Reviews Fashion in the Soviet Union. A glimpse of everyday reality
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, pp 87-89
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 25, 2016
Moscow, 1955: A group of Komsomol youths in grey uniforms gather in Gorki Park. “Hand me the tool,” their leader orders and is quickly offered a pair of scissors. The group sneaks its way through the park to an illegal party attended by young, fashion-oriented men and women, known as stiliagi. The stiliagi are dancing, drinking, and laughing; bright red lipstick and colorful patterns in motion contrast with the pale, stern Komsomol group that lurks in the shadows while one of them peeks inside. Suddenly the intruders are spotted and chaos ensues: “Riot!” shouts a stylish young man as the Komsomol group attack with their scissors. They rip up nylon stockings, tear clothes, and cut off the men’s long hair. “Every stiliaga is a potential criminal,” say the leader of the Komsomol group, equating indecent clothing with immoral behavior.
So opens Valeriy Todorovskiy’s 2008 Russian film Hipsters (Stiliagi), which, with its focus on colorful individuals and their unique dress code, captures a typical preconception about the Soviet Union and fashion: that there was none. A well-known American television commercial from the 1990s plays on the same idea: Russian women walk down the runway in identical gray uniforms (contrasting with the many choices available in a US burger chain). It was assumed that color was reserved for the West and that fashion was ideologically impossible in the Soviet Union, where socialist politics did not allow consumerism and where ideology infiltrated every aspect of life so deeply that it demanded uniformity on every level. In Fashion Meets Socialism: Fashion Industry in the Soviet Union After the Second World War, Jukka Gronow and Sergey Zhuravlev disprove such notions and offer insights into a different reality, proving that fashion was a thriving industry in the Soviet Union in spite of the many obvious political and economic restrictions.
The authors begin by asking how fashion could thrive in a planned economy, explaining that the five-year plans determined years in advance even what kinds of buttons and what colors of textiles would be produced; the Soviet economy appears to contradict the conditions inherent in the quick changes of fashion seasons. The book’s nine brief chapters focus on the post-World War II period and are centered on three main preoccupations that go beyond the economic considerations set up in the book’s introduction: the ideological considerations behind Soviet fashion, the economic conditions of the Soviet garment industry, and the internal organization of the Soviet fashion industry in the post war period.
Fashion Meets Socialism begins by taking the reader through the establishment of a kind of anti-fashion in the 1920s, to a stated “need for fashion” motivated by a proletarian definition of aesthetics centered on the idea that functional equals beautiful; ultimately, Soviet fashion became organized to respond to needs of hygiene, comfort, durability, and beauty. The book identifies an unease in Soviet society that consolidated a number of paradoxical positions: fashion was considered both frivolous and necessary; dismissed as bourgeois luxury yet constructed with effort for the people. As a symptom of a capitalist economy, fashion should have been obsolete, and yet it thrived.
Examining rich source materials from state archives, media coverage, personal memoirs, and interviews conducted by the authors themselves, they ultimately show that, however frivolous, fashion was of the utmost importance in the Soviet Union. While the book states that there was no unified Soviet ideology on fashion, it shows convincingly that clothes came to hold social and political implications. From decisions about what kind of tie a Komsomol boy could wear to explicit attempts to imbue Soviet clothing with proletarian ideals, fashion was politically relevant. As the authors show, this was true even during the early years of socialism. In fact, the first Soviet house of fashion opened in Moscow in 1934, immediately after the great famine, during a time when many still lacked clothes and shoes. The book provides ample examples of how the reality of poverty did not influence the fashion choices or home décor of the political elite, who did not quite live up to Soviet ideals of modesty. The importance of fashion as a political symbol is perhaps best exemplified in the book’s discussion of the reception of Soviet design abroad and Western influences on Soviet fashion. In spite of an anecdote about Brezhnev trying on jeans, completely untroubled by the political implications of the garment, the political influence of the fashion houses in international relations is best illustrated in a photo depicting Patricia Nixon and Viktoria Brezhneva in conversation during a visit to a Soviet fashion house that served as both an aesthetic and a political space.
The next part of the book deals with the issue of how ideology conflicted with real living conditions. The book makes it clear that, in spite of the authorities’ dismissal of consumerism as harmful, Soviet citizens held legitimate expectations of an increased standard of living; it was implied by socialist ideology and explicitly stated in propaganda that the Soviet Union would surpass even the West in terms of well-being, which came to be measured materially. The book shows how this clash of expectations and economiccapabilities resulted in complaints from the public that were not addressed due to the reality of the Soviet economic system: it was more important for factories to meet their state-ordered quota than it was to respond to consumer demands. A more unexpected insight is how the fashion industry and its organization led to inadvertent competition among local and state bureaucracies: there was much overlap between the Ministry of Light Industry, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Everyday Services, and the Ministry of Local Industry, all of whose functions are carefully elaborated on and explained in the book.
Chapter 8 examines the media and how fashion was described by the press; it is one of the richest chapters of the book. The authors categorize journal articles dedicated to the topics of economics and fashion, and discussions about the management of resources, as well as the topic of fashion under socialism. Calls for modesty and avoiding extravagance are explicitly linked with socialist values by journalists who discuss the high standards of socialist beauty and the dangers of showing off and excess. This chapter offers the most in-depth discussion of how something that could be described as Soviet “decorum” was expressed through fashion, how behavior and etiquette were considered intrinsically linked to visual appearance. This point is reached, for instance, in the book’s discussion of the stiliagi culture (described in the film mentioned above), which provides examples of the media coverage that defined their dandified lifestyles and their choice to stand out as a lack of culture. This section of the book gives a rare view of men and fashion since it describes exclusively examples of stiliagi men. This fact is not pointed out or problematized by the authors, who mention on a few occasions the differences between fashion for men and for women in the Soviet Union while apologizing for the lack of systematic studies of femininity and masculinity in flux in the society compared to the West. While it seems implausible that there are no such studies, the rich material collected by the authors themselves offers a great opportunity for a gender analysis of the workings of fashion in the Soviet Union. Such an analysis would have been a substantial complement to the other themes, and perhaps ought not to have been so quickly dismissed.
The book covers a long span of time and offers many elucidating examples that define each period, but it does not account for development or changes in state politics (except, to some degree, the economic market conditions). For instance, a 1967 picture of a model wearing a “Red Army-style” outfit in commemoration of the October revolution illustrates an ideal that seems far from the proletarian ideals underlying the design of uniforms made after the revolution, which were truly and visibly inspired by the Red Army. Differences between the original proletarian ideal and this neo-proletarian fashion truly exemplify the short memory of the fashion industry with its quick seasons and suggests that, even if the Soviet Union had a slower fashion cycle, it too suffered from aesthetic memory loss. A last point of criticism is that, unfortunately, poor grammar, frequent typos, and longer literal translations from Russian distract from the book’s thorough investigation and important argument.
Ultimately, the book’s greatest merit is that it offers three main points of view into the fashion industry in the Soviet Union (ideology, economics, and the workings of the industry itself) which together offer a glimpse into the everyday reality of the Soviet citizen. The book ought to benefit scholars of fashion as well as novices to the field. Ours is a time fascinated with Soviet-era commodities: films such as Stiliagi, and Wolfgang Becker’s internationally acclaimed German production Good Bye Lenin! (2003), testify to an interest in the material reality of the socialist period. Fashion Meets Socialism is a book that meets this interest and offers a historical context to the fictional stories. In some ways, the book complements the films’ comedic genre through its lightheartedness; beyond its economic and sociological analysis shine photographs and entertaining examples. Indeed, at times the book’s insights into Soviet life and fashion are both smart and funny! ≈