Advanced Low/Mid The Power of Fashion

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In this episode the Soviet fashion industry is discussed. Although the Soviet fashion is very hard to break into time periods, according to experts, Soviet fashion was institutionalized in the 1950s and 1970s. In the 1930s, despite the official dictates, the first Russian designers Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova introduced avant-garde geometric textiles, and a traditional designer Nadezhda Limonova performed fine work embracing the linen and made traditional embroidery of national costume. But Stalin soon shut down these early experiments.

Generally, due to the lack of new designs and the limited stocks of the department stores, most Soviet people had more than a humble wardrobe, compared to their Western counterparts. In the Soviet times fashion was first and foremost, an instrument of propaganda of hard work attitudes and education of good taste. Therefore the way people were dressed was very strictly regulated – just like anything else, fashion had to be “planned” and “approved” and was often boring-looking.

Among Soviet leaders only Stalin preferred a military-like costume, and never wore a necktie. Khrushchev very rarely wore military uniform when he became a leader. Similarly Brezhnev usually appeared and was portrayed in civil suit. Noone saw a glimpse of the wife of Stalin, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev, or all those Communist rulers. At the same time, ballerinas and actresses always represented the image of elegant ladies.

Rubin Singer was one of the most celebrated designers in the Soviet Union, dressing the likes of Josef Stalin, Anastas Mikoyan and Klim Voroshilov. Singer had emigrated from pre-war Poland to become one of the leading tailors in post-war Moscow. Being a virtuoso tailor, he found ways around official dictates and offered a new design of male clothing. He worked in the fashion department at GUM and also did not turn down profitable private orders from many Soviet leaders and famous artists. The leadership of GUM fashion department was fully aware of his imitation of Western fashion, but once it was seen as harmless, until his dismissal due to conflicts with the directors who considered that foreing influence might lead to a real spiritual bankruptcy. Anastas Mikoyan, Minister of Foreign Trade was among those Soviet leaders who understood that fashion, like culture in general, was an international phenomenon, and he helped Singer to avoid being arrested.

Another legendary Russian couturier Aleksandr Igman many years dressed Leonid Brezhnev and had never had any problems with the powerful elite. Meanwhile, the famous Russian fashion designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev had constantly argued with high-ranking officials to establish new trends of the design. While he never did become a Kremlin designer, he was the first Soviet couturier permitted by the government to put a label in his clothing. Pierre Cardin, the French designer, was one of the first European fashion figures to do business with Zaitsev, and regularly sent him and his employees presents of shoes, cosmetics and Western fashion magazines unavailable in the USSR. Zaitsev has dressed all of the Soviet Union's most beautiful actresses, and was the first designer to take a serious interest in costumes for figure skaters.