FASHION BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
In recent years, the fashion industry has been quick to pour praise onto fledgling designers from Eastern Europe. The stellar successes of the likes of David Koma and Marko Mitanovski – from Georgia and Serbia respectively – are just two cases in point.
Emerging talents Gosha Rubchinsky (Russia), Ivana Pilja (Serbia), Laura Theiss (Lithuania), Petar Petrov (Bulgaria) and Marjan Pejoski (Macedonia) have been consistently impressing Western audiences with their unique and experimental take on fashion. But making it as a designer in Eastern Europe has not always been easy thanks to the Iron Curtain which divided East from West during the Cold War, effectively turning the collective countries of Eastern Europe into a single communist state under the rule of the Soviet Union.
The state controlled every aspect of fashion, leaving little leeway for personal style and creative dressing. Fashion was all about conformity and serving its purpose. The end result was often that clothes were ill-fitting, unflattering and dull. The classic, staple styles produced were intended not to date or go out of fashion. The idea was that the state would not need to spend money on unnecessarily updating styles to keep up with the fickle whims of fashion.
Mass production meant that clothing was readily available in the USSR, but few wanted to adhere to a national uniform policy and have their style dictated to them by the state. Many chose instead to create their own clothing, but this was not without its problems. The state monitored citizens and anyone found flouting the ‘rules’ about clothing could expect to be arrested. Even if people had the means to be able to wear more outlandish clothing, wearing it in public was out of the question.
Many did find ways to experiment with fashion. Fabrics were in plentiful supply, especially during the 1950s, but these were initially of poor quality. East Germany produced surpluses of textiles, which were subsequently offloaded into the USSR. But by the end of that decade, the Soviet Union was producing its own, much higher quality textiles more cheaply and had even started to become internationally renowned for its textile production, as in the case of Hungarotex in Hungary. In fact, making and mending your own clothing was seen as self-sufficient and even encouraged by the state in line with socialist values.
In reality, clothes could be crafted out of virtually any material to hand. This included the plastic used to cover strawberry fields, which was used by underground designers in East Germany and documented in the film Comrade Couture. Children’s clothing, subsidised by the government, was also an option for those who could fit into it. Existing garments could be transformed by hand by a seamstress, and everyday objects could be turned into jewellery or other adornments.
Some also relied on sewing patterns, although demand for these always outstripped supply, often because of paper shortages. Soviet fashion magazines themselves were scarce. Journal Mod was one of the most popular with a circulation running into hundreds of thousands, but Western fashion magazines were banned entirely. The first foreign fashion magazine, Burda Fashion, did not go on sale until 1987, so worried were the authorities about foreign influences.
Western clothing did have an influence on Soviet styles; at least, from a distance. In the latter years of the Soviet Union, fashion houses were established. What are now Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia produced the most fashion-forward clothing because of their proximity to Scandinavia, which heavily influenced Balkan fashion. The satellite states which were further removed from Europe, such as Georgia and Ukraine, tended to be less adventurous with designs. And if a European trend did make it into a Soviet fashion house, it was nearly always several seasons too late…..
- Kay Weston