9 Dec
2013

An Unlikely Comrade: Coco Chanel and Socialist Fashion

The encounter between Coco Chanel and the world’s first socialist country – Bolshevik Russia – did not happen in the early 1920s when both Chanel and socialism were still modernist projects. The 1924 drawings of dresses by the Constructivist Varvara Stepanova and Coco Chanel’s drawing of a little black dress published in American Vogue in the same year, share the same modernist aesthetics, characterized by flatness and overall economy of style. While both Stepanova and Chanel proposed functionality and simplicity in dress, their similarities were only aesthetic.[i] The Bolsheviks completely rejected fashion, and, consequently, Coco Chanel could not have been accepted as a sartorial comrade. She would only become one in the late 1950s when both the socialist regimes and Coco Chanel herself were no longer revolutionaries, and, consequently, embraced sartorial convention. The new socialist predilection towards stability implied the design and production of conventional, repetitive clothes. The Chanel suit – classical, elegant and timeless – corresponded to this slow flow of time. [ii]

It could be said that a fear of change brought Chanel and socialist fashion together. Socialist magazines emphasized that Coco herself did not want, or indeed need any changes in her already perfect suit. Striving themselves towards an eternal chic, socialist fashion designers matched Coco Chanel’s ‘classicist’ aesthetics.

 

Chanel suit designed by German Fashion Institute, Sibylle, East Berlin, 1962

 

Fashion magazines, such as the East German Sibylle, Czechoslovak Woman and Fashion (Žena a móda) and Hungarian This Is Fashion (Ez a divat) published many versions of a Chanel classic suit from the late 1950s throughout the 1970s, which were created either by the designers within the central fashion institutions or produced by the magazines themselves as unique, one-off outfits for their fashion editorials. In 1964, Sibylle dedicated nineteen  pages to Chanel suits, many of which were designed and executed only for that specific fashion story called ‘One Beautiful Day Just for You’.

 

 

 

‘One Beautiful day Just for You’, Sibylle, East Berlin, 1964

Just as a Chanel suit itself, the newly ideologically approved socialist good taste allowed for changes in detail while avoiding any radical changes in cut or silhouette. Similar to socialist magazines, the references to Chanel in the French fashion media were strictly a-temporal. French Vogue declared Chanel’s Fall 1958 collection a ‘manifesto of elegance in simplicity’, and claimed that ‘five outfits on these pages show that a formula can evolve, renew and strengthen itself, while staying strictly faithful to its unchangeable style’.

Apart from offering an escape from fashionability and the dangers of temporality, the fashion media’s attention to detail also had economic reasons. As observed by Roland Barthes: “One detail is enough to transform what is outside meaning into meaning, what is unfashionable into Fashion, and, yet, “…the detail consecrates a democracy of budgets while respecting an aristocracy of tastes”.[iii] While Barthes in his Fashion System interrogates the 1950s French fashion media, the semantic value of the so-called ‘little nothing that changes everything’ was much stronger in the socialist fashion magazines’ efforts to fulfil the dreams of their female readership, while being limited by the repressed socialist market which was unable to deal with changing and desirable images of femininity.

However, the Chanel suit did not fit into socialist sartorial narrative only because of its timelessness. By the late 1950s, it happened to be an updated version of the early socialist dream that envisioned women wearing clothes that would be as uncomplicated, practical and sexually neutral as those worn by men. Speaking of herself in the third person, Chanel apparently told Salvador Dali: “Chanel always dressed like the strong independent male she had dreamed of being”. Socialism started with a utopian desire to abolish gender difference, but, after initial post-revolutionary experiments with a unisex vision of gender, it returned to the most traditional patterns of womanhood, leaving behind the image of a masculinized woman on a tractor. Yet, the fact that Coco Chanel was inspired by male dress codes, especially those concerning workers’ and soldiers’ clothes, contributed to her appeal within the field of socialist fashion.[iv] In this dress code, proletarian austerity was not abandoned. It was just embellished with the categories of prettiness and elegance.

Barbara Hoff, ‘Chanel Suit’, Przekrój, Cracow, 1959

‘Mademoiselle Chanel’, You and I, Warsaw, 1964

 

The eternal allure of the Chanel suit was supported with romanticized stories about Coco Chanel and her life published in the socialist fashion media. Her social background of an illegitimate child brought up in an orphanage, and her determination to succeed against all the odds, was much emphasized. Her appreciation of fake jewellery was also praised. In those stories Coco Chanel was presented as a role model, almost a friend who could give you a few tips on how to achieve the perfect style.

 

 

In fact, the Chanel suit was not only an ideologically imposed style. Whether a woman internalized the official concepts of gender and taste, or simply could not afford a new suit each season, a Chanel-style suit seemed to be an ideal option. However, living in a system burdened by permanent shortages and poor quality clothes, socialist women could buy in the shops neither the original Chanel suits nor their copies. Helped by regular Do-It-Yourself columns in socialist fashion magazines, they had to crochet or sew those suits themselves.

 

This Is Fashion, Cover, Budapest, 1964

‘Hand-craft: “Chanel” Jacket’, This Is Fashion, Budapest, 1965



[i] For an overview on the relationship between Soviet and western fashions in the 1920s, see: Bartlett, Djurdja (2010) FashionEast: the Spectre That Haunted Socialism, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, pp. 13-62

[ii] For a longer version of this essay, see: Bartlett, Djurdja “Coco Chanel and Socialist Fashion”, in: Bartlett, D., S. Cole and A. Rocamora (eds.) Fashion Media: Past and Present, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, November 2013

[iii] Barthes, Roland (1990) Fashion System, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 243

[iv] For an overview of the mixture of various social class elements in Chanel’s suits, see: Garelick, Rhonda K. (2001) “The Layered Look: Coco Chanel and Contagious Celebrity”, in: Fillin-Yeh, Susan (ed.) Dandies: Fashion and Finesse in Art and Culture, New York: New York University Press; Rose, Francis “Chanel Always Now”, Vogue, New York, December 1969, pp. 116-122.

12 Nov
2013

Meeting Denis Simachev

The domestic and western media have shown a great interest in Denis Simachev from the moment he appeared on the Moscow scene at the beginning of the 2000s. He has been fashion designer, restaurant owner, and, also, an important player on the Moscow night-life scene, either as a DJ, or the organizer of cool night happenings which are never advertised but nevertheless attract a cool young crowd. Accordingly, Simachev’s PA let my research assistant know that my interview with Simachev was scheduled for 11pm. In the end, she moved it to 8pm, so I managed, after working all day at the Russian State Library, to make it smoothly, after the library closed, to his shop-cum-restaurant, squeezed between the Prada and Louis Vuitton shopping emporiums on the Stoleshnikov Alley[i].

