Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out…

Djurdja Bartlett, FashionEast: The Spectre That Haunted Socialism, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2011. 300pp., £25.95 hb., 978 0 26202 650 5.

Owen Hatherley

One of the more interesting recent Russian blockbusters, Valeriy Todorovskys 2008 Stilyagi, is a musical set in 1950s’ Moscow. The historical Stilyagi were the Soviet Union’s beatniks, enthusiasts for modern jazz and rock and roll, who dressed in approximations of American fashion, simulating quiffs and zoot suits as much as adaptation and improvisation could allow. In the film, they are constantly harassed by the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, who are dressed in identical, rough-hewn boiler suits, and who submit them to (occasionally rather fetishistic) beatings and public humiliations. In the film’s valedictory ending, the Stilyagi march down the Tverskaya, Moscow’s main commercial street, and suddenly the 1950s’ hipsters travel forwards in time, walking alongside the goths, metalheads and freaks of the capitalist metropolis. The message is unsubtle. But rather than presenting them as ancestors of contemporary subcultures, here the Stilyagi appear more as Moscow’s first New Russians: bright, charismatic, nonconformist, sex-obsessed and sexualized in their dress, the first to establish a style that would come to dominate this most aggressively capitalist of contemporary cities. The flagrant liberties Stilyagi takes with history are obvious, whether sartorial or political. The public fights between Komsomol and Stilyagi are historically unlikely, to say the least, but the major difference is one of dress. Nobody in the 1950s looked like these Stilyagi, with their enormous, gravity-defying quiffs, their bright green and purple suits and gowns, their plunging cleavages, not even the most fearless of American rock and rollers. It’s a fantasy as wilfully ludicrous, and as much a historical just-so-story, as one of the 1930s’ musicals of Grigory Alexandrov; a rock-and-roll Volga-Volga.

It does, however, confirm an enduring stereotype about really existing socialism – that it was as grey, depressing and sadistic as Stilyagi’s army of conformism-enforcing Komsomol. Djurdja Bartlett’s FashionEast is the latest, and perhaps the most comprehensive, of several attempts by historians and theorists to catalogue and conceptualize the sartorial politics of the Warsaw Pact countries, to alternately support or nuance the existing picture, where fashion is alternately suppressed or, at least, clumsily incorporated into the ideological edifice. Fashion theory, as an academic genre, is still largely stuck in a particular degeneration of Birmingham School cultural studies. In the late 1970s, the likes of Dick Hebdige posited a ‘resistance through rituals’, and dress-as-spectacle – a response to particular changes in the socio-political conjuncture at the level of everyday life, affected no doubt by prejudices and deflections, but still in some way oppositional. What this has effectively become in the thirty years since is a discourse where ‘resistances’ of a sort are still offered, but where it is consumption itself that has become the definitive political act. Through consumption, capitalist subjects resist paternalism, universalism, modernism and, of course, a Marxism that would ‘totalize’ them, link their practices to the economy, or, most appalling of all, suggest that ideology or even ‘false consciousness’ might just underpin some of these ‘choices’. Authenticity is always suspicious, except at the counter till, where mediation is suddenly stripped away in favour of the unambiguous act of choice. The Soviet Bloc is, in this regard, a gift to fashion theorists – here, they can imagine that consumer desire itself capsized an entire command economy, with lines of Trabants crossing the border to accumulate Levis. And there is much work in this vein. Nonetheless, FashionEast follows in the train of some rather more critically sharp studies. Judd Stitziel’s Fashioning Socialism (2008), on the fashion industry in the early years of East Germany, was especially astute in its undermining of the ostensible ideological underpinnings behind the DDR’s constantly shifting perspective on the desirability (or otherwise) of fashion.

