SMOKE AND MIRRORS: Fashion and Socialist Politics

Djurdja Bartlett
FashionEast: The Specter that Haunted Socialism
(MIT Press, 2010)

Djurdja Bartlett’s study on fashion under Communism, FashionEast, opens with a self-evident, though provocative, question: “Can fashion—a phenomenon deeply rooted in its own past and the past of Western civilization—start from zero?” The answer is implicit in the question: no, it cannot. Today, the fashion industry is so immersed in its own history and plays such a large role in the global market that it is difficult to imagine it without such frameworks. There was a time, however, in which this question was posed and investigated in earnest. The role of fashion within the socialist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is largely undocumented, and yet the sartorial developments that occurred during this period were of great consequence to the leaderships that valued fashion’s ability to produce desirable images and ideals, as well as its efficacy as a visual means to implement social change. Bartlett’s extensive research has yielded not only a thorough overview of fashion during this time but also a fascinating look at how these socialist governments attempted to harness and reinvent a system that was ideologically opposed to their own.

Bartlett’s study covers enormous ground, beginning in the Soviet Union and moving on to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The numerous images pulled from state-sponsored fashion magazines, socialist manuals on dress and etiquette, and advertisements convey a sense of the complex activity of the socialist fashion industry during the approximately 70 years covered in FashionEast. Her treatise begins with an outline of the Bolshevik understanding of dress, which formed an important part of their new society after the 1917 October Revolution. Fashion was no longer fashion: it was clothing. “Fashion” implied industry, hierarchy, and a means of establishing status that was tied to the past—specifically tsarist Russia’s past. In order to sever these associations, designs were no longer dictated by decorative, seasonal trends, and neither were they viewed as a carrier of status or change. Any aspect of clothing that distinguished one comrade too much from the next was not permitted, and for a short time even gendered garments were discouraged. Bartlett’s discussion of the Bolshevik attempt to dissociate clothing from its former meanings is significant in that it provides a very clear example of the tremendous symbolic power of fashion. The three phases of fashion under socialist rule that she outlines—post-revolutionary utopian dress, official state-directed socialist fashion, and Western-influenced everyday fashion—narrate the changing uses of this power, but it is this first one that solidifies our understanding of fashion as a symbol, and consequently, as an idea.

What unified these phases throughout their development in each country was an emphasis on the ideological nature of fashion as opposed to its physical product. For perhaps one of the only instances in history, concept greatly outweighed product in a fashion system; this also marked a similarly seminal moment in the political evaluation of clothing.

The Bolsheviks’ vision of a utopian society included a new dress based on optimum functionality, and Bartlett’s discussion of their treatment of fashion as a science is a highlight of her research. Every aspect of clothing design was calculated. The application of color in fabric, for example, was extensively researched by perceptual psychologists who specialized in color theory and the psychological benefits of chromotherapy. One of the first innovations of the constructivist designers, prozodhezda, was a dress based on the specific physical and ideological needs of the socialist worker, thus de-emphasizing clothing’s role as a signifier and emphasizing its functionality and beauty as an object.

Bartlett occassionally discusses the fact that these high-concept designs were not, despite their pretensions to functionality, very functional. The constructivist designers of the 1920s were so focused on utilitarianism that their designs never actually made it off the page. Prozodhezda sketches were rejected by factory workers on the grounds that they were impossible to translate into patterns. Moreover, their machinery was obsolete, and there were constant shortages of materials and dyes. It is this kind of information that is frequently lacking in FashionEast, which, like the regimes that valued fashion for its symbolic power, concentrates too heavily on the ideological and not on the physical. The bleak realities of socialist life are difficult to overlook in a study of life during Bolshevism and Stalinism, and yet none of these factor greatly into Bartlett’s research on clothing. FashionEast is ultimately a meditation on semiotics and abstract discourses in fashion.

Her theorizing does produce some interesting comparisons with contemporary fashion. Prozodhezda in particular draws a unique parallel with contemporary Western fashion design, specifically the more conceptual designs that, like the constructivists’ work, privilege the idea over its product. Conceptual fashion design today is also characterized as existing largely outside of commercial considerations, but unlike prozodhezda, the garments designed by labels such as Comme des Garçons, Hussein Chalayan, or Alexander McQueen are either intentionally difficult to wear or are completely unconcerned with questions of function. While contemporary designers tend to view functionality as a limitation and sign of the absence of ideology, the Soviet constructivist designers based their ideologies on function, even (ironically) incorporating the idea of industrialization and mass production into their doomed concepts. Their prioritization of the body and its work within the socialist society enabled an exploration and even expansion of the definition of clothing, the scope of which designers today cannot match.

The designs themselves are emblematic of their respective regime’s rhetoric. Stalinist fashion was decadent and luxurious, flaunting ample amounts of fur, jewels, fitted waists, and accessories, a look that greatly opposed the ideals of Bolshevism while mimicking a Western aesthetic. It strove to create its own distinguished style, but designs were largely copied from Western magazines and embellished with ethnic motifs to achieve an “authentic” (and officially sanctioned) look. Bartlett’s designation of a “mythical space” in which socialist clothing design existed is a fitting metaphor for the status of 1950s Soviet fashion, though it is also applicable to the industry in general. Fashion existed then as it does today—almost exclusively in the pages of magazines, in boutiques filled with unattainable items, and on the runways of fashion shows (officially known as “fashion congresses”) featuring prototypes that would never be mass-produced.

Despite its ultimate failure to produce these perfect forms of clothing, socialist fashion produced an environment that is largely unheard of and, for today, almost inconceivable: fashion without a market. Designs were based on moral values established by their respective regimes instead of on the desires of a consumer. Stalinist ideology manipulated fashion’s symbolic power as a means to construct false promises of a better lifestyle for the public. In reality, not only were these designs never produced, but the average woman would never have been able to afford such commodities. In this respect, Bartlett’s lack of emphasis on the realities of Soviet life is particularly reprehensible because it downplays the vast gulf between Stalinist ideology and the actual state of life. The reason why the socialist fashion system failed is rooted in the dire social conditions of the times; indeed it is because of these realities that it failed. FashionEast is a meticulously researched and thoroughly illustrated work, but the depth of its theoretical focus is offset by its rather shallow investigation of the real world.

Bartlett does eventually turn her attention to the population itself in the final chapters, and specifically to the emerging middle classes of the 1960s. The regime permitted the sale of Western goods in the Soviet Union in exchange for the loyalty of its citizens, but in so doing it fostered a voracious consumer appetite. After years of enforced homogeneity and acquiescence to unrealistic and domineering ideologies, citizens were fixated on the ability to express individual taste and to define themselves materially. In an ironic turn of events, the symbolic power of fashion was finally wielded by the citizens themselves, who saw fashion for its semiotic value as a means of labeling their socioeconomic standing and their growing freedom of expression. Blue jeans, for example, were considered the ultimate symbol of rebellion and liberty by Soviet citizens who were denied the Western product by a government intent on cultural and ideological isolation, illustrated by its 56 failed attempts to create denim fabric. The symbolic transfer of power from the regime to the individual marked the end of socialist fashion in the Soviet Bloc and the onset of a clothing industry regulated by mass consumption and economy instead of ideology and politics.


Eugenie Dalland