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Soviet Fashion in the 1950s-60s: Regimentation, Western Influences, and Consumption Strategies

Abstract : The plan to create a society of abundance that would satisfy the material needs of Soviet citizens is well known as one of the most ambitious projects of the Khrushchev decade. Public statements by the leader, who aimed to catch up and overtake the United States in consumer goods production, helped to stigmatize the political meaning of this campaign as yet another aspect of the Cold War and competition between the two systems. The Novocherkassk events, following an increase (31 May 1962) in prices of staple foodstuffs, signalled the clear failure of national food supply reform. The aim of this presentation is to assess the results of reforms in the field of clothing consumption. What particular measures did the state undertake to supply clothes to the population? What kinds of clothing were Soviet people supposed to wear, and what did they actually wear? In what consumer behaviours did their reaction to production policy and the clothing distribution system manifest itself? To answer these questions, we must reconstruct the entire system of Soviet fashion, encompassing the conception, production, distribution, and consumption of fashion products. Reconstructing the Soviet fashion system entails a multilevel analysis. The first level, that of theory and production, lies within the framework of political, economic, and cultural history, as well as the history of ideas. The second level pertains to the history of Soviet-Western economic contacts, revealing the official channels by which Western fashion penetrated Soviet society. The third level reveals everyday life - the realities of clothing consumption and fashion preferences of Soviet consumers. Analysing fashion and consumption allows us to establish connections among the politics, economics, and culture of Soviet society in the 1950s and 1960s and to trace the ways in which economic structures influenced everyday culture. Fashion reveals the contradictions of the Thaw. The arrival of Western fashion in the USSR through informal channels contributed to a certain dynamic in Soviet society. However, in the context of the Cold War, ideological control remained firmly in place. With each new wave of imitation of Western fashion, the standardization of appearance was imposed as an inviolable principle, and attempts to defy these norms met with stigmatization and social ostracism of the non-conformists (stiliagi). Fashion stands as a magnifying glass through which the rigidity of the Soviet system is plain to see. The reforms of the Thaw involved a quest for flexibility in the planned economy and tolerance for norms of representation, but the inflexibility of the regime's foundations thwarted attempts at transformation. Despite the fact that the Soviet fashion system featured all the requisite elements -verbal, iconographic, and material - it was specifically in the system of clothing production that the breakdown occurred. Fashionable clothing was made in various ways: by consumers on their own, by professional seamstresses in tailor shops, and by semi-professional private tailors. Yet the industry, subject as it was to a plan, was unable to include fashion in its production cycle. In terms of distinction between consumption cultures, the unfashionable nature of mass-produced Soviet clothing was definitive: such clothing could be worn only by people who paid little or no regard to fashion. Those who sought to follow fashion preferred homemade clothing, or items made to order at tailor shops and by private tailors. The differences in the costs of these strategies gave consumers with varying incomes a range of options in creating consumption cultures and finding their niche in the mechanisms of social distinction. High-income families interested in fashion preferred to have garments made to order at tailor shops. Middle-income consumers wishing to follow fashion could do so by engaging private tailors. People in low-income families, for whom fashion nonetheless mattered, made clothing themselves. Income disparities were therefore not an obstacle to dressing fashionably. Consumers of various income levels who did not follow fashion not only bought Soviet-made clothing off the rack but also made clothing themselves or had it made by tailors. It was thus not only income but also attitudes toward fashion that defined the nature of consumer culture.
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Contributor : Larissa Zakharova <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 10:37:39 AM
Last modification on : Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 2:47:24 AM

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Larissa Zakharova. Soviet Fashion in the 1950s-60s: Regimentation, Western Influences, and Consumption Strategies. Denis Kozlov, Eleonory Gilburd. The Thaw : Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s, University of Toronto Press, pp.402-435, 2013. ⟨halshs-00862608⟩

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