Denis Simachev was born in Moscow, but has presented his collections on both domestic and western catwalks.[ii]He showed his first men’s collection in 2001and expanded into women’s wear for Fall/Winter 2005.

Denis Simachev, Fall Winter 2005-2006 Collection

A heroine of his first women’s collection, called “Made in Russia”, was a literature teacher in a Siberian village school. Simachev imagined her reading fairy-tales to children, dressed in long wide skirts covered with the seventeenth-century ethnic Khokhloma pattern, and wearing red high-heeled boots, and a kerchief that only partially covered her long golden plait.

Dress from Fall Winter 2005-2006 Collection embellished with Khokhloma pattern

In the promotional material covering this collection, Simachev claims that he intends “to save all the princesses from the bewitched castles of unisex”. Similar to this remark, the notes accompanying his other collections are so excessive and over-blown that they in fact offer an entirely new interpretation of Russian heritage.

A series of heroes from his other collections, extending from Red Army commander Vasily Chapayev to a 1980s Olympic sportsman, Chechnya soldier and Soviet cosmonaut are a carefully thought-out trap for any conventional gaze. In 2009, his women’s collection reminds of the Soviet Union opening towards the West in the late 1980s, sartorially informed by American soap operas, against whose dubious glamour the falling, but fashion-hungry, socialist mammoth had no resistance at all.

Denis Simachev, Fall Winter 2009-2010 Collection

Denis Simachev, Fall Winter 2009-2010 Collection

 

 

His Fall Winter 2006/2007 men’s collection featured black and white T-shirts with the Russian word ‘Neft’ (Oil) and ‘Oil is Our Everything’ printed on them. Was he pointing towards shady business deals concerning Russia’s most important source of natural wealth? Simachev rejects answering such questions. In his manifesto, he claims that he “uses questionable, ambiguous artefacts of national culture which are intentionally cultivated to be both naïve and honest”.[iii]

Is it nostalgia? Is it irony? Denis Simachev opts for the latter in describing his play with the stereotypes of the Soviet 1980s period and today’s Russia. I planned to talk to Simachev mainly about fashion, although it would have been too narrow a definition to describe him as fashion designer, especially because fashion does not attract much of his attention these days. In fact, he told me that he would always be interested in fashion, but that it contributes to only ten per cent of his activities these days. That was a disappointing answer, but maybe Simachev’s dress design has not been meant to be fashion as such. While he designs perfectly wearable T-shirts, skirts and jackets, their main role might be to transmit the concepts, with his subversive, or at least, witty ideas on his homeland, conveniently cut and sewn into clothes.

Today, Simachev claims, he intends to turn his name into a life-style brand. In our talk, he singled the Limited Edition iPhone, decorated with his favourite ethnic motif, Khokhloma. Using part of the designer’s surname, it is called the Simaphone, and sports Khokhloma patterns on the back. “The mobile phone should be perfect, as we use it each day. But I believe it should also be original”, says Simachev. He had already adorned Porsche cars and the Ducati motorcycle seat with the Khokhloma pattern. Also, he created a unique fabric for Kartell’s chair ‘Mademoiselle’, which the furniture company advertises as an opulent white or black tone-sur-tone damask fabric. Other gadgets and digital games are in the pipeline.

But, what will happen to his project ‘With Brotherly Greetings’, which he envisioned in 2010? Playing with the conventional form of address between the republics that formed the Soviet Union, Simachev has aimed to explore, again playfully, the sincerity of that phrase back then and its meaning today. His initial plan was to take this performance, in which dress plays an important part, to all the former Soviet republics, and change the display accordingly, taking into account past and current concerns relevant to each of these countries.

‘With Brotherly Greetings’, Harper’s Bazaar, Moscow, October 2010

But, this plan did not work out. After presenting the project to the media in his Moscow bar in 2010[iv], he realized that it would be very difficult to stage it in all these, now independent, countries, covering territory from the Baltic to Central Asia. Simachev admits that he could not overcome various bureaucratic hurdles, and says he hopes that this project will live online. On the other hand, he might have said that only because he saw that I was interested in it. With his ambitious plans to expand his brand Simaworld worldwide through a series of new digital projects, he himself might not be that interested to engage with specific Soviet and post-Soviet issues any longer.



[i] The interview took place on 27 October 2012.

[ii] For an overview, see my essay: “Moscow on the Fashion Map: between periphery and centre”, Studies in East European Thought, 2011, vol. 63, N 2, pp. 111-121

[iii] See: www.simachev.com

[iv] The Russian Harper’s Bazaar presented Simachev’s project ‘With Brotherly Greetings’, as a 2-page spread in its October issue in 2010.

7 Oct
2013

Geometrical versus Ethnic in Central European Art Deco Fashions

In his book on the relationship between Cubism and fashion, fashion historian Richard Martin observed that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the two phenomena had shared an interest in the primitive, as well as in the aesthetics of flatness. Calling both Cubist artists and fashion designers ‘knowing naives’, Martin cited ‘Japonism, the Ballets Russes, and other exoticisms of the early twentieth century’ among their influences. As Martin further stated: ‘Art Deco’s development of Cubism’s selective geometry into a wider array of shapes carried Cubism as a pictorial taxonomy to a much broader audience and wider appeal’.[i] Indeed, Art Deco fashions in the West continued to borrow indiscriminately from a wide range of exotic sources, including ancient Egypt, Roman antiquity, Byzantium, the Far East and Eastern Europe.

The Art Deco fashion in Central Europe shared many characteristics with its western counterpart, from acceptance of flat forms, such as elongated, simple lines of dresses, to the celebration of primary colours, and a tendency towards abstraction in its patterns. Geometry was the preferred visual language both in the West and the East, and, in this context, central European Art Deco fashions were modernist phenomena. Yet, informed by the political and cultural circumstances in the region, the uses of geometrical patterns were burdened with the ideological struggles: between the forces that supported nationalist causes, those that promoted cosmopolitan values, and, finally, those that advocated radical social change.

In the first case, Art Deco decorations on dresses related exclusively to the domestic ethnic heritage, sartorially supporting and enforcing the concept of the nation state.

Hungarian Journal of the Applied Arts, Budapest, 1929

Embedded in nationalist rhetoric and practice, the importance of the ethnic was supported through the crafts and embroidery schools that abounded in the region at the time, such as the Professional Women’s School in Warsaw. Additionally, various associations, mainly led by upper class ladies, encouraged handicraft production in the impoverished countryside and engaged in trading its wares, both at home and abroad. Among the latter, the Zagreb Women’s Association for the Preservation and Promotion of the Ethnic Arts and Crafts took part in fifty-two inter-war exhibitions, selling handicraft produced by countryside women.

