Official Socialist Dress

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Let Them Wear Beige


Fashion Theory, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp. 127164 Reprints available directly from the Publishers. Photocopying permitted by licence only. 2004 Berg. Printed in the United Kingdom.

Djurdja Bartlett

Let Them Wear Beige: The Petitbourgeois World of Official Socialist DressFrom its very beginning in 1917, socialism had a stormy and hostile relationship with fashion. In Bolshevik Russia, Western style dress was attacked as a bourgeois gendered practice. The Constructivist artists proposed radical changes to dress and textile design and wanted to break with all preexisting dress codes. They tried to impose a totally new form of socialist dress: functional, simple, and hygienic. But in the povertystricken and industrially backward Russia of the early 1920s Constructivist ideas on the total change of man, everyday life, and its objects proved to be highly Utopian and ultimately unsuccessful. In the mid-1930s, Stalinism dealt in a radically different way with a reality that was still burdened by poverty and the rationing of consumer

Djurdja Bartlett is researching for a PhD on Fashion, the Spectre that Haunted Socialism at the London College of Fashion. From 1992 to 1999 she was lecturer at the University of Zagreb, on Cultural Studies and the Sociology of Fashion. She has edited a book Body in Transition (1999) and coedited the book Fashion: History, Sociology and Theory (2002).


Djurdja Bartlett

goods. The regime invented a new parallel and mythical reality, which was promoted through the new Stalinist mass media of magazines, novels, and films. In 1935, fashion was officially confirmed as part of Stalins mass culture by the opening of the House of Fashion in Moscow. While the early Bolsheviks had rejected even the word fashion, and had insisted on functional and undecorated clothing, Stalinism, in a sharp ideological turn, granted fashion a highly representational role. Through fashion, the regime reintroduced conservative aesthetics and traditional femininity. Houses of Fashion were instituted in the other capitals of the Soviet Republics, establishing a controlled centralization inside the field of clothes production. In this centrally planned system, which did not recognize the market, the main privilege became access to goods, an accessibility that was hierarchically structured. For the masses, goodquality clothes and fashion accessories were either too expensive or unattainable. In fact, Stalinist representational dress existed only on the pages of two new luxurious fashion publications, the monthly Fashion Journal (Zhurnal mod) and the biannual Fashions of the Seasons (Modeli sezona), and in the special shops meant for the socialist elite. The centrally organized field of fashion production was never abandoned in Russia, and after 1948 it was also politically imposed on the East European socialist countries, regardless of their differing, and sometimes higher, technical and stylistic levels in the design and production of clothes. The East European socialist regimes embraced the early Bolshevik ideology, and officially rejected Western fashion. It was claimed that functional, simple, and classless socialist dress would derive from serious scientific and technical research, and that such a dress would fulfill all the sartorial needs of working women. In practice the clothes that were available in the shops were of poor quality and bad, unfashionable design. In the following decades, the East European socialist regimes relationship to clothes and fashion continued to be influenced by political changes in the Soviet Union. A new ideological turn took place after Khrushchev affirmed his rule in 1956, and attacked excessive Stalinist aesthetics. Leaving the worst practices of Stalinist isolationism behind, Khrushchev opened Russia towards the West. In the late 1950s, official attitudes towards Western fashion mellowed in both Russia and East European socialist countries. After decades of rejection, the official encounter with Western fashion was a confusing process. With neither tradition nor market, and aspiring to control fashion changes inside their centralized fashion systems, the socialist regimes could neither keep up with nor embrace Western fashion trends. By the end of the 1950s, the official version of socialist fashion relapsed back to conservative sartorial expressions, and practices of traditional femininity. The return to previously despised bourgeois dress practices bore witness to the socialist regimes failure to produce a genuine socialist fashion. In this article I offer an interpretation of that encounter between socialism and Western fashion, which resulted in the sartorial pheno-

