Monday, July 23, 2012

70 years of nothing at all: fashion during Communism

All About My Mother by Mila Ateva, photographed by Zlatimir Arakliev

There was another piece on Russia's "booming" fashion industry in The Independent over the weekend. I recommend you read the piece in its entirety as I am guessing you would be surprised by some of the numbers quoted in the article. What I can't tell is whether any original reporting has been done for it as many of the quotes are taken from the New York Times article I mentioned a few weeks back.

Anya Ziourova is quoted again and so is Miroslava Duma, both basically saying that there was no "fashion" to speak of prior to the fall of Communism. "There was 70 years of nothing at all in our country, and then, when people got huge money from oil, there was huge interest in fashion," says Duma. Which strikes me as true but also as a very inaccurate way of describing that period, both aesthetically and economically.

It is true that clothing production and especially the production of luxury consumer goods was very much centralized and under severe control but at the same time, fashion (like art and design) was encouraged and supported if for no better reason than just to simply show the West that we could do just as well and better! Fashion was kept deliberately different but also entirely in tune with what was going on in the West. It's not that we didn't know what people in Europe and the States had. We were entirely aware of it, we were simply not supposed to want it.

What bothers me is that many people assume that people interpreted that by dressing like field workers or tractor drivers. Which, of course, was there but in no way was it the way most people lived. Our fashion wasn't anti-fashion. It was anti-Western fashion. And, as much as it was different it was also beautiful in its own way: more modest, more subdued, more functional. But also more direct, less fussy and respectful of traditional craftsmanship.

As I am thinking about all this, I keep going back to a story by Mila Ateva titled All About My Mother. The story is featured in 12 Mag (a Bulgarian fashion publication) and is inspired my Mila's memories of her own mother in Bulgaria during the 80s: coming home from work, wearing a dress, high heels and bringing home a bouquet of flowers. The model in the story (pictured above) is wearing Mila's mother's actual clothes and is insanely beautiful. I am absolutely mesmerized by the story and consider it in many ways the best documentation of that period that I have come across. And when someone tells me that during Communism, there was "70 years of nothing at all"... I just find that not only inaccurate but also absolutely disrespectful to the many men and women who took such great care to live beautiful, inspiring lives... despite everything.

9 comments:

  1. Your last sentence is really moving. How might history look if it were told more frequently with the shift in perspective from governments to people that you suggest here?

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    1. There is a book that I really love, it's by a Croatian feminist author, Slavenka Drakulic: How We Survived Communism And Even Laughed! I've been thinking of re-reading it and it's precisely on that very same topic! It's not meant to revise history and it doesn't argue that Communism was great by any stretch of the imagination... but it gives a very nuanced account of what daily life was like from the perspective a very perceptive, smart, erudite woman. I highly recommend it!

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    2. Croatian Communism should be something like American Socialism. Exotic entities that exist only on book. How can one call Communism an order which allows private property and buisness? I can imagine how hard it must have been for the croatians to carry the heavy burden of laughter by the speed with which they was integrated in the western world after the fall of the wall.

      But there's something more. Communist leaders were cunning and they understood well the threat that the intellectuals pose. So instead making them enemies (and silencing them would be time consuming and dangerous) they gave them a life of luxury at the best resorts where they could have all the freedom of thought and accordingly praise the system. I guess it was fun. The daily life of a woman smart enough to evade the camp.

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  2. She is beautiful! I know nothing whatsoever about fashion in the USSR but I'm pretty sure it existed. :)

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    1. The dress she is wearing belongs to the stylist's mom! I love it!

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  3. People had clothes custom made quite frequently in Bulgaria back then. So in a way we could have an individual style much more easily and to a greater extent than in the West. Limited, of course, by our imagination, the skill of the seamstresses and the fabric. But frankly, it's much better to get the exact outfit you envision for yourself, even if imperfect, than adapt your vision of yourself to what you find in a (Western) store. I feel much more restricted in my choices now than back then when I could have it made for me.

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    1. I remember that too! Finding a good seamstress, hunting for fabric + notions was an ever-ending pursuit! Also, let's not forget all DIY knitting we had going on! I learned a little bit from my grandmothers but I so wish I knew more!

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  4. I have not read Mila's piece yet, but I have been catching myself lately thinking of pieces of my mom's "communist" wardrobe and wondering if she still has them as I would like to try them on. There was fashion back then, and a lot more respect for clothing, I think. Since availability of great pieces was rare, one took pride in being able to spot what looked good on them, accessorize and preserve for longer wear. Since I have been living in the US where clothing is so easily available, but styles are mostly driven by mass appeal and could be so predictable, I find that my attitude towards clothing has changed. it is now something dispensable, utilitarian, a lot less cherished. But who knows, that may be just me.

    P.S. Oh and btw, I had a few Russian teachers in school in Bulgaria and back then I thought they were the best dressed ladies I knew.

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  5. There is a great chapter on this in the autobiography of the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya - about "the famous Clara" who was selling clothes smuggled from the west to the art stars of Moscow. Its quite funny and it shows the true craving for fashion in the USSR in the '60s.

    The topic is mentioned also in the DDR Museum in Berlin (fantastic place, btw). Apparently the socialist designers were providing very interesting fashion ideas, but they had to be altered many times during the production phase due to lack of the right materials. You know, when the government decides that it will import less cotton to spend more on weapons.

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