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Clothing in the USSR: how individuality was snuffed out of people


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Clothing in the USSR: how individuality was snuffed out of people

The Soviet regime kept its people behind the “iron curtain”. They were not just denied the freedom of speech, travel, and buying quality food, but they were also unable to dress as they pleased. The government heavily regulated the restriction, persecuting even the slightest deviation. That is because the USSR leadership believed that any display of personal identity threatened the regime.

Soviet people often wore similarly drab modest clothes. For the most part, it was not a personal choice but the result of a lack of assortment.  Yet the USSR so thoroughly hammered into people how shameful it was to stand out and aspire to better things that those who strived to distinguish themselves even slightly came across as “upstarts” and “black sheep” in the eyes of many.

Under Stalin’s rule, the government prohibited not just clothes imports but even foreign fashion magazines.  Large cities had “Model Houses” that developed new styles of clothing. Before a collection was presented, it had to be approved by the so-called Artistic Council of the USSR. Clothing was mostly designed to be drab in color and featureless. The color palette varied between dark brown and gray shades.

People often resorted to sewing their own clothes to somehow overcome the situation. They obtained fabrics by hook or by crook and created their own designs, seldom trailing western trends. 

By and large, the population of the union had neither vision nor means to create something “special”; hence, most would sew two identical costumes for summer and two for winter. 

Men wore a proletarian cap, a jacket, a plain shirt, and trousers. Women wore loose-fitting blouses without necklines and skirts that went below the knee.

Women’s underwear was limited to three sizes of bras and pantaloons with or without pleats. And thin nylon stockings were a luxury item available only to the wives of party servants.

Clothing in the USSR was passed down over generations. Around then, people began distinguishing between festive and mundane clothes. Beautiful dresses were worn several times a year for important events. Outerwear was altered to fit other family members.

Whenever high-quality and unusual clothes suddenly appeared in a store, they would be immediately sold out.

People stood in insufferably long queues for hours to get a fur hat or a blouse with coveted mother-of-pearl buttons.

Even in the era of rigid control, some wanted to be fashionable and adopted foreign trends. That’s how the “stilyagi” [style-hunters; dandies] appeared. The biggest dream of “progressive” Soviet students was to acquire clothes from abroad; that, of course, included jeans.

But the life of the “stilyagi” was not easy; they were caught by patrols, who shaved off their hair and ripped their tight pants. They were fired from their jobs and expelled from universities.

When the USSR met the West. The Dior fashion show in 1959.

A few years after Stalin’s death, his successor Khrushchev decided to demonstrate his modernity and introduce local women to foreign fashion. During his leadership, there were several visualizations of the contrast between life in the “prosperous USSR” and the “decaying West”. Two events were particularly striking.

In the summer of 1959, the Dior fashion landing party arrived in Moscow, except without Yves Saint Laurent, then head of the Dior fashion house. Obviously, the show was part of propaganda, and the USSR government had to pay a fortune to hold such an event because the owners of the fashion business knew well that there was no market in russia.

The Dior show was gorgeous. In a way, the show started straight from the airplane ramp and the streets of Moscow. It was utterly mind-blowing at the time for models wearing makeup and couture clothes to walk in the spotlight. They were not the only ones on camera; the gray and dull locals were too, and the contrast was impossible to miss.

Funny enough, Dior’s models were presented as unfortunate women from the “decaying West” who were being exploited.  In the photos, we can clearly see the “happy” and “free-thinking” people of the union.

The meeting between Jacqueline Kennedy and Nina Khrushcheva

The event went down in fashion history. Many say that such a simple image of the first lady of the Soviet Union was designed to show her equal status with the people. After all, politicians were “taken care of by the state”. But compared to Western leaders, the image looked extremely poor and sooner indicated the lack of taste and the people’s poverty.

For example, at a meeting between Nina Khrushcheva and U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the Soviet leader’s wife, looked rather unpresentable.


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