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Belka, Strelka, and Fashionable Prints

How the memory of space exploration is reflected in modern streewear


Nowadays, Russian fashion brands are looking to the history of space exploration in search of ideas and images for their collections. In her interview to IQ.HSE, Ekaterina Kulinicheva, fashion historian, Junior Researcher at the Laboratory for Sports Studies, and author of Whose Sports Shoe Is It?, a Telegram channel dedicated to the history of sports fashion and trainers, spoke about how space and space exploration are becoming a source of stories and images for Russian streetwear fashion. The original study is published in Shagi/Steps.

The representation of space in culture traditionally centres around painting, magazine illustrations, postcards, and object design. Fashion and accessories are often neglected, but the memory of space exploration can persist in such an everyday aspect of life as streetwear. Streetwear is a category of clothing associated with certain items (T-shirts, trainers, hoodies, etc.) and design techniques, both technical (such as prints on T-shirts or hoodies) and creative (such as social statements or the innovative use of images created by other artists).

What is interesting about streetwear?

Streetwear fashion products are capable of both telling and showing a story, both directly and metaphorically. Russian streetwear brands are no exception—they are expected to make statements through prints and texts. 

Streetwear originated as sportswear, work and military uniforms, but over time, it has gained a new status as a form of fashion. Skating, hip-hop, graffiti, and surfing subcultures have all contributed to its transformation. The civic activism of streetwear designers has played a role as well. Such figures have always contrasted streetwear with mainstream fashion, associating it with protest, alternative culture, an independent spirit and an effort to enlighten people and work with memory and the past.

Space as projection

Space has always been a topic of interest in Russian streetwear fashion. This theme brings together different generations of Russians and its appeal endures: themed collections are released irrespective of anniversaries and important dates. Historical events, such as the launch of the first artificial satellite, have been more popular in recent years than current space projects. This is true not only in Russia, but elsewhere in the world.

Major American brands have released a number of items and collections dedicated to American space missions, primarily Moon missions. The only competitor to this lunar theme on the streetwear market seems to be a Martian one. This topic is unique because it is both historical and contemporary. Mars evokes past space missions undertaken to the planet (including Soviet ones) and reflects people’s attitudes to major news events—particularly concerning Elon Musk’s projects.

The most popular space-related figures and events with Russian brands are Yuri Gagarin and his spaceflight, the space dogs Belka and Strelka, and the first artificial satellite. Other topics include researchers and designers (although much less frequently), space architecture, monuments and other terrestrial artefacts (these are, however, mainly related to the same missions of Gagarin, Belka and Strelka, and the launch of Sputnik 1), and images of non-Soviet astronautics with references to NASA as a tribute to global trends. In general, the range of people and events regularly referred to in streetwear fashion is very limited and doesn't seem to have expanded noticeably over time.

Economics plays an important role in explaining why this is the case. A new product is a compromise between designers' new ideas and what can be sold at a profit. Therefore, with their main objective being to maximise profit, brands prefer to utilise the most famous and popular space heroes. As many Russian streetwear brands would like to go international, Gagarin, the space dogs, and Sputnik 1 are universal and globally recognisable images. 

For the Russian audience, all of these have an important symbolic status as well. They are not only pioneers who successfully completed their missions, but also a real and tangible image of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time of hope and political and cultural change in Russia, one which modern Russians regard positively, unlike, for example, the Era of Stagnation that followed.

Another noteworthy group of space-dedicated objects featured in Russian streetwear fashion is architecture, monuments, graphic designs, songs and poems commemorating the success of the Soviet space programme. Kruzhok’s collections include photographs of the Sputnik monument (sculpted by Semyon Kovner, Moscow), a symbolic figure of a worker holding a model of an artificial satellite on his outstretched hand, and the obelisk near the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics (sculptor Andrey Faidysh-Krandiyevsky, architects Mikhail Barshch and Alexander Kolchin). The ‘Morning of the Space Era’ scarf in one of the space collections of the same brand is a reference to the name of a room dedicated to the launch of the first satellite in the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics. 

Space Iconography

Iconography is the use of certain images. It tells us what is known about an event, how it is perceived today, or what context it is placed in. Sometimes, streetwear fashion is a platform where designers decide who and what to tell the modern consumer about. However, streetwear fashion also develops new types of iconography. 

Two main approaches to space iconography can be seen in contemporary Russian streetwear fashion and collections: conventional (customary, traditional) and experimental (with innovative approaches to the image). For the sake of experimentation, Russian brands turn technical descriptions and drawings into a decorative element, abandoning direct frontal depictions or visualising something that did not exist. They may bring together people that never met in real life. For example, there is a print where Gagarin is holding the dog Laika in his arms.

Another technique is to combine real historical figures and characters from global popular culture created outside the USSR. An example of this is the Mother Russia print of Gagarin with the Xenomorphs from the famous Alien movies. Another example is the Kaluga print of Tsiolkovsky on a bicycle. Although all the elements of this image are taken from the urban environment, the whole picture is unambiguously reminiscent of the famous poster for Steven Spielberg’s E.T., as well as one of the movie’s well-known scenes—Tsiolkovsky is flying over Kaluga just like E.T. and his friend. A more recent print released by the same brand after the study was completed is 'Cosmonautics, I am your father', with an obvious reference to Star Wars, featuring Tsiolkovsky as a Jedi.

Taken as such, the achievements of Soviet cosmonautics and its major figures are integrated into the global cultural heritage, where Gagarin or Soviet space dogs coexist with characters from ‘Alien’, ‘E.T.’, and Queen Elizabeth II's corgis. This provides an opportunity to go beyond the traditional view of the space race as part of a political confrontation between the USSR and Western countries and the binary opposition of ‘us and them'.

Transformation of the Soviet canon of memory

If we compare the creative products of contemporary Russian streetwear brands with the Soviet canon of memorialising space achievements (eg on stamps), we can see both similarities and important differences. Some images of the Soviet iconography of space exploration are reproduced today, both intentionally and unintentionally. Others, however, are either abandoned or transformed. Among all Soviet canonical images of Gagarin, fashion designers prefer Gagarin’s portraits in a helmet and spacesuit, but one cannot find modern images of the astronaut in a uniform, a civilian formal suit or a pilot's helmet—despite the fact that such images were popular and often seen on stamps in the USSR.

On the one hand, there are fewer popular figures and events today than there were in the Soviet canon of memory. On the other hand, the range of cultural objects designers use in their prints has expanded to include songs, poetry, and embroidery in addition to traditional stamps and monuments.

Images of space are becoming an important part of Russian streetwear imagery, including brands’ commentary on current social or political events or on personal feelings about life. Meanwhile, clothes, accessories and advertisements for new collections are among the most curious media of public history and should not be ignored.

Ekaterina Kulinicheva is a fashion historian, Junior Researcher at the Laboratory for Sports Studies, and author of Whose Sports Shoe Is It?, a Telegram channel dedicated to the history of sports fashion and trainers

Author: Anna Pravdyuk, May 14, 2022