Why was there always a shortage of fashionable clothing in the USSR? What was the typical career path for a Soviet fashion designer? Who had power and influence in the socialist fashion industry? HSE Associate Professor Yulia Papushina examined these questions by reconstructing the everyday life of the Perm Fashion House during the late socialism era. Her study is the first to look into the recent history of clothing design and manufacturing in Russian provinces.
What is now termed the ‘late socialism’ era is the period between the so-called 'thaw' in the mid-1950s and 'perestroika' in the mid-1980s. The Soviet authorities at that time were trying to upgrade the country’s highly centralised economy by introducing free-market elements and lifting the iron curtain just slightly; consumer behaviour was evolving, and 'fashion houses' tasked with designing clothes for mass production were set up in many provinces.
In 1961, a fashion house was opened in the city of Perm, controlled by the Ministry of Light Industry as part of a rigid hierarchy of actors.
The industry was led by three main entities: the All-Union Fashion House, the All-Union Institute for Consumer Goods Industry and Garment Culture (VIALEGPROM), and the Ministry of Light Industry's Special Design Bureau.
Acting as the 'official source of judgment regarding good taste and style', this trio dictated the fashion trends which provincial fashion houses were expected to adopt and translate into production and marketing.
The Perm Fashion House (PFH) was supervised by the All-Union Fashion House, guided by its workplans and performance targets. However, by interviewing former PFH employees and studying archival documents*, Papushina realised that,
'The creation of Soviet fashion and the profession of fashion designer in the USSR had more in common with Western bourgeois fashion than the Soviet authorities were willing to admit'.
The most obvious things that this system had in common with the capitalist West included a clear distinction between mass production and runway fashions – and also the way careers were built in fashion design by gradually acquiring professional capital such as knowledge, skills, work experience and qualifications.
The first and often critical step to a career in fashion was training, preferably at a university in Moscow or Leningrad. Designers with degrees from metropolitan universities were rare, and highly valued in the provinces and could expect to be appointed to senior positions in the industry immediately after graduation.
In contrast to provincial cities, Moscow and Leningrad had no shortage of local human resources, so recent graduates of design schools still had to wait for a good job.
The perceived value of provincial school degrees was not as high, and graduates could only expect lower-level appointments.
Sewing professionals (tailors and dressmakers trained in vocational schools) could be promoted to higher positions with the PFH after taking a professional development course, e.g. from the All-Union Correspondence Institute of Textile Industry and Forestry.
Someone who had spent some time studying art but never obtained a degree could still have a career with the PFH by starting out as a model sketcher, then being referred by their employer to a textile industry course before returning as a certified fashion designer.
The PFH also hired people without any training other than secondary school and an amateur art studio. Usually, they were initially given a low-level job and the option of further training, e.g. at a regional light industry college. Enrolling in a university art and design course was less accessible, because the entrance exam included a demanding test in drawing which could be too hard to pass for an applicant who had only attended a provincial art studio.
According to the researcher, 'Soviet fashion designers lived in a paradox, where the state had established one of the world's least flexible systems for mass production of clothing but encouraged the creation of limited-edition fashion.'
As a result, the sphere of fashion design split into mass production and runway collections, and designers identified with either mass-market producers or fashion artists.
This was similar to how fashion worked in the West, with certain differences due to some specific features of the socialist system. Fashion artists in the USSR used fashion as a means of self-expression and contributed to their fashion house's standing in the industry. But neither the designers nor the fashion houses were allowed to 'dictate fashion'. Moreover, provincial fashion collections were not even intended for the runway per se but only featured at internal industry meetings hosted by the All-Union Fashion House and VIALEGPROM.
In that internal space, fashion designers were given creative freedom. According to former PFH designers, their supervisors rarely interfered with their process or results.
For example, the PFH design team was allowed to work from home to create the 1968 collection. In another instance, in the late 1970s the PFH art director complained of excessive administrative workload and threatened to quit — and was freed from all administrative tasks for almost five years.
While all collections were the result of teamwork, the role of the team leader as idea generator was never challenged. Their creative fantasy was not necessarily limited to typically Soviet imagery, but fashion designers always stayed within the boundaries of what was permissible by official aesthetics.
The artists' Soviet identity determined their understanding of what was permitted by the system and considered beautiful by the masses.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with the head of the PFH ‘experimentation team’ that existed between 1968 and 1972:
— What was not permitted, for example?
