshevik Rejection of Fashion

In 1917, Bolshevik Russia attempted to abolish Western-style dress. The sartorial eclecticism that nevertheless prevailed in everyday life was heavily attacked, first by the futurists and later by the constructivists, as part of petit-bourgeois culture.

The constructivist artists Varvara Stepanova, Liubov Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Vladimir Tatlin all proposed simple, hygienic and functional clothes. In 1923, Stepanova's programmatic article, "The Dress of Our Times: The Overall," with its insistence on functionality, anonymity, simplicity, efficiency, and a precise social role for clothes, was the most radical proposal. In practice, only Popova and Stepanova entered into real production when, in 1923, they became textile designers in the First State Textile Print Factory in Moscow. They abolished the traditional motives of flowers, but their minimalist geometric patterns never had a real chance compared with the old decorative florals, either inside the factory floor or among the traditionally oriented mass consumers.

Nadezhda Lamanova

After seizing power, the Bolsheviks nationalized both textile factories and retail establishments, and their activities centralized. The most prominent pre-revolutionary Russian fashion designer, Nadezhda Lamanova, who catered for both the aristocracy and the artistic elite, and had been officially recognized as a couturier to the court, embraced the political and social changes brought by the revolution. She lost her well-established high-class fashion salon, but subsequently either was in charge of, or actively involved in, the various state-initiated institutions dealing with clothes and fashion, and worked simultaneously as a costume designer for theater and film.

Westernized Nep Fashion

When the Bolsheviks finally won over their external and internal enemies in 1921, they had no resources left to implement their avant-garde social and cultural programs. In 1921, with the approval of Lenin, the New Economic Policy (the NEP) was established. By recognizing private ownership and entrepreneurship, the NEP signaled the return of capitalistic practices and a bourgeois way of life. In the NEP circles of newly-rich Russian capitalists, Western fashion experienced a true revival. The designer Alexandra Exter was instrumental in starting the Atelier of Fashion (Atel'e Mod) in Moscow, founded in 1923 by the Moskvochvey textile company. It was supposed to fulfill two tasks: supplying prototypes for mass production and catering to individual customers. In reality, Exter and her colleagues dressed the new NEP bourgeoisie in highly decorated, luxurious clothes. The aesthetics of the Atelier of Fashion was laid out in a fashion magazine Atelier, of which only one issue was published, in 1923. During the NEP period, the Western-style flapper dress found itself in the company of jazz and Hollywood movies, as attitudes toward the Western bourgeois urban culture shifted.

In 1924, Lamanova was put in charge of the artistic laboratory that supplied prototypes for the Kustexport, the craftsmen's association founded in 1920 in collaboration with the Ministry for Foreign Trade to export folk art. She and her collaborators (Vera Mukhina, Alexandra Exter, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, and Nadezhda Makarova) agreed on the approach of putting Russian folk motifs on current Western women's wear, and her folk-embroidered day dresses received the Grand Prix at the International Exhibition of Applied Arts in Paris in 1925.

Stalinist Representational Dress

Stalin's rise to power and the introduction of the First Five Year Plan in 1929 brought the NEP to its end. During the mid-1930s, the Stalinist regime encouraged social distinctions by creating huge disparities in wages and created a new socialist middle class, which received material goods, from housing to fashion, in exchange for supporting the system. For the first time, communism recognized the relation of fashion to femininity and adornment, allowing its incorporation into the new mass culture that was emerging.

In the mid-1930s, a huge official campaign of civilizing the new socialist middle class dictated, among other things, both good manners and appropriate dress. Stalinism abolished all previous socialist dress styles: the avant-garde, the westernized NEP, and the thematic textiles, which in the late 1920s featured the urgent issues of the day-construction, electrification, and agriculture. Stalinism needed a different, conservative fashion style.

Moscow House of Fashion

In 1934, fashion consciousness was officially confirmed as part of Stalin's mass culture with the opening of the House of Fashion in Moscow. The established fashion designer Nadezhda Makarova was its first director, while the doyenne of Russian fashion, Nadezhda Lamanova, was appointed artistic consultant. The main task of the designers and the sample-makers engaged by the House of Fashion was to impose genuine Soviet styles and to make prototypes for mass-production by huge textile companies.