 

Fashion Show at the Zagreb Fair, The Women’s Association of Zagreb, World, Zagreb, 1928 

At the sartorially and socially most exclusive end of this trend, the Hungarian haute couture salon ‘Ribbon’ (Pantlika) and its designer Klára Tüdős combined high fashion and a conservative social agenda, which, in this case, culminated with a grand Fashion Ball at the Budapest Opera in 1938, at which all the aristocratic ladies wore sumptuous evening gowns embellished with domestic ethnic motifs. With World War Two approaching, such excessive romanticizing of the past turned into nationalistic excesses.

 

“Opera Fashion Show”, Theatre Life, Budapest, 1938 

Secondly, geometry in dress was intertwined with the global metropolitan culture, its vivid patterns pulsating with the cosmopolitan rhythms and rituals. Only the Czechoslovak First Republic was an industrially developed country in inter-war Central Europe. For other countries, the absence of a real technological and economic development made the representation of all aspects of the new modernist world and its various expressions ever more important. In this mediated modernity, geometrical cuts and patterns of fashionable dresses hinted that the big industries and skyscrapers would soon follow.

Theatre and Sophisticated Life, Warsaw, Cover, 1929

Yet, the enlightened domestic elites, from industrialists to intellectuals and artists, did not completely abandon their roots in a drive to become modern. In that sense, those sartorial attempts tried to achieve a truce between the ethnic and the geometrical, but consequently produced a series of nationalized versions of modernism[ii]. When simplified to a level of geometric abstraction, domestic ethnic motifs fulfilled the Art Deco stylistic requirements, but also presented the elites’ respective concepts of their national cultures within a new, modernist and cosmopolitan context. The Polish artistic collective ‘Ład’ (Order), among others, embraced this aesthetics. Similarly, in the Croatian inter-war illustration magazine ‘World’ (Svijet), the drawings of Art Deco dresses decorated with purified ethnic motifs endorsed the modernist aspirations as much as did the advertisements for big American cars, photographs of international film stars and the latest news on air travel.

Drawing by Otto Antonini, “Our Ladies and Ethnic Embroidery”, World, Zagreb, 1926 

Civilised Woman, exhibition catalogue, Brno 1929

Lastly, this seductive decorative modernism, due to which central European outfits looked just like any highly decorated Art Deco dresses, had strong opponents. They also were modernists and expressed their visions of a new world in geometrical visual language, but rejected any references to the ethnic. Those politically radical avant-garde artists allowed only the sparse and purposeful use of decoration. Additionally, they attacked the very fashionability of the Art Deco dresses and the highly commercial nature of the phenomenon of fashion. The Czech Functionalists, gathered in the city of Brno at the end of 1920s, were educated in their functionalist, yet highly urbanized and polished, approach to design at the Bauhaus. The exhibition ‘Civilized Woman’ (Civilisovaná žena), which Zdeněk Rossmann  organized in the city in 1929, showed their dismissal of fashion and their dreams to dress women in a uniform-style dress resembling men’s clothing.

 

Fashion Drawing, Eva, Prague, 1930

In this, they shared the aesthetics and drive for a new, better world with the members of a wider international movement known as International Style. Integrating a novel geometric aesthetics with socially progressive politics, this type of modernism equally included Le Corbusier and the Constructivist Varvara Stepanova. Increasingly, categories such as functionality, simplicity and comfort migrated from the austere International Style into the field of fashion. In order to visualize these new modernist dictates, fashion also gradually adopted a geometrical style towards the end of the 1920s.



[i] Richard Martin (1998) Cubism and Fashion (exhibition catalogue), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 91-99

[ii] For the relationship between nationalism and the modernist arts in the region, see: Piotrowski, Piotr “Modernity and Nationalism”, in: Benton, Timothy, O. (ed.) Central European Avant-gardes: exchange and transformation, 1910-1930, Los Angeles County Museum and MIT Press, 2002, pp. 313-326

18 Sep
2013

Afterlives of Constructivism

Earlier this year, I gave a paper at the conference “Illusions Killed by Life”: Afterlives of (Soviet) Constructivism, envisioned and organized by Serguei Oushakine at Princeton University, and including a series of great papers, as well as the engaging discussants’ interventions. My paper explored the afterlife of the Constructivist Utopia in post-war Eastern Europe, during which its initially radical political programme was eventually diluted into various sartorial fashions. Among other issues, I addressed the first self-confident fashion statement in the Soviet Union and socialist Central Europe: the space suit.

In the western fashion of the 1960s, the linear looks of the space age made a dynamic contrast with the lady-like clothes of the post-war period – all nipped-in New Look jackets and big skirts. Cardin’s square-cut clothes were designed to free the body, and their circular cut-outs and satellite sleeves spinning in orbit around the arms were icons of the space age. Courrèges accentuated his geometrical cut by using seams with top stitching which emphasized the straight lines of the dress. The socialist excitement about this trend was immediately publicized in the pages of its media. In a review of the Paris autumn-winter collections for 1966/1967, the Soviet Fashion Journal (Zhurnal mod) brushed aside the ‘old’ French fashion houses which conformed to the traditions of the classical school of French elegance. Instead, the journal focused its admiration on ‘brave innovators’ like Pierre Cardin.

In contrast to all previous Western trends, a cosmonaut-inspired dress, vividly resembling the Constructivists’ heroic sartorial visions, could be perceived not only as the latest frivolous craze but also as a socially progressive dress code. Furthermore, both Cardin and Courrèges designed unisex clothes, thus the space trend embodied the earlier utopian ideas of simple, practical and sexually neutral outfits for women. The socialist enthusiasm for this trend was also linked to the achievements of contemporary Soviet science and to the socialist victories over the West in the space race. The Sputnik, as well as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, sporting their cosmonaut suits in the stratosphere, were the symbols of technological modernity, even of a newly acquired fashionability. In 1963, the same year in which Tereshkova travelled into space, the journal Decorative Art of the USSR directly reproduced a drawing of overalls from the 1920s journal Art of Dressing. But, now, this outfit was not presented as an avant-garde artistic proposal but as a part of the history of domestic fashion.

 

Figure 1: ‘From History of Fashion’, Decorative Art of the USSR, Moscow, 1963

Figure 2: Art of Dressing, Leningrad, 1928

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Western space trend moved from the pages of the socialist fashion media onto the catwalk, appearing in the annual collections designed by the socialist central fashion institutions. Yet, could socialist women buy these vinyl overcoats and neon-coloured jump-suits?

