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. Continue reading

Women’s liberation in non-Western contexts

Seeing all this press coverage of
Malala Yousafzai and the plight of women’s education in Taliban-controlled regions in Pakistan, and having recently revisited the sad history of the degradation of women’s rights in Afghanistan after the PDPA was defeated and the Red Army was driven out in 1989, I’ve been pondering the question of women’s liberation in “Oriental” (i.e., traditional non-Western) contexts. Lately I’m reminded of the revolutionary transformations that took place in Uzbekistan between 1920 and the early 1930s, especially with Zhenotdel‘s mass unveiling ceremonies, programs for women’s education, and anti-illiteracy campaigns in the region. All of these activities were carried out in tandem, as religious prejudices, domestic bondage, and illiteracy were to be combated both directly and indirectly — directly through propaganda work, and then indirectly through the removal of economic conditions that give rise to such social ills.

Education and domestic emancipation are more or less uncontroversial. Abolishing reactionary religious traditions is another matter, however. Despite the fact that Lenin was already insisting in 1922 that militant materialism necessarily implied “militant atheism” [воинствующий атеизм, more literally “warlike” atheism], there’s been a great deal of distortion on this score. This has to do with efforts to reinterpret the past to suit the perceived political exigencies of the present. Making the past dance to the tune of the present is a fairly routine procedure amongst certain parts of the Left.

Tashkent before the reforms.

Dave Crouch, writing for the International Socialist Journal, would like to pin all of the blame for antireligious initiatives like the khudzhum [i.e., the mass unveiling campaigns] on “Stalinist bureaucracy.” The fact of the matter is that the women’s division [Zhenotdel] and the Union of Tatar Godless [Soiuz tatarskykh bezbozhnikov] already laid the groundwork for such measures in the early 1920s. Members of either organization cannot be fairly characterized as “Stalinist”; indeed, Stalin had both of these wings within the party disbanded by the end of the decade.

Luckily, Gerry Byrne has already gone through and written a point-by-point refutation of some of Crouch’s more obvious gaffes. A couple points are worth mentioning. In the footnotes, two passing remarks by Crouch are particularly revealing:

It is a pity that Richard Stites, one of the foremost historians of women’s liberation in Russia, fails to see the khudzhum as part of Stalin’s “sexual Thermidor.” Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930. (Princeton, 1978). Pg. 340.

Crouch only says it’s a pity because Stites’ judgment runs counter to the view he would like to promote. Whether or not the khudzhum was a wise policy, a botched and culturally “insensitive” attempt to liberate women from traditional roles and conventions, it cannot be considered even remotely equivalent to the stricter divorce policies, abortion ban, and recriminalization of homosexuality instituted under Stalin’s regime. Stites is here, as usual, a far better historian than pseudo-Trot revisionists.


A few footnotes later, Crouch writes:

In 1922 the 4th Congress of the Communist International corrected its policy adopted at the 2nd congress and endorsed temporary alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism.

If this were actually the case, the Cliffites’ mechanistic anti-imperialism might appear grounded in longstanding revolutionary tradition. Unfortunately, no such “correction” ever took place. Lenin remained adamant to the end that Marxists’ position toward anti-imperialist movements abroad should stress “the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries,” as well as “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.” Of course, as Lenin’s injunction directly contradicts the ISO’s general line toward political struggles in the Middle East, it’s omitted. E.H. Carr’s book indicates nothing of the sort, either. See pgs. 254-255 of his book on The Bolshevik Revolution.

For this post, I’ve assembled three excerpts. The first is excerpted from an article in Kommunistka [Communist Woman] by Marie Vaillant-Couturier (mother of the famous French Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who testified at Nuremberg) on women delegates publicly casting off their veils [chadry] and burqas [parandzhi] at the Second International Women’s Congress in 1922. The second is from Louis Bryant, the wife of John Reid and a famous leftist journalist in her own right, in which she records some of Aleksandra Kollontai’s thoughts on women’s liberation, along with a couple of mild criticisms. Finally, I’ve translated an article Kollontai herself wrote about the conference with communist women and labor organizers of the East in April 1921. Moreover, there are some documentary photographs by the extraordinary Constructivist photographer Max Penson, who captured these revolutionary social shifts upon moving to Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1920 (he was Jewish-Belarusian in origin). Penson stayed in Tashkent for the next twenty years. These photos show Uzbek women going from full-body veils (women caught without them were often threatened by men with blades, burning water, and acid, even having dogs sicced on them) to brandishing rifles within ten years. Continue reading