Early on, Bartlett outlines the focuses of her study as ‘utopian dress, socialist fashion and everyday fashion’. The first encompasses both the Constructivist engagement in clothing reform in the early USSR and the sudden strictures on dress in post-1948 Eastern Europe; the second, the attempts to create and incorporate a state-sponsored fashion industry to compete with that of Western Europe and the United States; the last is the ‘unofficial, fast-moving modernity’ of illicit black-market imports, and subcultures of dress. That term, ‘fast-moving’, is key to FashionEast. Fashion is a matter of speed, dynamism, as opposed to the sluggish stagnancy of really existing socialism. Although this stagnancy, at least in economic terms, only really pertains to the 1970s and 1980s, it is nonetheless apparent that the constant transformations of European clothing in the 1940s to 1980s were only inadequately emulated, later on, by the ‘socialist countries’. Benjamin wrote of 1920s’ Moscow that fashion had declined because for the first time political change outpaced sartorial change. Bartlett would have it more that fashion was suppressed, because its changes could not be accommodated by an allegedly socialist economy and because they were regarded as ideologically suspicious – they were the ‘spectre that haunted socialism’, as her subtitle has it. On the way to this conclusion, Bartlett uncovers a world of dress and imagery that is deeply fascinating, a parallel universe that is similar to, but subtly jarring with, the Western fashion of the era. However, she doesn’t make much of an argument as to what makes it specifically socialist.

FashionEast begins by quoting Le Corbusier on Lenin’s impeccable dress, his favouring of welltailored, functional men’s clothing. The Le Corbusier of the 1920s was a Platonist, a searcher after eternal, pure, geometric forms which could be raised above history and raised above change. Bartlett argues that similar ideas underpinned the Soviet fashion of the 1920s. ‘Can fashion’, she asks, ‘a phenomenon deeply rooted in its own past and the past of Western civilization – start from zero?’ Although she valorizes change, Bartlett appears to imagine that fashion is part of some unshakeable essence of ‘Western civilization’, so rooted in the past that to extract it from that civilization would leave a void, irrespective of the fact that most inhabitants of that civilization were only engaged in this phenomenon in the most partial, after-the-fact manner. FashionEast is the sort of study where the worst thing that can be done is to be ‘normative’, yet from the very start of the book Bartlett sets up a norm – Western fashion – and holds in great suspicion anything that tries to contest it. So with regard to the attempts by avant-gardist Varvara Stepanova to design clothes, she writes that ‘in the Constructivist world, there was no space for frivolous or unpredictable changes brought about by fashion trends, nor any place for a fashionable woman. She was overdecorated for their functional taste, oversexualized for their puritanical values, and alienated in an ontological sense because she belonged to a past that they did not recognise’. Yet Bartlett’s own research creates a much more complicated picture. Aside from a conflation of Constructivist and Bolshevik ideas, which takes too literally the avant-garde’s own wishful thinking about its political importance, Bartlett finds the Constructivists had ‘an urge for change, a drive towards novelty, and an appreciation of innovation’, including in dress, irrespective of the fact that they ‘still opposed bourgeois styles’. She quotes the short stories of Alexandra Kollontai, a figure whose enthusiasm for free love can hardly be considered ‘puritanical’, reprimanding her for disliking ‘oversexualized’ dress. The early Soviet sex-economy that was perhaps overromantically described by Wilhelm Reich, where dress and advertisement were relatively asexual but where sexual relationships were far less censured than in the West, is hardly considered a viable option. Instead, it is an illegitimate suppression of the Western standard.

One image in this gorgeously illustrated book shows a 1925 poster by N. Valerianov colourfully titled ‘Under The Red Star, Together with Men, Let’s Frighten the Bourgeoisie’. Here, the hefty, headscarfed, womanly but not ‘feminine’ female proletarians who so often featured in early Bolshevik iconography march, in loose-fitting, easy-looking and somewhat folksy red dresses, towards a cowering, cartoonish bourgeois. The poster sparks a discussion of how the Soviet 1920s, particularly in the especially politicized wings of Bolshevism and Constructivism, entailed a disdain for the thin, unproletarian figure of the Jazz Age, in favour of these big, powerful proletarians. The flapper body, useless for production, designed for pleasure, was commonly associated with the compromised capitalism of the New Economic Policy and, often, with prostitution. Yet Bartlett’s research is too scrupulous to ignore the fact that this conflation was opposed within the Bolshevik Party by Anatoly Lunacharsky, and opposed within the avant-garde by Lyubov Popova, and most of all by Alexandra Exter, who designed much more feminine and fashionable women’s clothing during the same period. When Stalinism rehabilitated fashion in the second half of the 1930s, Soviet couture also started to align more closely with the feminine figures of the West. At this point, the body of the female proletarian was ignored and anathema, in the same way that the body of the flapper was regarded with suspicion ten years earlier. Yet, given the fact that the look matches that of the European mainstream, Bartlett no longer regards this new norm with such suspicion.