Figure 3 Model designed by the Czech central fashion institution ÚBOK, Woman and Fashion, Prague, 1969

Figure 4: Model designed by Iulia Denisova, All Union House of Prototypes, Fashion Journal, Moscow, 1968

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, no, they never arrived in the shops, due to the inability of the socialist textile industries to produce fashionable clothes on a mass scale. And, did they like this futuristic aesthetic? Again, no. Soviet women tried to emulate the lady-like style to which their heroine Valentina Tereshkova switched in real life, once she took off her cosmonaut suit. In the socialist East, the Constructivist modernist aesthetic has always been too extreme, both stylistically and ideologically. As observed by Boris Groys: “According to Russian chronology, modernism is a feature of the Socialist future, which now belongs to the past, rather than being part of the capitalist past, which is now the future. In Russia, modernism is associated with Socialism – and not, as in the West, with progressive capitalism”.[1]

 

Figure 5: Valentina Tereshkova in her cosmonaut suit

Figure 6: Valentina Tereshkova in her smart suit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In contrast, the West was already seduced by the Constructivist geometrical style in the 1920s. Depoliticized of their strong ideological message, the Constructivists have continued to inspire western fashion designers, as well as practitioners in the field of the graphic arts. Even John Galliano, who used to design highly decorative outfits for the fashion house Christian Dior, succumbed to their austere triangles and rectangles with his 1999 Spring Summer ready-to-wear collection. In the spring of 2009, New York department store Saks Fifth Avenue designed its advertising campaign inspired by the Constructivist geometrical style.[2]

Figure 7: John Galliano for Dior, Spring Summer collection 1999

Figure 8: Shepard Fairey, Saks Fifth Avenue Advertisement Campaign, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, the utopian dreams of deconstructing established dress codes and constructing a novel dress materialized in the field of western fashion – as new fashion trends. Similar to avant-garde practices, fashion depends on the practices of cutting and constructing, but, unburdened by any messianic programmes and manifestos, and enabled by its commercial nature to re-adjust and transfer the utopian ideas into the everyday, its radically new dresses become just fashionable items. The afterlives of Constructivism have been indeed very varied.

 


[1] Groys, Boris (2008) Art Power, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 158

[2] The Saks campaign was designed by Shepard Fairey, designer of the Obama Hope poster. While he burdened the latter with a strong political message, Fairey insisted that the Saks Constructivist-like campaign was only “commerce”, without “any political statement embedded in it” (quoted in: Eric Wilson ‘Consumers of the World Unite!’, New York Times, 8 January 2009

7 May
2013

Tatyana Parfionova: Interview

“When I first opened my fashion house on Nevsky Prospekt, I did not dare to enter through the front door. It was so strange, or rather very uncomfortable, to have your name on the façade after all those years during socialism when individuality was suppressed.

Figure 1 Spring Summer 2010

For some time, I would rather enter my premises by the side of the building”, Tatyana Parfionova told me recently, as we met in the same space which still hosts her premises. Parfionova is a veteran among today’s Russian fashion designers. In 1977, she graduated as a painter at the Art College in St Petersburg. But, instead of becoming a professional artist, she opted for a career as a fashion designer, eventually becoming director of the ‘Fashion Theatre’ in the late 1980s. The main task of socialist fashion designers was to coordinate all fashion design-related activities, such as launching fashion trends and executing prototypes of the dresses which were supposed to be mass-produced in the textile factories. Yet, the trends were carefully managed in order not to be too fashionable, and Soviet industry never managed to turn the prototypes into dresses which would meet the aesthetic and quality demands of their mass customers.

Figure 2 Autumn Winter 2010

While their names would be published in the socialist media, socialist designers were not supposed to turn into stars. So it’s no wonder that Tatyana Parfionova felt uneasy when she founded a fashion house under her own name in 1995, soon after the fall of socialism. “I wanted to offer quality and a new way of doing things. I have sewn labels with my name on my clothes. It was not done before. There was a huge responsibility on my shoulders.” That initial uneasiness did not prevent Parfionova developing her own style from the very beginning. Her aesthetics clearly points towards her initial artistic education, but she also quotes the hilly and green landscape of her Ukrainian childhood as her permanent inspiration. The grand history of St Petersburg is also present in her dresses, especially through the historical references to its theatres and ballet (Figures 1 and 2). Yet, while the walls of her shop are decked with her paintings, Parfionova emphasizes that fashion is not art: “The fashion designer has to take into account many practical issues with which the artist does not need to be bothered. Art and fashion might be running in parallel, but they do not overlap”.

Parfionova continues to say that the customer is her main concern, quite in contrast to socialist fashion which could not, or did not, care about serving its customers. She reminisces about her very first client. “I have only just opened my fashion house and an elderly lady comes in and tells me that she wants me to make her a coat. She adds that it would be the last coat in her life-time. She wore the previous one for twenty years and intends to do the same with a new one. This frank statement deserved a lengthy discussion and, finally, I made her a coat. It was grey and of straight lines, and we were both happy with the result”.

Figure 3 Spring Summer 2013

There is a both a spiritual and a material side to this story, and this approach is permanently present in Parfionova’s work. Each of her collections is organized around a new historical or nature-based theme, but that conceptual element eventually gives way to a final product: a beautiful dress as an object to be worn or merely desired. Additionally, Parfionova indulges her artistic streak in designing theatrical sets for her fashion shows and by writing lyrical notes to accompany them. She presented one of her last collections, meant for Spring Summer 2013, at the fashion shows in St Petersburg and Moscow. She managed to turn the prevailing clichés on the materiality of Moscow against the mysticism of St Petersburg into a series of poetic statements about the girls of these two cities. Showing a collection for the Moscow girl in St Petersburg, Parfionova claimed that the young Muscovite was ‘slim and happy, wild and practical, eccentric and reasonable … not regretting anything and not being afraid of the future’. In contrast, the public at her Moscow fashion show saw the dresses fitting a ‘melancholic, sincere and reckless St Petersburg girl who prefers a mysterious night to a revealing daylight’ (Figure 3).

Figure 4 Spring-Summer-2012

Tatyana Parfionova runs her business as a family-owned company, in which she is in charge of design, while her son takes care of business. Her dresses are made from the best fabrics and include lots of hand-embroidery (Figure 4). Consequently, they are very expensive, at the level of the leading international designers, or costing even more. Thinking about it, they also might need to command such prices in order to be acknowledged as worthwhile in the tricky Russian market. Parfionova defines her customers as highly educated and adventurous. It could be said that her dress, ideally, would be worn by an intellectual woman with an interest in the arts. But, she would certainly need the means to afford it in the first place.

24 Apr
2013

Struck by Hollywood

The Bolshevik author Sergei Tretyakov was horrified to see on the Soviet cinema screens of 1927 ‘old style beauties … with satin skin, elegant feet, the aristocratic hands, fine bones, noble profiles and perfect mouths’. According to Tretyakov, her small feet, delicate bones and soft hands not only denied this beauty any chance to be a worker and friend, but identified her as a class enemy. Tretyakov was even more worried by the interest of the Soviet urban female population in such decadent films. The seemingly disturbing consequences were vividly depicted in a cartoon published in the journal Soviet Screenin 1927. A young mother and her little daughter enter the cinema as a proletarian heroine and a girl pioneer, only to turn into two debauched creatures during the screening of the film (Figure 1).

