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

Adolf Behne’s The Modern Functional Building (1926)



The Original Cover to Behne’s Book, Featuring El Lissitzky’s “Cloudprop”



Man’s primordial reason for building is to protect himself against the cold, against animals, against enemies.  He is driven by necessity: he would not build were it not for definite, compelling, urgent purposes.  His early buildings are purely functional in character; they are in their nature essentially tools.

But when we study the earliest stages of human culture, we find that the instinctive joys of play cannot be separated from practical matters.  Primitive man is not strictly utilitarian.  He demonstrates his instinct for play even in his tools, which he makes smooth and beautiful beyond the demands of strict necessity, painting them or decorating them with ornaments.

The tool called “house” is no exception to this.

From the very beginning the house has been as much a toy as a tool.  It is difficult to say how long a balance was maintained between the two poles.

In the course of history we only rarely find such a balance.

The play instinct led to interest in form.  Without that instinct it would be impossible to understand why the tool called “house” must look good and be a certain shape.  Thus our play instinct established certain laws of form, although they are subject to change from time to time.

The laws of form did change periodically.  But if laws of form were unquestionably the secondary element in the origin of all building, they became the stronger, stricter, more rigid principle in the history of human building — stronger, stricter, and more rigid than mere fulfillment of utilitarian function.  Formal considerations outweighed considerations of purpose.

Thus a return to purpose is always revolutionary in its effect.  Forms that have become tyrannical are discarded in order to create — from the recollection of the original function, from as neutral a condition as possible — a rejuvenated, living, breathing form.

Continue reading