However debatable this perspective might be, there’s no doubt whatsoever that Bartlett’s visual research is formidable. The argument is made at least in part through that material, and it’s often there that it is most convincing. The vicissitudes of dress policy in the 1920s are analysed as much through the changes in magazine covers – from the hybrid folksy flappers of Iskusstvo Odevatsia to the Constructivist flappers found half-naked and engaged in edifying fizkultura on the Stenberg brothers’ covers for Zhenskii Zhurnal – as in the text itself. There, the argument against socialist normativity is more a matter of omission than of distortion. The Soviet suspicion of an orgiastic Jazz Age is exemplified by a cartoon of a workers’ club (skirts to the knee, activism) and jazz club (skirts above the knee, decadence) in the satirical magazine Krokodil. Where would, say, Alexandrov’s film Jolly Fellows, where anti-bourgeois satire is reinforced rather than opposed by jazz and slapstick, be placed in this dichotomy?

The most viable, serious attempt to create a changeable, dynamic form of dress that is an alternative to and replacement of the established fashion system surely took place in the 1920s, and subsequently FashionEast presents less a series of alternatives so much as a series of more or less adequate attempts at emulation. The attempt to class the discourse of dress in post-1948 Eastern Europe as a ‘utopian’ moment along with that of the 1920s is unconvincing. Certainly, the official rhetoric towards Western fashion became a great deal harsher and more heated during the 1948–56 period, but this violent Cold War discourse masked the fact that nothing new was being proposed to replace it; as Stitziel makes clear in Fashioning Socialism, the favoured garment of Stalinist East Germany was the Tyrolean dirndl, a peasant dress also much favoured in Nazi Germany. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine a socialist version of the main Western craze at the time, Christian Dior’s New Look, a deliberately cumbersome, ultra-feminine accompaniment to the removal of women from the factories after World War II; a style that was also attacked by women in the UK’s not especially Stalinist Labour government. More interesting, at least for its darkly fetishistic frisson, is the cataloguing of High Stalinist high fashion in the USSR itself. A version of haute couture became the style of the new Soviet empire’s centre, and a new engagement with display, spectacle and femininity went along with ‘life getting gayer’. Here, the argument is made by two remarkable drawings from the magazine Zhurnal Mod, both from the later 1950s, when austerity was just starting to creep into the luxury aesthetic. Women in tight black dresses pace the interior of the Riga House of Fashion, and a gaggle of glamorous ladies in fur coats line the escalators of the Moscow Metro. It’s hard to work out exactly what is specifically socialist here except perhaps for the setting of the latter, but at least this is vividly surreal imagery.

That’s the crux of FashionEast’s limitations. It remains an intriguing read, and particularly an intriguing boggle – but what about these clothes and magazines is intrinsic to socialism, rather than intrinsic to any developing, peripheral economies cut off from the centres of fashion production? After the Soviet system solidifies, and with the failure of the last, inadequate efforts by the Khrushchev government to create a desirable functionalism of dress, we are left with interesting images and anecdotes, whether interviews with 1980s’ proponents of Soviet fashion, accounts of the black market, vivid images from Polish 1960s’ women’s magazines or Hungarian photographs of girls with tractors. It proves that state-sponsored design in Eastern Europe was frequently impressive, much as was state-sponsored design in the social-democratic West. However, the suspicion is hard to shake that what this ‘socialist fashion’ really constituted was a rather slower version of Western fashion. Vivid imagery inadequately covered up two inescapable factors. First, the regimes’ inability actually to mass-produce the goods seen in women’s magazines, and second, their unwillingness to create mass unemployment through the destruction of their textile industries that would result from the mass importation of Western fashion. The latter, of course, is what eventually resulted in post- 1989 Eastern Europe, and to its credit FashionEast does not romanticize this final change.