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