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© RIA Novosti. Sergey Pyatakov

The Communist closet, flung wide open

by Joy Neumeyer at 06/03/2012 15:02

‘Fashion behind the Iron Curtain’

Despite the conservative climate, hippie-infused styles gained popularity

© Photo / Alexey Chervyakov / Courtesy of the press service of Tsaritsyno

Despite the conservative climate, hippie-infused styles gained popularity

Until June 12 at Tsaritsyno Estate, Khlebny Dom, 1 Ul. Dolskaya, m. Tsaritsyno, Orekhovo, www.tsaritsyno.net/
Until Apr. 3, open Wed.-Fri. 11 am-8 pm, Sat. 11 am-8 pm, Sun. 11 am-7 pm, closed Mon. and Tue. Apr. 4-June 12, open Tue.-Fri. 11 am-6 pm, Sat. 11 am-8 pm, Sun. 11 am-7 pm, closed Mon.

In theory, Soviet society had no place for frippery; Communist women were to blend in on the production line, not stick out on the catwalk. But as revealed by hundreds of outfits in a new exhibition at Tsaritsyno, “Fashion behind the Iron Curtain,” style flourished in the closets of the Soviet Union’s stars—and set the tone for millions of others to follow.

“Since 1917, there was no royalty, and no image of femininity in Russia,” said Alexandre Vassiliev, the fashion historian (and judge on TV show “Fashion Verdict”) whose collection provides the bulk of the exhibition.

Vintage powder cases from the TeZhe factory

© RIA Novosti. / Sergey Pyatakov

Vintage powder cases from the TeZhe factory

“We never saw a glimpse of the wife of Stalin, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev, or all those Communist rulers,” he said. “In Russia, ballerinas and actresses always represented the image of elegant ladies.”

Bolshoi ballerina Galina Ulanova, whose clothes and accessories fill two rooms, favored striking pieces imported from London, Paris and Milan. Her more flamboyant choices include a kangaroo-skin purse and a hot pink fur coat. Rival ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya, who was married to a general and closer to the political establishment, favored more conservative designs and Russian tailors. The most modern looks belong to dancer Maya Plisetskaya, whose minimalist pants and sweaters made her a muse for Pierre Cardin.

Revolutionary ideology labeled fashion a bourgeois relic. Simple, mass-produced clothing was to accompany women’s new role in the workforce. But from the beginning, Russian clotheshorses found ways around official dictates.

Visitors discover how Western fashions pervaded the clothing of the upper crust throughout the New Economic Policy of the 1920s: the Charleston drop-waist dresses, cloche hats and women’s fashion journals on display would have looked just as at home in Paris as in Moscow.

Some stars went for the Jackie O look

© Photo / Alexey Chervyakov / Courtesy of the press service of Tsaritsyno

Some stars went for the Jackie O look

At the same time, Russian designers Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova strove to capture the period’s avant-garde energy in bold, geometric textiles (which haven’t survived, but can be seen in original sketches).

Stalin soon shut down these early experiments; in the 1930s, interest in clothing signaled idleness and greed. The only designer who remained in Russia in these years, Nadezhda Limonova, stayed traditional, embracing the linen and embroidery of national folk costume.

In this vacuum, rising Soviet film stars such as Lyubov Orlova, Valentina Serova and Lyudmila Tselikovskaya became singular trendsetters.

“People had no fashion magazines, so they copied [stars’] hairdos, their makeup, their clothes,” Vassiliev said.

Dozens of photographs demonstrate the elegant effect that actresses like Orlova created on the silver screen. They tended towards dark colors and simple styles, but their waved hair and slinky silhouettes had undeniable sex appeal. With cheap domestic textiles and home sewing skills, women incorporated these looks into their own wardrobes.

A fashion-conscious visitor strolls past exhibits at the opening of ‘Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain’

© RIA Novosti. / Sergey Pyatakov

A fashion-conscious visitor strolls past exhibits at the opening of ‘Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain’

In 1957, the International Youth Festival brought an unprecedented influx of foreigners into Moscow, exposing Soviet citizens to what people were wearing abroad. Outfits owned by stars and non-stars alike reflect the shapes of Christian Dior’s New Look, Jackie Kennedy’s suits and the all-popular mini-skirt.

While there were still few consumer goods in stores, ordinary people could get smuggled items from fartsovschiki (hucksters), foreign tourists and performers who toured in capitalist countries.

According to Vassiliev, Bolshoi troupes were a breeding ground for the latter. “They would put jeans among the stage curtains and patterns,” he said.

Despite the conservative climate of the Brezhnev years, hippie-infused jeans, turtlenecks and dresses continued to gain popularity— including in the wardrobe of Galina Brezhnev, as demonstrated by a short, psychedelic number belonging to the general secretary’s daughter.

The 1980s brought Dynasty-style shoulder pads, as well as a bold new generation of Russian designers. A voluminous dress made of angular panels reveals the era’s new construction experiments— an echo of the Soviet Union’s initial avant-garde energy, but freed of any claim to practicality.

By this time, Russia was exerting influence in the opposite direction. As much as any political speech or treaty, the Russian-style furs that started to appear in Western fashion collections were a clear sign that the Iron Curtain was coming down for good.


Q&A with Alexandre Vassiliev

Alexandre Vassiliev is Russia’s leading fashion expert

© RIA Novosti. / Sergey Pyatakov

Alexandre Vassiliev is Russia’s leading fashion expert


Excerpts from a chat with the colorful author, designer and TV personality (and his pug, Kotik)

Why did you start collecting fashion?

I started at the age of 10. I’m the son of a prominent actress [Tatyana Vasilyeva] and a famed staged designer [Alexander Vasilyev] here in Russia, and I was raised in a very theatrical costume background. I always wanted to collect them, and in Russia there’s no fashion museum as such… so I started to do it.

Where do you get the clothes?

It’s mainly donations from stars I knew personally, or donations from their relatives who got their things after they passed away…I must be very [vigorous] and keep up with the news of who passes away among the Soviet stars.

What are your favorite items in the exhibition?

Some of them are very dear to me because they belong to my mum. Of course an important part is the dresses of the famed ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who donated things that were designed by Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin.

Do you think any of these styles are coming back?

I would say the ’80s are very much back, with the high shoulders and the style of a power woman, like Margaret Thatcher.

How would you evaluate the current fashion scene?

Right now it’s just Dolce and Gabbana everywhere. [Russians] are very much into brands, especially Italian brands … Lots of Russian girls now like to dye their hair blond-blond and do the fake lips, tits and high heels, and they glue enormous fingernails in order to be vamp. It’s a vulgar image which I would compare to the style of the American star Mae West.

How are domestic designers faring?

I think they’re getting on their feet. But the competition with China is such that even if on the design field, Russian designers could be very high in terms of ready to wear, they’re very low, because there’s almost no such thing as locally produced clothes.

Who’s your favorite Russian designer?

Cyrille Gassiline. He’s absolutely stunning and fabulous.

When you serve as a judge on “Fashion Verdict,” are you giving your honest opinion?

There’s a contract. I can’t say the truth. I’ve been raised in the West, I’m a French citizen and I’ve lived in France for 25 years, so they actually disapprove when I say something very, very cross. [They think] I should praise Russian women all the time. But I can’t sometimes. Sometimes they look awful.

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