Fashion Meets Socialism – Fashion Industry in the Soviet Union

Fashion Meets Socialism – Fashion Industry in the Soviet Union

Fashion and design would, in the West, commonly be seen as antithetical to the values of Soviet society. Awareness was, and is, high in relation to the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in the area of scientific progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s and even the leading powers in the West looked on sputniks and cosmonauts with envy and admiration. At that time overall economic growth in the USSR was quite impressive, and its leaders’ pompous statements about overcoming the production levels of the USA in many basic industrial products and food-stuffs did not seem at all farfetched. What was less generally known however was that, during this period, the Soviet Union made major investments in fashion design. Promoting fashion and improving the standards of clothing was as important as the general politics of material culture in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union has certainly never enjoyed a high reputation in the world of fashion. The standardized, industrially mass-produced clothes were held in low esteem by both Soviet consumers and foreign visitors. If anything, Soviet citizens were generally dissatisfied with the domestic supply of clothing. To foreign visitors, street fashion in Moscow, not to mention smaller provincial towns or the countryside, looked rather dull, uniform and grey. Interestingly at this time, the Soviet Union had one of the world’s largest organizations of fashion design, all planned, financed and supported by the state. Thousands of professional, well-educated designers worked in the various Soviet institutions of fashion. They designed according to the annual plan thousands of new fashionable garments and accessories both for industrial mass production and for smaller fashion ateliers that sewed custom made clothes for their customers.

By the early 1960s, these institutions of fashion design had many accomplishments to be proud of. They promoted Soviet fashion by increasing the variety of industrially produced clothing as well as with their spectacular fashion shows, which were well received both at home and abroad. Thus, Soviet fashion contributed to the Soviet effort to nurture peaceful competition between the two world systems, socialism and capitalism. It became obvious during the 1970s that, in the end not even fashion and fashion design, despite at times almost heroic efforts, could overcome the economic and bureaucratic limitations and inherent rigidity of the planned economy.

This book is the story of the emergence and establishment of the postwar Soviet culture of dress, the great expectations attached to it, its great achievements and the limitations that prevented it from revolutionizing the Soviet style of dress and culture of consumption in general. The reasons for the discrepancy between the ‘input’ and ‘output’ in the Soviet system of fashion provide an intriguing question to which we shall devote much attention in what follows. The serious shortages, issues of quality and limited variety of items regularly on sale in the Soviet shops were problems that plagued not only the fashion industry in the USSR but the production of consumer goods in general. However, these problems probably beleaguered the clothes industry to a greater extent than other fields of consumption. The rapid, seasonal changes of fashion just did not fit into the planned economy.

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