— Well, all sorts of vulgarity. But if [a design] resembled something by Kandinsky or the like, it was okay.
— And what was considered vulgar?
— Maybe a monkey necktie. Bad taste.
According to a dress designer who worked for the PFH between 1982 and the late 1990s, a Soviet woman was supposed to wear high-quality, inexpensive and comfortable garments allowing for ease of movement and free from health risks: 'low necklines were not allowed even when they looked flattering'.
Another question to the same interviewee:
— What made a Soviet woman different from a non-Soviet woman?
— First, there were no non-Soviet women [in the USSR] to begin with. And second, a woman making money, for example, would be considered 'non-Soviet'. Or perhaps female dancers in restaurants—they were perceived as ... not entirely Soviet. These things were not openly discussed but ingrained in people's minds. A non-Soviet woman was one who... no, we did not even describe a person in terms of Soviet or non-Soviet.
— What did you say instead?
— A woman who lived off earned or unearned income.
— Living off earned income implied working at an enterprise?
— Yes, working at an enterprise.
These responses reflect how the designers perceived their target audience. When asked to elaborate on the role of their Soviet identity, the respondents explained the prevalent clothing style by a specific public mentality: 'Russia and the Soviet Union are different from Western society ... it does not even need to be proven. So the idea was for us to be true to ourselves ... to express ourselves in our own language'.
The Soviet ideology was so deeply rooted in the mind that it was not perceived as a major constraint on creative expression; indeed, the shortages of essential materials were seen as a far greater problem, concludes the study author.
Since fashion designers were supposed to be contributing to industrial production, they faced the demands of a planned economy. Clothing factories were expected to cost-effectively produce garments suitable for street wear and therefore called for 'less imagination and more practicality' in design.
Unlike its western counterpart, the USSR clothing industry did not have rigid boundaries between its different segments: designers working at factories could help their fashion house colleagues, while the latter were sometimes assigned to mass production facilities. Some of those who considered themselves fashion artists were not entirely enthusiastic about mass production; in contrast, designers at factories were often proud of their work: 'It felt so rewarding to have your design approved for production... and then perhaps 20 people or so would buy an item I had designed, isn't that nice?'
It was up to an expert board (khudsovet) which included representatives of factories and retail stores, as well as fashion designers, to decide what would and would not go into mass production. Some expert board meetings involved confrontations in which the PFH would often lose.
While formally the three parties represented on such boards were equal, in reality the interests of factories and shops prevailed over those of fashion designers.
Clothing factories used their own criteria — such as industry standards and targets, cost minimisation and product replicability in different sizes — to assess PFH proposals. A factory could decide to simplify a design or use a different type or colour of fabric without consulting the author who could only agonise, 'sometimes I was thinking, God forbid someone might find out that I designed this item'.
In contrast to factories which were reluctant to change their product range, retailers pushed for novelty during expert board meetings. Constrained by a limited choice of virtually everything they needed, designers often resented the retailers: 'They kept asking if we had anything new to offer, but how could we have produced anything new with the same type of fabric?'
Mass production of clothing in the USSR, therefore, faced the proverbial Swan, Pike and Crawfish effect [i.e. each party pulling in a different direction], with the PFH being in the least favourable position, perceived as 'a hindrance to the other two parties' plans and thus causing dissatisfaction of the government bureaucracy,' Papushina concludes.
The fact that fashion designers never had the end consumers in mind, nor received any feedback from the public, made the situation even more absurd.
Any likeness to the Western fashion industry was distorted by the dictatorship of a planned economy. While the fashion house director could free an artist from bureaucratic responsibilities, and the designers were allowed to balance between the dominant ideology and their own sense of style and enjoyed relative autonomy in creating their collections, they still operated within a rigid system, in which:
clothing factories — rather than fashion trends — dictated what designers could and could not do;
to be successful in their profession, fashion designers needed to submit to this diktat in producing new designs;
provincial designers enjoyed a degree of autonomy in creating their collections precisely because their creations were considered safe, since they were not intended for mass production—and therefore could not have a negative impact on the clothing industry—and never made it to international events, i.e. presented no risk of 'undermining the international image of Soviet fashions'.
* Sources of the empirical part of the study:
interviews with fashion designers who worked at the Perm Fashion House, including in senior positions, between 1964 and the early 2000s (seven respondents);
documents from the Perm State Archives, the Russian State Archives of Recent History, and the Russian State Archives of Economics.