Figure 1: “Our Heroine, Heroine of Foreign Cinema”, Soviet Screen, Moscow, 1927

In the still pluralistic 1920s, working women could nevertheless indulge in these ideologically inappropriate films, as the Soviets imported about 1,700 American, German and French films between 1921 and 1931.[i] Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were huge stars in the Soviet Union, as demonstrated by the feverish reports in the domestic media during their visit in 1926. Moreover, following the desires of their public, as well as their own modernist agenda, Soviet film makers embarked on making their own urban comedies and melodramas, and creating their own screen stars. Anel Sudakevich exudes Hollywood-style glamour in her role in the 1928 domestic comedy “The Doll with the Millions” (Figure 2).

But the Bolshevik critics were not the only ones who worried about the effects that the new entertainment industry could have on working women. In his work “The Little Shopgirls go to the Movies”, originally published in the German liberal newspaper Frankfurter Zeitungin 1927, the cultural and film historian Siegfried Kracauer defies their film preferences: ‘Sensational film plots and life usually correspond to each other because the Little Miss Typists model themselves after the examples they see on the screen’. Adhering to the contemporary Frankfurt School’s understanding of the dangers of the mass culture for the lower classes, Kracauer further questions the shopgirls’ predilection for melodrama and happy-endings, or, indeed, sad-endings. He claims that the first cheer their ‘silly little hearts’, while the latter provoke them to cry their eyes out.

Figure 2: Anel Sudakevich, Soviet Screen, Moscow, 1928

Later scholarship has challenged Kracauer’s statements as, if not exactly misogynistic, then historically bound by his privileged position of a highly educated bourgeois man. Theorizing 1920s Weimar modernity, Patrice Petro claims that ‘women were constituted differently from men in relation to the image and to structures of looking’. For her, ‘the female spectator’s absorption in the image’ was an equally relevant kind of vision as ‘the male spectator’s more detached, mediated gaze’[ii]. Similarly, Sabine Hake argues that ‘the cinema, in its formative years, also embraced a utopian potential: to be the place for the feminine and a place for women’.[iii]

Figure 4: “Stars of the Polish Screen”, The Woman in the World and at Home, Warsaw, 1930

 

Moreover, it could be said that the cinema promoted a democratization of taste. In fashion, well-heeled ladies had their Paris, while their working class counterparts had their Hollywood. From that point on, the elite did not have an exclusive monopoly on the fashion trends and looks. Fashion was driven by marketing and the media, but these media now addressed an increasingly rising female work-force, providing in such a way a progressively diversified arena of social communication.

As pointed out by film historian Miriam Hansen, classical Hollywood cinema ‘succeeded as an international modernist idiom on a mass basis’ due to the ability of its films to ‘open up hitherto unperceived modes of sensory perception and experience’ and ‘to suggest a different organization of the daily world’. [iv]The photomontage depicting the heads of the leading Hollywood actresses on the cover of the Czech journal Colourful Weekteases its readers with a caption ‘Guess Who This Is?’ Of course, they knew (Figure 3).

Figure 3: “Guess Who This Is?”, Colourful Week, Prague, 1927

In the context of the 1920s sweeping technological and social changes, Hollywood films and their stars helped women to forge a new cosmopolitan identity, whether they happened to be secretaries, cashiers, teachers, nannies, typists, cooks, maids, telephonists or hair-dressers. Moreover, their national film industries gradually launched the domestic star system (Figure 4).

Pitying them and, at the same time, disapproving of their behaviour, Kracauer observes that ‘clandestinely, the little shopgirls wipe their eyes and powder their noses before the lights go up’. It could have been true, but they were nevertheless vigilant in their escapism and purposeful in their distraction. Immersing themselves in the images, they unfailingly spotted the latest model of hat, a new hair-style, skilfully applied make-up, and a cut of dress that they themselves, or some inexpensive seamstress, could easily make.

 


[i] [i] Quoted in: Youngblood, Denise “Entertainment or enlightenment? Popular cinema in Soviet society, 1921-1931”, in: White. Stephen (ed.) New directions in Soviet History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 41-61, p. 51.

[ii] Patrice Petro “Modernity and Mass Culture in Weimar: Contours of a Discourse on Sexuality in Early Theories of Perception and Representation,” New German Critique, N 40, Winter 1987, pp. 115-146

[iii] Sabine Hake “Girls and Crisis: the Other Side of Diversion”, New German Critique, N 40, Winter 1987, pp. 147-164

[iv] Miriam Hansen “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/Modernity, vol. 6, N 2, April 1999, pp. 59-77

 

 

19 Dec
2012

Alena Akhmadullina: Interview

Figure 1 Collection Fall Winter 2006-2007

I have interviewed some prominent Russian fashion designers during my recent research trips to Moscow and St Petersburg. Whilst there, I have also given a couple of lectures on contemporary western fashion and its fascination with Russian ethnic motifs. In the conversations following my lectures, the Russian audiences praised creativity as the most necessary element in running a successful fashion business today. It made me think that this perception might be rooted in the role that fashion played in the Soviet Union. Back then, Slava Zaitsev was presenting luxurious fashion shows at the Central Dom Modelei (House of Prototypes) for the public to enjoy the luscious products of his imagination without the possibility of buying any of the dresses from the catwalk. After the long socialist perception of fashion as a spectacle to be seen and admired without a proper chance to buy it, now it is possible to buy fashion in all its incarnations, from expensive high fashion to cheap fast fashion. And, this fashion, mainly providing from the West, is being duly bought by the still fashion-hungry Russian population. Yet, it seems that many Russians still consider that genuine Russian fashion should be designed by a creative domestic genius, who will eventually conquer the world only due to her or his incredible talent.

Figure 2 Collection Spring Summer 2006

In that sense, it has been refreshing to meet Alena Akhmadullina, a young fashion designer hailing from St Petersburg, but running her fashion house from Moscow, where she now has three shops: the flagship store in the most relevant for fashion Nikolskaya street, and two others in the prominent shopping malls, Vremena Goda (Four Seasons) and Evropeiski. She also has brand shops within the most important department store TsUM and the esteemed shopping mall Tsvetnoy. Apart from Moscow, she also has boutiques in St Petersburg’s newly revamped department store DTL (now owned by TsUM), and in the prestigious shopping mall Astor Plaza in Rostov-on-Don. I mention all these selling locations as it is unusual for a Russian designer to open and run so many shops. Many of the designers seem to be content with the image of an important domestic star in their dress on the pages of a glossy magazine, rather than engaging in the real business of selling their clothes. But, Akhmadullina, a graduate of the Department of Design at the Saint Petersburg State University of Technology and Design, is following a different path. She became famous in Russia in 2000, when a dress from her ‘Dragon Goes!’ collection was pronounced ‘The Dress of the Year’ at the national final of the ‘All-Russia Contest’ in Moscow, but soon started to develop her career both domestically and internationally.