Two luxurious fashion publications, the monthly Fashion Journal (Zhurnal mod) and the bi-annual Fashions of the Seasons (Modeli sezona), were designed in the House of Fashion and published under the auspices of the Ministry of Light Industry. In 1937, the same ministry advertised chic hats, fur coats, and perfumes, featuring fashionably dressed and made-up women, contrasting sharply with the poverty-stricken reality. Houses of Fashion were instituted in the other cities and capitals of the Soviet Republics, making clothes production highly controlled and centralized. But in the centrally organized system, which did not recognize the market, access to goods was the main privilege and determined hierarchically. Clothes and fashion accessories were either too expensive or unattainable for the masses.

Whereas the early Bolsheviks rejected even the very word "fashion" and insisted on functional clothing, Stalinism, in a sharp ideological turn, granted fashion a highly representational role. Stalinist dress featured a new Stalinist aesthetic, a blend of Russian folk tradition and Hollywood glamour, appropriate to Stalinist ideals of classical beauty and traditional femininity. The Bolshevik austere and undecorated "New Woman" became a "Superwoman" during Stalinism, and dresses with accentuated waistlines and shoulders followed her curvy body.

East European Communist Dress

The Soviet system of centralized production and distribution of clothes was forced on East European countries after 1948, when the communists seized power, regardless of their previously higher levels of technical and stylistic skill in clothing design and production. The East European communist regimes embraced early Soviet ideology, officially rejecting Western fashion. East European communist dress was not only born inside a reality burdened with postwar material poverty, but also inside a reality stripped of all previous clothing references. Clothing was forbidden to evoke beauty or elegance. It was officially claimed that functional, simple, and classless communist dress, which would fulfill all the sartorial needs of working women, would result from serious scientific and technical research.

In the following decades, however, the East European communist regimes' attitudes toward clothes and fashion were influenced by political changes in the Soviet Union. A new ideological turn occurred when Khrushchev affirmed his rule in 1956 and declared war on excessive Stalinist aesthetics. Leaving the worst practices of Stalinist isolationism behind, Khrushchev opened the U.S.S.R. to the West. In the late 1950s, official attitudes toward Western fashion mellowed in the communist countries. Nonetheless, with neither tradition nor market, and aspiring to control fashion change within their centralized fashion systems, the communist regimes could not keep up with Western fashion trends. By the end of the 1950s, the official version of communist fashion returned to traditional sartorial expressions and practices of traditional femininity, bearing witness to the regimes' inability to create a genuine communist fashion.

Communist Fashion Congresses

From that period onward, the official fashions were exhibited in glamorous fashion drawings and photo shoots in state-owned women's magazines, representative fashion shows, and ambitious presentations at domestic and foreign trade fairs. However, clothing design, production, and distribution remained highly centralized throughout the communist world, leading eventually to serious shortages and dilution of quality. A glamorous official communist version of fashion existed as an ideological construct, despite the shortages and poor quality of clothes in everyday life. Annual fashion congresses between communist countries, at which new fashions were proposed and adopted, began in 1949 and continued through the end of the communist period.

As the need for an official communist fashion increased at the end of the 1950s, when the regimes rushed to clothe their emerging communist middle classes, the fashion congress became more ambitious and rotated among communist capitals, for which participant countries prepared collections of prototypes. The official communist fashions included orgies of luxurious fabrics and extravagant cuts for excessive evening wear and day wear of ensembles of overcoats and matching dresses or conservative suits, accompanied by ladylike handbags, shoes with high heels, hats, and gloves. This conservative style was diluted into anonymous and moderate dress codes through official womens' and fashion magazines. Media insistence on timeless and classical sartorial aesthetics conformed with socialist values of modesty and moderation and discomfort with individuality and unpredictability.

