The Genteel
March 7, 2021


While the Iron Curtain was erect, the people of the Eastern Bloc took many risks to dip their toes into the fashion of the West. Photograph by Katarina Kuruc.

As social animals, human beings have a basic need for communication. But, what happens when this fundamental need is restricted, stifled or, in some cases, outright forbidden?

In her book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic gives a poignant description of life under Communism. She writes, "growing up in Eastern Europe you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people's everyday lives." According to Drakulic, "politics never becomes abstract. It remains a palpable, brutal force directing every aspect of our lives, from what we eat to how we live and where we work." 

Czechoslovak magazines: what was advertised 
in government publications was not reflected 
in consumer culture.  Source:

Despite such seemingly bleak circumstances, the people of the Eastern Bloc managed to find hope in an unlikely place, where words were replaced by something more politically subtle, but just as powerful. In Communist Eastern Europe,* goods, specifically fashion goods, became a visual narrative for people's personal and political identities during a time of silence.

Although there were a few ways through which individuals were able to express themselves under Communist dictatorship (poetry, stories, theatre, etc.), these were either heavily regulated, censored or outright forbidden. As a result, while the Iron Curtain was erect, fashion became a visible form of self-expression and was the only source of visible political discourse. Fashion items, which otherwise would have been insignificant or taken for granted, became highly political and laden with symbolic value. The act of producing, distributing and consuming fashion and dress that wasn't sanctioned by the state became a clear indicator of the public's discontent with the regime.

Prior to the 1948 Soviet invasion, many Eastern European nations were democratic and capitalist states with market economies, open borders and bustling fashion industries complete with renowned designers, tailors and fashion salons. However, after the Soviet take-over, which lasted until its fall in 1989, all nations belonging to the Eastern Bloc were obliged to reject their own fashion, textile and clothing traditions and formally accept the centralised Soviet model of production and distribution. According to historian Judd Stitziel, in Fashioning Socialism, "the goal was to cultivate a 'socialist personality' with new habits, needs and values that would be in harmony with the needs of society as a whole and thus help create a communist utopia."

What was even more important than the fashion itself was the act of acquiring such goods. After all, " had to bribe the a sales girl, wait in line for some imported products, buy blue jeans on the black market and pay your whole month's salary for them, you had to hoard cloth and sew, all the while imitating the pictures in forbidden glamorous foreign magazines....

The Communist functionalist philosophy has always been at odds with the Western aesthetic force of fashion and during the early years of Communism, the Socialist regimes of Eastern Europe, including East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovkia, were forced to embrace Bolshevik ideology and officially "reject Western fashion." In Bolshevik Russia, "Western style dress was attacked as a bourgeois gendered practice," wrote Djurdja Bartlett in her article, Let Them Wear Beige: The Petit-bourgeois World of Official Socialist Dress. The state-owned media of most Socialist regimes propagated the view that Western fashion was "vulgar, tasteless, impractical, expensive and anachronistic," while Communist fashion was described as "simple, functional, hygienic, tasteful and practical."

It was the hope of the Communist regime, that through fashion, the government would be able to re-introduce conservative Communist aesthetics. However, in reality, "East European communist dress was not only born inside a reality burdened with postwar material poverty, but also inside a reality stripped of all previous clothing references."[1] The new, centrally planned system did not recognise the market economy and, as a result, fashion choices and availability were mainly influenced by political shifts in Russia rather than by trends or demand.

So, although the state promised to fulfill both basic and luxury needs in such as way as to provide them for everyone, this did not occur. Rather, official Communist fashion was an ideological creation, where fashionable dress existed on the pages of various fashion magazines and journals or specialty shops mainly available for the Communist elite.

Right from the beginning, the Soviet-sanctioned economic system had inherent problems. Lack of communication between central authorities, factory managers and designers resulted in poor quality, outdated and homogeneous apparel. Drakulic summarises the sense of hopeless sameness that was present throughout the Eastern Bloc: "It is the same with pullovers, coats, shoes: everyone is wearing the same thing, not because they want to but because there is nothing else to buy. This is how the state creates fashion - by a lack of products and a lack of choice."

Meanwhile, the Communist media promoted socialist dress both within and outside of the Eastern bloc. In fact, wrote Bartlett, "seasonal shows by exclusive fashion houses, such as Eva and Styl, were regularly reported on in the Czech media" and annual fashion gatherings were organised throughout Eastern Europe to "showcase" the "wealth and prosperity" of the Communist states.

While the Communists used fashion as a tool for the promotion of the state outside of its borders, the story was quite different back home. Due to strictly imposed fashion trends on the textile and clothing industry coupled with the endless levels of bureaucracy and lack of resources, there were delays in promoting new styles, poor quality goods and overall undesirable commodities. Seeing as change is a central element of fashion, it is no wonder that the state was reluctant to provide the means, both material and symbolic, for fashion to take shape.

As a consequence of the state's failure to provide people with the means for self-expression, individuals looked for substitute ways to obtain fashion commodities in order to produce clothing and, in turn, display their individuality. A combination of informal networks and consumers' own production of fashion allowed for individualisation and differentiation, something that the "mainstream" Communist goods were unable to provide.

Communist homogeneous style in poor
quality fabrics and utalitarian style.

Women and youth, in particular, found different ways of acquiring clothing and accessories, from designing and creating apparel themselves (sewing, knitting, etc.) or through the black market, as limited as it was. In particular, street style and street-wear became of paramount importance for the production and creation of the self. As Slovak journalist, Blanka Dancikova claims, "it sounds funny but we learned about textiles and fashion on the streets. Not really from the media, we would talk about chicks and about hip fabrics all at the same time."[2] In this way, fashionable street-dress "undermined the command economy by manifesting change, encouraging individual expression and breaking through communist cultural isolationism."[1]

What was even more important than the fashion itself was the act of acquiring such goods. After all, "to avoid uniformity, you had to work very hard: you had to bribe the a sales girl, wait in line for some imported products, buy blue jeans on the black market and pay your whole month's salary for them, you had to hoard cloth and sew, all the while imitating the pictures in forbidden glamorous foreign magazines," wrote Drakulic. The act of obtaining these seemingly trivial objects gave them their importance - the fact that people needed to obtain them at great costs in order to create some semblance of themselves and display this persona visually and publicly. Therefore, wearing jeans, mini skirts or t-shirts with English slogans became more than just clothes, rather these fashion commodities became symbols of a very particular and powerful choice.

Cultural theorists Elizabeth Neiderer and Rainer Winter wrote, "it is through cultural resources, that is to say through images, symbols, discourses, stories, clothes and accessories, that many people specify their identities, form their political opinions and collectively create a common culture."[3] Due to a lack of resources, restricted communication and oppressive political circumstances, fashion became an integral and powerful force in the lives of people living behind the Iron Curtain. Fashion became the material and symbolic means through which the citizens of Communist states were able to visually and publicly construct, develop and project their sense of self and their individuality: a practice, both powerful and equally as dangerous, but nonetheless practiced with vigor, determination and hope.

* Although, in this article I write about Eastern Europe in general, it is important to note that each of the nations included in this area also had their own unique and complex ways of dealing with their material, social and political circumstances.

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[3] Neiderer, Elizabeth and Winter, Rainer. 2008. "Fashion, Culture, and the Construction of Identity." In Cultural Studies: an Anthology, ed. M. Ryan, 687-695. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.



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