Figure 3 Collection Spring Summer 2011

During our talk, Akhmadullina let me know in detail about her past and current business plans, as well as the professionally developed strategy concerning her future activities. Her collections, including the first one she presented in Paris in 2005, are feminine and romantic, but there has been rigorous planning behind their inspiration, design and presentation. Through her negotiations of the conflicting dictates of fashion with other relevant issues such as nationality, ethnicity and the past, Akhmadullina perfectly embodies the complexity of the designer’s self-construction. Moreover, she emphasized that she asked for professional advice from a prestigious French PR company TBWA, after the first collection she presented in Paris was branded as unfocused by her French show room, which had the task of selling it globally. It had been a beautiful collection, full of imaginative quotations from highly diverse sources from the Russian and Soviet past and its imageries.  But, Akhmadullina explains, these rich quotations, ranging from the modernist aesthetics of constructivism to the mythical world of Russian fairy tales, apparently confused her potential buyers (Figure 1).

TBWA’s clients include, among others, Renault, Nissan, Michelin, Dior Perfumes and L’Oreal. Their experts, in charge of both aesthetics and business, advised Akhmadullina to construct a narrative that would underpin all her design and make her collections unique and unmistakably her own. Through a series of talks with these experienced PR consultants, the conclusion has been reached that Alena should focus on Russian fairy tales. Indeed, there were references to a Russian fairy tale (skaska) in her first Paris presentation, the Spring and Summer 2006 collection, shown through the carved wooden masks which models wore over their faces. Alena stresses that she has been fascinated with that magical world all her life, so it was probably not difficult for her to continue designing in that vein (Figure 2). Her collections have remained poetic and rich in imagination, yet, at the same time, becoming more structured and cleaner as regards their references. A dragon motif is constant in all her presentations (Figure 3). Her patterns often include big, loose floral drawings which emanate from some imagined bucolic vision of nature rather than from any book with botanical drawings. Additionally, the set of her shows is often reminiscent of wild Russian woodland (Figure 4). Previous references unrelated to the fairy tale theme, such as those quoting Russian constructivism, have disappeared, as they would disturb the new, clearly established narrative.

Figure 4 Collection Spring Summer 2009

Akhmadullina’s website boldly states that her collections combine Russian audacity and Paris’s sense of style. I believe that it would be more correct to say that she manages to turn her own fascination with the Russian myths into dresses with modernist shapes. While she emphasizes that her childhood visits to the Hermitage and the Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg still feed her imagination, she uses her Russian quotations wisely. And what about Slava Zaitsev and his dedicated use of traditional Russian ethnic motifs? Akhmadullina offers a diplomatic answer: “Zaitsev is a genius, but he has lived in different times. His fashion was, and still is, about spectacle. I design clothes with the intention of selling them”. Her future is also guided by her business sense. She would like to enter the field of mass fashion, but is patiently waiting for a serious business partner with whom to embark on this new adventure.

17 Dec
2012

Various Faces of Modernity: Reflektor, 1925-1929

How do fashion images fit into the broader social, cultural and artistic landscape of their own time and its imagery? In order to answer this question, I investigate not only the fashion magazines from a certain period, but many other contemporary publications as well, from daily newspapers to applied arts magazines, general illustration magazines and popular weeklies. In some of them, there is nothing on fashion at all, but they might still reveal some truths that I could find relevant for my research. So I pored over the Czech journal Reflektor (Spotlight) during my recent research trip to Prague. Reflektor was a bi-monthly Communist periodical published between 1925 and 1929. The contents of various issues of Reflektor are in many ways to be expected from the Communist press. General strikes of the Czech working class are covered, and there are many articles dealing with the appalling working and living conditions of the working class in the West. Reports on the historical and contemporary 1st May celebrations are regularly published. The 80thanniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto warrants a full page article, accompanied by a large image of Karl Marx. Another anniversary, marking the 1919 murder of the German socialist democrat leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, is also commemorated in an article.

Figure 1:Josephine Baker, Reflektor, N 16 1927

But, regardless of its fervent ideological message and its strong educational tone, Reflektor was a modernist project. The most famous Hollywood leftie, Charlie Chaplin, is given space rather often. There are articles on the Czech avant-garde theatre and Czech modernist dance and, while many features praise the successes of the Soviet Union, they often focus on its avant-garde arts or present its apparent technological advances through the constructivist style of photography. Additionally, Reflektor’s layout favours text and photography equally, and the journal frequently uses the technique of photomontage.[i] Yet, diverse modernities could be detected in its pages. Throughout its period of publication, Reflektor shows how its different editors conceptualized their role as communists during the 1920s when they played an important role in cultural and artistic debates in the new democratic Czech Republic, from its first editor, poet S.K. Neumann (1925-1927) to one of its last editors, poet and author Jaroslav Seifert, who worked on the magazine in the years 1927-1929. Both Neumann and Seifert joined the communist party in the early 1920s, and became well-known figures in the Czech cultural and literature landscape. However, Neumann broke with colleagues from his youth, such as Karel Teige, while staying loyal to the increasingly Stalinized communist party. In contrast, Seifert broke with the communist party in early 1929, precisely because of his disagreement with the views and practices of the new pro-Stalinist leadership. While at that point Seifert also ceased to be editor of Reflektor, the work he produced during his two years at the magazine covering literature and the arts, shows an intense modernist drive.

Figure 2:Aleksandra Kollontai, Reflektor, N 9, 1927

Neumann offers an ideological support for a photomontage cover designed in 1925 by Karel Teige, which positions Lenin on the top of New York skyscrapers so as to deliver his message to the proletariat of the whole world. During Reflektor’s five year existence there are many more covers presenting Lenin, Engels and Stalin, as well as anonymous workers, who are usually engaged in some demanding manual job. But, some unexpected covers and topics appear from 1927 onwards, under Seifert’s editorship. They are equally playful in their design, but carelessly free of any messianic content. A half-naked Josephine Baker dressed in her fabulous banana mini-skirt appears on the cover of issue 16 of 1927 (Figure 1). At the same time, Baker’s highly eroticised images appear in many other Czech mass magazines. While Reflektor was forced into competition with its bourgeois counterparts, Baker’s buoyant image might also show an attempt towards glamourizing the communist press in order to make the communist future more appealing. A poised image of a prominent Bolshevik, Aleksandra Kollontai, published on the cover of issue 9 in the same year, makes this thesis even more plausible (Figure 2). The caption accompanying Kollontai’s image emphasises her impeccable Bolshevik credentials, but she looks glamorous with her modish hair-style and carefully applied make-up, in line with the latest 1920s fashions. In her autobiography, written a year earlier, Kollontai complained that, after the 1917 revolution, the comrades unjustly accused her of wearing party dresses, thus committing the crime of being fashionable. She did not need to worry once she was appointed to a series of diplomatic posts from the 1920s on. Reflektor captures that magic concept: a dedicated yet glamorous Bolshevik.