As the race between West and East to industrialize transformed into competition over standards of living and consumption, political and social shifts affected communist fashion trends. After decades of rejection of Western fashion, Christian Dior presented a prominent fashion show in Moscow in 1959, and in Prague in 1966. In 1967 an international fashion festival took place in Moscow, presenting both Western and East European collections. Coco Chanel's presentation was recognized as the best current trend, but the grand prix was awarded to the Russian designer Tatiana Osmerkina for a dress called "Russia." When mass culture and Western youthful dress and music trends could not be held back anymore, the communist regimes officially recognized a rationalized version of consumption, and the Five Year Plans in the 1960s and 1970s addressed fashion and appearance concerns. The fashions in the plans, however, did not materialize in the shops.

Everyday and Subversive Dress

Jeans provide the best examples of both the production inadequacies of the planned economies and the futility of their attempting to ignore fashion demands. Domestic production of jeans started in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Poland only in 1975 but was marked by failures. In 1978, the Soviet media reported that manufacture of a new denim fabric, the fifty-sixth in a row, was officially promised to begin. The official ambivalence toward Western fashion continued throughout communist times, informed by isolationism, fear of uncontrollable fashion changes, and the rejection of the market.

In everyday reality, however, women in those societies found alternative ways of acquiring clothes, from doing it themselves (communist women's magazines regularly published paper patterns), to the black market, seamstresses, and private fashion salons, which catered to both the ousted prewar elite and the new ruling elite.

Scarcities in state shops and black market activity made Western fashion goods particularly attractive, and the immaculate and fashionable personal look became an ideal for millions of women in communist countries, who were prepared for many sacrifices in order to achieve it. From the end of the 1960s, unofficial channels, with the discreet approval of the regimes, became increasingly important, and dress and beautifying practices occupied an important position in second societies and economies. Small fashion salons, shoe repair shops, hair salons, and beauty parlors offered goods and services that the state did not provide.

In contrast to the official communist fashion, which suited the slow and over-controlled communist master narrative ideology, everyday dress reflected a wide range of influences, from bare necessity to high fashion. Fashionable street dress undermined the command economy by manifesting change, encouraging individual expression, and breaking through communist cultural isolationism.

Stilyagi style
Stilyagi style

But overtly subversive dress also existed in communist countries. Throughout the 1950s, the Soviet "Style Hunters" (Stilyagi) had their counterparts in other communist countries, such as Pásek in Czechoslovakia and the Bikini Boys (Bikiniarze) in Poland. Their rebellious dress codes produced the first elements of a Westernized youth subculture that became very important in the following decades. Western rock arrived in communist countries in the mid-1960s, and, by the 1970s, many domestic rock bands already existed. Youth subcultures, expressing themselves through distinct dress codes, continued to grow throughout the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, throughout the communist world. Each Western youth trend had its Soviet counterpart, from metallisti (heavy metal fans) to khippi (hippies), panki (punks), rokeri (bikers), modniki (trendy people), and breikery (breakdancers).

In parallel, the communist regimes allowed the activities of groups who expressed their creativity through dress as an art medium. Because they catered to small numbers of like-minded people, they were believed to pose no threat to official ideology.

In Russia and East European communist countries, the official relationship with fashion was informed by ideological shifts inside the communist master narratives. It fluctuated between a total rejection of the phenomena of fashion in 1920s Russia and in the late 1940s in East European countries to a highly representational role of the official version of communist fashion from the 1950s onward. But the communist regimes failed to produce a genuine communist fashion. From the late 1950s, communist women's magazines started to promote classical, modest, and moderate styles, which suited the communist fear of change and its ideals of modesty. Throughout the communist times, design, production, and distribution of clothes and fashion accessories were centrally organized, which eventually led to serious shortages and a poor quality of goods. For communist officialdom, fashion could be art or science, but it was never recognized as a commodity. That is the reason why in the other two communist dress practices-everyday and subversive dress- fashionable items retained a large capacity for symbolic investment. While the official communist fashion was an ideological construct unaffected by poor offer of clothes in shops, everyday and subversive dress used a whole range of unofficial channels, from DIY (do-it-yourself) to black market, private fashion salons and networks of connections. From the 1960s to the end of communism, those unofficial channels grew in importance, and fashionable dress found place inside second societies and second economies in the respective communist countries.

See also Fascist and Nazi Dress; Military Style.

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Communist Dress