Let Them Wear Beige


menon that I call official socialist dress. Historically, the process took place between 1958 and 1968, and it was connected to the creation of the new socialist middle class, which was at that time being engineered by the socialist regimes. The aesthetics of official socialist dress during the Khrushchev period in Russia, and from the late 1950s in the Central European socialist countries, was officially informed by simple and moderate lines. I call that conventional style, officially imposed upon sartorial codes in the 1950s and 1960s, socialist good taste. Just as in Stalinist times, official socialist dress in the decade from the late 1950s on had little to do with everyday reality. Queues, shortages, and unsatisfactory supply in the shops continued, confirming in differing degrees the respective regimes domination of both the time and the consumption of their citizens. Official socialist dress was an ideological construct, a discourse channeled through the state-owned media. It demonstrated all the perversities of the socialist economies, which renounced both the laws of the market and individual desires. While the official socialist fashion was an ideological construct unaffected by the poor quality of clothes in the shops, women used a whole range of unofficial channels, from self-made clothes to the black market, private fashion salons and networks of connections to obtain desired clothes in their everyday life. Although significant differences did exist between the socialist countries in their everyday fashion practices, they were obliterated in the mythical world of official socialist dress. This article is based on my research on various phenomena of socialist and post-socialist fashion, carried out in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary and Russia. There I introduce five specific ideal-type-dresses to explain certain historical or contemporary sartorial practices: the Utopian dress, the official socialist dress, the everyday socialist dress, the subversive dress, and the post-socialist dress. Presented here is a part of my analysis on the official socialist dresss highly ideological theories and practices.

Dressing Up the Socialist Middle ClassesWe have repeatedly written that the choice of clothes should follow the basic rule: time of day and particular circumstances. During the day, for example, it is not appropriate to pay visits or receive guests in a smart evening dress. On that occasion, a strictly elegant day dress is appropriate: of short length, high or just slightly open neckline, with short or long sleeves. . . . Such a dress is not served by loads of jewellery, it is better to restrict oneself to one piece: a brooch, a hairpin or a bracelet. Shoes, hats and gloves should be matched with such a day dress. Of course, everything should be coordinated according to the colour. Let us repeat: a dress that you wear during the working day should be modest and restrained in appearance. Matinees, parties at 1pm, cocktails and a la furshet


Djurdja Bartlett

parties from 5 till 8 pm, require a smarter day dress and a little elegant hat, which you are not supposed to take off. Evening dress, made from an expressive and decorative fabric that is not worn during the day, is necessary for grand receptions, theatre premieres and gala concerts, especially if they happen after 8pm. Although not necessary, the evening dress is characterized by a lower neckline, short sleeves and a long skirt. Silk or lacy gloves can be added to such a dress; their length depends on the length of the sleeves: the shorter the sleeve, the longer the gloves, and the other way round. A small elegant handbag accompanies eveningwear. Light open shoes with high heels, or medium heels for older women, serve those occasions; shoes can be made from silk, brocade, or from golden or silver leather. Day shoes are not appropriate for eveningwear. It is allowed to embellish eveningwear with jewellery. Here, a sense of measure is welcome, as always (Maskulii 1958). This article, published in the Soviet Fashion Journal in 1958, reflected the regimes urge to dress up their newly installed middle classes in civilian clothes. The strong pedagogical content demonstrated that the new socialist middle class was composed mainly from those with only a limited knowledge of culture and of its diversified practices. As the official fashion publication, through which the systems policies on fashion were channeled, the Fashion Journal was quite clear about the regimes intentions in its editorial note Clothes for Going Out and Formal Occasions, which preceded the article itself. The magazine exploited the usual tactic of the socialist press in promoting new state policies: readers letters. Claiming that their editorial team had received a number of letters with queries about the proper way to dress for going out and for formal purposes, the Fashion Journal (Maskulii 1958) suggested a set of rules that have been established long ago, and are accepted almost everywhere. They ended by stressing: We recommend our readers to follow them. The editorial also drew a precise profile of the strata w