The article published in the last issue of 1927 under the title “Editors of Reflektor on Reflektor” vividly describes Seifert and his co-editor Bohumil Šafář’s rather anarchistic manner of editing the magazine, and cheerfully mocks their habit of leaving a terrible mess in the otherwise well-ordered communist publishing house Rudé právo, after cutting photographs and pasting them into their photomontages. Moreover, this article claims that their archive, also situated in the Rudé právo office, causes a lot of attention among their colleagues, and that some of them even steal Reflektor’s images. No wonder, as some of these images were very racy. The article dedicated to the Paris cabaret Folies Bergère, published in 1927, not only describes in detail various skimpy outfits worn by its dancers, but also offers Reflektor’s readership many images of nude, skinny, modernist bodies on full display, as well as wider descriptions of the outrageous night life of Paris. Issue 4 of 1929 publishes the last Folies Bergère image, depicting the widely spread legs of its dancers. Two issues later, Seifert stopped being editor of Reflektor. For the Czech communists, the fun and creative disorder were over, but Jaroslav Seifert would eventually come out as the winner. He was much praised by his compatriots both as a writer and for his struggles against the dogmatic communist regime, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1984.

 



[i] On the uses of the technique of photomontage in the Czech interwar media, see: Toman, Jindřich, Foto/montáž tiskem/Photo/Montage in Print, Prague, Kant, 2009

19 Nov
2012

Socialist Dandies International

 

Following the end of World War Two, a new man appeared in East Europe. He was young and androgynous, he listened to jazz and danced to swing, and was dressed in a drape jacket, short narrow trousers, thick-soled shoes and colourful socks.[i] In the Soviet Union he was called Stiliaga, in Czechoslovakia he was known as Pásek, in Hungary Jampec, while in Poland he was called Bikiniarz. The post-war cultural, social and political turmoil allowed for the socialist dandies to emerge in parallel with their western counterparts, such as the English Teddy Boys, and to echo the French wartime Zazous. Equally, the ongoing struggle between the new and old ideological concepts brought about intense hostility towards their choice of dress, dance and music, thus exposing the anxieties, fears and vulnerabilities of the respective countries through their choice of enemies. In 1954, the Bikinarz, depicted at the bottom right corner on the cover of the Polish satirical journal Pins (Szpilki), is in the company of various other enemies of socialism, such as bureaucrat, drunkard, reactionary and hooligan (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Pins (Szpilki), Cover, Warsaw, 1954

The fact that they were few in number, and gathered in small groups of like-minded people, did not shelter the socialist dandies from attacks in the media in the immediate post-war period. Their distinctive looks and specific cultural interests were an aberration within the master narrative of state-socialism which instituted and justified a meaning for socialism as a completely new, absolutely pure and highly rationalized project, to be built collectively by new strong men and women, and promoted through its institutional mass culture. This official, hugely homogenized culture insisted on educational and restrained forms of entertainment, such as mass gymnastics, state-orchestrated parades, and dancing and singing exclusively to new socialist dances and new socialist music. The young socialist dandies challenged this world of purity, its streamlined modernity, its concept of a new robust man, its collective nature, and its ways of enjoying oneself.

The socialist regimes condemned the young dandies’ interests as cosmopolitan. In that context, the cosmopolitan was denounced both as ideologically inappropriate and as artificial, because, first, it originated in the West and, second, because it belonged to the culture that had preceded socialism. Furthermore, the socialist dandy stood as an artificial Adam as opposed to the ideologically constructed new Adam.[ii]His model of an androgynous, adolescent masculinity challenged the officially approved male ideal of a ‘masculinized’ masculinity (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Cartoon presenting Pásek, Woman and Fashion (Žena a móda), Prague, 1954

As the new regimes did not acknowledge competing representations of identity, they could not deal with this new Adam as an alternative human model embedded in an alternative type of modernist city. Instead, the young dandy’s big city was seen as the worst example of an artificial nature, an uncontrollable jungle, accordingly populated with wild animals and barbarians. Indeed, the socialist media often uses ‘monkey’ and ‘parrot’ as negative tropes for the young dandies (Figure 3).

Figure 3 ”Monkeys”, Crocodile (Krokodil), Moscow 1957

In contrast, by the end of the 1950s the regimes were no longer pretending to construct new socialist culture, but were fighting for political survival by gradually depoliticizing their society, and looking for new allies in that process. A new relationship towards the cosmopolitan followed, enabling its early promoters to be accepted. First, young dandies had never been political, and, second, society was depoliticizing to the point where their interests were no longer considered dangerous. Additionally, as an interest in fashionable dress and modern music (jazz soon being replaced by rock and roll) spread among an ever wider young population, the regimes did not want to alienate their youth. On the other hand, moving into the mainstream brought an end to the fanatical attention to detail, the exclusivity in dress and its western provenance on which socialist dandies insisted.

Figure 4 ”They Dance Like This …”, Woman’s Journal (Nõk lapja), Budapest, 1957

There was more freedom, but it was a diluted version of freedom, a result of a compromise between the regimes and their young people. This compromise also meant that the young increasingly withdrew to their own world, which the state could not reach.

Pretending that they supported the system, they only grew more apolitical. They were allowed to dance now – and they did. (Figure 4).

 


[i]This post relates to the lecture I have recently given at the Association of Polish Art Historians in Warsaw. The full text will be published in Fashion Theory in spring 2013. Both the lecture and the essay cover the alternative dress codes in the Soviet Union and three ex-socialist countries – Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland – in the period 1946-1959. The research overseas has been generously aided by a British Academy Small Research Award, and a Research Fellowship awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

[ii] On the concept of dandy as an adolescent, artificial Adam, see: Dolto, Francoise, 1999, Le Dandy: solitaire and singulier, Paris: Mercure de France

15 Nov
2012

Is There Time and Place for National Aesthetics in Fashion?: the Case of Russian Fashion Designers

Director of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia, Alexander Shumski, told me recently:

Dasha Gauser, Fall Winter 2012-2013

“In order to make Russian fashion visible internationally, our designers should rely on their Russian background”[i]Indeed, how to make yourself visible on the global fashion scene, both as a distinctive image and as a unique product? Can fashion be, at the same time, both national and global? Or, more precisely, how to design national fashion and sell it to the whole world? These questions interest not only individual fashion designers, especially those who happen to work outside the well-established world fashion capitals, but also many national fashion institutions and associations. Whether they already operate on the over-crowded global market or aspire to join it, they are all trying to find out if there could be such a thing as national aesthetic in fashion. In accordance with Mr Shumski, but not necessarily influenced by his stand, some of the most prominent Russian fashion designers, such as Alena Akhmadullina and Tatyana Parfenova, tackle that dilemma by addressing their own heritage.

