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Radical chic: Avant-garde fashion design in the Soviet 1920s

In part, a response to Alana Massey

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Alana Massey recently guest-wrote a short article for The New Inquiry’s beauty blog “The Beheld,” which is usually run by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano. Its title is rather excruciating: “The Party’s girls and party girls: Negotiating beauty in the Soviet Union.” Parts of it are okay, however, the insufferable puns notwithstanding.

What follows is a brief reflection on her piece and some thoughts of my own, concerning one of its major lacunae.

defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform. defrag- Varvara Stepanova's sport uniform Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission” 1 Varvara Stepanova. Students in sports clothing designed by Stepanova. in performance of An Evening of the Book,. 1924. spelling out “intermission”

Let’s get a few other minor quibbles out of the way before proceeding to the stronger points Massey makes, though:

  1. First, there’s this tone of casual familiarity to the whole piece that really grates on me, and I could’ve done without the self-indulgent anecdote about getting a bikini wax at Spa Jolie. Could be that I’m just old-fashioned, even slightly prudish. Don’t think so, though.
  2. Beyond that, the Tiqqunesque typologies — the Soviet woman, the post-Soviet woman — also bothered me a bit, especially considering how Slavophilic the whole story is. Massey seems not to realize that there are post-Soviet women who aren’t from Russia or Ukraine. Women from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan often don’t have the “razor cheekbones and the permanent pout of downward-slanting lips” she describes (i.e., what Anna Khachiyan has termed “Russian cunt face,” a variant of “bitchy resting face”).

Nevertheless, all the stuff about improvisation and beauty standards, the weird tricks and techniques by which Soviet women would compensate for scarce consumer goods, seems to me fairly accurate. There were analogous methods when it came to making do with shortages of food or amenities. Some of this bricoleuse mentality is probably even pre-Soviet, as far as I can tell. For example, Louise Bryant wrote about an interaction she had with the Bolshevik revolutionary leader Aleksandra Kollontai back in 1921 as follows:

Once I complimented her [Kollontai] on a smart little fur toque she was wearing. She laughed and said, “Yes, one must learn tricks in Russia, so I have made my hat out of the tail of my coat which is already five years old.”

Most of the narrative focuses on the later decades of the Soviet Union, understandable given the average age of the subjects she interviewed. Yulia Gradskova, professor of gender history at the University of Stockholm, and Anne Marie Skvarek, a master’s student at the University of Arizona, provide some historical depth, but on the whole the story moves from the 1960s up to the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.

Vera Mukhina

Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395" Vera Mukhina, sporty costume Style: "1769395" Style: "1769395"

Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova

Reference was made in passing to official “messages” about waist-to-hip ratios passed down from the 1930s, but it seemed just leap out of the blue. Not entirely sure what she’s talking about.

It would be interesting to know what she made of the really avant-garde fashion experiments of the 1920s, however, with Varvara Stepanova’s colorful textile patterns, Liubov Popova’s sportswear, Vladimir Tatlin’s work outfits, and Vera Mukhina’s general wardrobe advice.

These designs were explicitly intended for mass production and consumption, clothing the masses. It was part of the fusion of art with life, designed to make the world more beautiful. Popova once reported:

No artistic success has given me such satisfaction as the sight of a peasant or a worker buying a length of material designed by me.

I’ve recently come across a number of images of avant-garde fashion design in the Soviet 1920s. Quite different from the chic styles preferred in bourgeois France at the time, outside of perhaps the modish cubism of Sophia Delaunay. So I’m posting them here. Enjoy.


popova (1)82e61bf8dc5c2adc514fc243ed1db2acfff79d63Люовь-Попова-7Люовь-Попова-8f025b1c961fe9a491d531a746bd39d7f

Atelier, 1923

popov007_opt Liubov' Popova, Design for a shop window, 1924

Utility clothing. Tatlin Design for man's coat, 1923. Charcoal on tracing paper, 107x71.5 cm. Bakhrushin Museum Collage, pencil, ink, and pasted material (a newspaper clipping “The New Everyday Life”, with a photo showing Tatlin with clothing designed by himtatlin_in_paris_1914stepanova_sport_uniform_fStepanova's design for male sports clothingtumblr_n22lcfNtsw1rvujcpo1_500Варвара Степанова. Эскиз костюма физкультурницы. 1924Метки-1925 год, ганф юлий абрамович, москва, тараховская елизавета яковлевна

10 thoughts on “Radical chic: Avant-garde fashion design in the Soviet 1920s

  1. Hi, I’ve just come across this response to my piece and found it very interesting and helpful for how I might improve the clarity of my work in the future. A number of the points you made came up in the conversations with women from Soviet countries, particularly regarding the non-uniformity of appearance across what is often lazily just called “Russia” now. I was referring to these women as they appear in the popular imagination more than as they truly appear. I made note of my own fetishization of that particular aesthetic but could have certainly made it all more clear.

    As for the bit about waist-to-hip ratios, it was in reference to the the perpetuation of western beauty ideals portrayed in the Soviet era advertisments that were promoting hygiene and culture but doing so with women with attractive figures and dress. It was a note on the disconnect between the two.

    Regarding the familiarity and personal narrative, we can agree to disagree on the value of personal reflection on brutal beauty rituals in this context.

    Again, interesting and helpful piece! Thanks for reading.

    • First of all, thanks for the appreciative reply! And I’m glad you weren’t put off by my generally bitchy tone.

      Also, the clarification about the waist-to-hip ratios you mentioned in your article is helpful.

      Not sure how relevant this is, but here goes: Though it’s probably skewed by retrospect, the binary of Communist East vs. Capitalist West wasn’t as pronounced in the first couple decades of the Soviet Union. Much of the Bolsheviks’ gambit of fomenting revolution in Russia hinged on the workers overthrowing governments in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, especially Germany. Rhetoric about “the bourgeois West” started to be more widely used only later, toward the mid-1930s, once Stalin’s policy of “socialism in one country” really set in.

      So I guess I’m saying that it wouldn’t have been considered odd for Russian culture, even Soviet culture, to emulate the West. Bogdanov’s somewhat fanciful notion of “proletkult” was rejected in favor of a more moderate, pragmatic approach. The more startling congruity would be the persistence (and growth) of the fashion industry the world over, as analyses were just beginning to emerge in the sociological literature of the time. Barthes, and before him Simmel, wrote extensively on this.

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  5. A lot of the more “radical” futurist and constructivtist clothing designs (including some you posted above) were actually the costumes for performance rather than fashion.
    The innovation introduced by Mukhina or Popova was more in the visual presentation of the clothes and patterns (both diffused through the press) than in the designs themselves, which were largely derivative from western trends.
    That might be because a revolution in womenswear was already taking place in the West, integrating sportswear elements and moving toward functionality, very much what you could expect from constructivist designers.
    It is interesting also to note that the male dress-reform movement (of which constructivist jumpsuits, along with Jugendbewegung voelkish dress, or even aesthetic dresses can be said to take part) was already a reaction to the bourgeois/XIXth century “great masculine renunciation” which had already reduced menswear to the twin concerns of austerity and function. As such functionality might not have been as revolutionary at the time as it might seem today;

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