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

In part, a re­sponse to Alana Mas­sey

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: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Style: Vera Mukhina, sporty costume Style: Style:

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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