Julia Nikolaeva, Spring Summer 2013

In Russia, it is not a new tactic. Historically, from tsarist times through the socialist and post-socialist periods, Russia either accepted western fashions or opposed them with styles relying on its sartorial past. In the latter case, ethnic motifs have long been used and over-used in the attempts to design a genuine Russian fashion. Translations of the ethnic into the fashionable have been done for various reasons, from romantic and nostalgic to modernist and nationalistic. This means that the use of ethnic ornament within the context of fashion design was often politicized, whether it was accepted or rejected. Western fashionable dress, and the modernity that accompanied it, was craved but also feared. In the end, circumstances outside of fashion informed the perception of ethnic motif. There was no place for it in a radically new world envisaged by the Constructivists, but Stalinism relied on it in the construction of its mythical mass culture.

Of course, nobody can directly translate an ethnic dress or its original motif into a fashionable item. Fashion uses quotations, from historical to ethnic ones, only to subvert them and make them new, and thus fashionable. Along these lines, the 1920s modernist takes on the ethnic, such as those by Nadezhda Lamanova and Evgeniia Prybilskaya, who purified it to geometrical shapes and patterns, could have become the fashions of the day within a different economic climate, and if the Russian textile industry had been in a considerably higher state of technological development. On the other hand, the Stalinist interest in the ethnic could never turn into fashion as its sartorial styles inhabited the same, slow-moving world of ethnic dress itself.

Tatjana Parfenova, Spring Summer 2013

This all shows that the relationship between fashion and ethnic motif has been a historically burdened liaison. Could the current Russian designers bring a new dynamic to it, and layer the basic shapes and patterns with the significantly different concepts? Alexander Shumski is aware of the challenges concerning the reliance on heritage: “You could not live in the past. Instead, you should interact with the times you live in, and offer new, modern cuts.” To foster this new relationship between the Russian heritage and today’s Russian fashion, Shumski is currently negotiating with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, with the aim of helping and encouraging new Russian designers to seek inspiration from the Russian decorative arts. For him, the route towards international recognition lies equally in impeccable quality and in reliance on one’s own roots.

Attended by Russian celebrities and widely covered in the domestic media, the designers presenting at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia get a lot of media attention. Alexander Shumski manages to attract international media as well. Moreover, he is satisfied with the global exposure that the social media have provided to his event in the last couple of seasons. Shumski emphasizes that the previous Fashion Week was streamed online via woman.ru and FTV.com, leading to five million views. This level of visibility calls for two questions: are you looking at new fashion? and if so, do you want to buy it? Even Shumski admits that affluent Russians still prefer well-known western brands such as Gucci and Prada to the already established Russian designers who charge the same, or even higher, prices for their dresses.

Tegin, Fall Winter 2012-2013

Still, the phenomenon of globalization of fashion could open new creative and trade routes for Russian fashion designers. Historically, ethnic style has played many roles in Russian fashion, but its commercial potential in a global market could yet bring recognition to those designers who prove capable of translating their heritage in a way that would update it for the 21st century and make it appealing for international consumers.



[i] I interviewed Alexander Shumski during my research trip to Moscow in September 2012. The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia is a bi-annual event, taking place in  March and October. Its 25th season (18-22 October 2012) was marked by a move to the prestigious Moscow location, Manezh. The association with Mercedes-Benz, which also sponsors, among others, New York, Berlin and Tokyo Fashion Weeks adds to its respectability. Its competitor, Moscow Fashion Week, is sponsored by Volvo.

 

About

The blog Translating Fashion: Eastern Europe, Western Europe, 1910-2010 accompanies the research project of the same name, which is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship grant.


Research trips to seven countries - Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Russia - aim to identify the processes of mutual reflections, appropriations, hybridisations, reciprocal fascination and misunderstandings, which characterised the translations between East European and Russian fashion, and its western counterpart throughout the 20th century to the present day. From that historical and comparative analysis, this research focuses on previously unrecorded, dress-mediated discourse between East Europe and the West, which adjusted to, but also influenced, social, political, cultural and aesthetic movements. The research addresses the dynamics of the relationship between East European and western fashion in the context of confrontations between modernist and anti-modernist tendencies in dress, changes in gender representations and consumer practices. The differences and similarities between dress practices in East and West, as well as between East European countries themselves, provide a more complete picture of fashion in general, but also identify the types of modernity associated with the different social, political and cultural frameworks, from capitalist to socialist and post-socialist society.

Today's fashion in Eastern Europe and Russia is contextualised within the significant political, economic and social changes brought about by the collapse of socialism and the globalisation of information and commerce. New markets, consumerist practices, modes of production and imagery all inform the changed relationship between Eastern Europe and the West, which the research explores through its textual and visual evidence. The varied outcomes of the project Translating Fashion: Eastern Europe, Western Europe, 1910-2010 address both academic and general public. They include lectures and seminars taking place during the research project and afterwards, a series of essays to be published in the academic journals, and the authored book – ‘Translating Fashion, East Europe, West Europe, 1910-2010’. The blog ‘Translating Fashion’ accompanies the research project as it takes place, throughout 2012-2013. Feel free to comment and discuss its content.

Dr. Djurdja Bartlett is Senior Research Fellow at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London. She has published widely on the theme of fashion during socialism and post-socialism. Bartlett is author of FashionEast: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (MIT Press, 2010; New Literary Observer, Moscow, 2011), and editor of the volume on East Europe, Russia and the Caucasus in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010). Bartlett started her new research on the relationship between East European and Western fashion in 2009, helped by a British Academy Small Research Grant. Funded by an Arts and Humanities Fellowship grant, the project on Translating Fashion: Eastern Europe, Western Europe, 1910-2010 furthers this research, both topographically and temporally. Bartlett is also Coordinator of the Fashion Media and Imagery Research Hub at the London College of Fashion, in which capacity she co-organized a conference – Fashion Media: Yesterday Today Tomorrow (LCF, October 2010); published as an edited book Fashion Media ; Past and Present, Bartlett, D., Cole, S. and Rocamora, A. (eds.), London; Bloomsbury academic, 2013.

Contact: d.b.bartlett@fashion.arts.ac.uk

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