Anti-Social Elements: A History of Soviet and Post-Soviet Youth Fashion
Anti-Social Elements: A History of Soviet and Post-Soviet Youth Fashion
- Words Sascha Amato
- Date August 3, 2017
Looking over the recent collections of the biggest designers coming from a post-CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) space—Gosha Rubchinsky, Ф22, ZDDZ and Outlaw—it’s not immediately evident where exactly they get their inspiration from. Even though most of their collections take cues from a multitude of European sources—Rotterdam gabber, rave culture and American hip-hop culture of the late 90s for example—a lot of what these brands offer the Western market is still steeped in modern Russian and eastern European history and street culture; a selection of styles and aesthetics once-unavailable to American journalists and photographer. Unless you’re familiar, it’s sometimes hard to decipher all the cultural references in a single garment.
The story of Soviet fashion overall is difficult to tell specifically because it’s so complicated. It’s a tangled web of early attempts at individual fashion houses and designers (which started out in costume theater and were quickly suppressed), and rock music influences that birthed an entire alternative fashion movement movement. It’s a culture that attempted to emulate what American kids wore, but was limited in funds and availability, creating something new entirely—a kind of ersatz European street fashion.
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All images courtesy of Misha Buster/soviethooligans.ru archive.
The date of birth for modern Russian fashion is widely considered to be the 1970’s (ironically the absolute peak of Soviet ideology) and yet Soviet fashion industry at the time was hopelessly outdated. Only during the 1980’s did designers actually get permission to put their own name to their collections and were allowed to open ateliers which would service only the richest representatives of Soviet elites. The rest of the populace was left to queue for illegally imported goods. Strangely enough, even in Soviet movies you would only see clothing one couldn’t possibly find in USSR. It is in this environment the phenomenon of Soviet street fashion was born—a somewhat skewed theater of Western aesthetics and attempts at uniqueness within modest means.
At the very top of what one might call “mainstream Soviet fashion” raged a battle between a typical Soviet style—loose and drab coats, fur and grey flannel suits—and whatever the black market would offer typical Soviet citizens—Levi’s jeans and sportswear, so beloved by modern designers attempting to evoke an emotional response from an entirely new generation of Eastern European youth.
Instead of some specific mainstream fashion, the Soviet people’s styles were instead prone to rapid, random fads—somewhat similar to what we see today with designers like Demna Gvasalia eschewing a general sense of “fashion” and preferring instead different gradations of normcore. Military and sports styles gave birth to an entire generation of Soviet punks and proto-athleisure pioneers, putting their own meaning into symbols and styles that were so familiar to every Eastern Bloc denizen.
Overall, Soviet fashion in the 1980’s was divided into the artistic subcultures (punk and new wave outfits, a constant attribute of the Soviet art scene), the street subcultures (which were mostly music-oriented) and the so-called Farza—the illegal import market, goods which the casual Soviet consumer always strived to acquire. Being fashionable in the Soviet Union was always difficult, expensive, and legally dangerous.
Even in this mish-mash of influences—punks and metalheads cutting up their dad’s jeans for that dishevelled look and the Stilyagi movement bringing mod back in an entirely new way—one could still feel a general craving of most Soviet citizens for a simpler, more conservative style. Conservatism, after all, is what Russia is all about. This, in turn, facilitated a drastic split into “us”—true patriotic Soviet citizens—and “them”—the “Westernized zombies, parroting a foreign, malicious culture.” This schism created a multitude of tensions, mostly between the Soviet authorities and the Stilyagi culture, which were inspired by mods, greasers and rockabillies.
The alternative fashion culture in the Soviet Union grew into more of an art movement than an actual fashion trend, parodying Soviet idols and icons (punks wearing patches with Lenin’s iconic profile were a common sight) and building upon the overall chaos of the slow collapse of Soviet culture. The alternative fashion scene in USSR was inseparable from its alternative music and art scenes—the Soviet youth had so much to say, that they attempted to say it all at once, and as loudly as possible, much to the chagrin of the authorities.
They gathered at what was called “ASSA” parades—celebrations of rock music and underground culture, started in St. Petersburg. Alternative artists, musicians and poets were constant fixtures at these festivals, which in turn attracted Western journalists and photographers to cast a new look at what was happening behind the Iron Curtain.
With the start of the Perestroika, however, the government’s and society’s attitude towards what they called “alternative fashion” began to shift from mild annoyance to interest. The punks and metal fans were still treated as freaks, however, and that would remain unchanged deep into the early 00s. But the Perestroika marked another, more important turn—the idea that the elites could also be fashionable. The legendary House of Fashion on Kuznetsky Most, an upmarket street in central Moscow, was frequented by Raisa Gorbacheva, the wife of the General Secretary (Mikhail Gorbachev) himself, who finally became a patron of the House, inviting Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent to showcase their collections there for the first time in Soviet history. Gorbacheva was also behind the appearance of the Burda Moden magazine in USSR, a German publication, founded in 1949, which showcased a typical European style—rather bland and inoffensive, but recognizably European nonetheless.
This arrival of Burda as the central arbiter of what mainstream fashion should look like started a new era for Russian fashion—a time when you either wore loose, pastel sweaters with a cat print and a bright-blue jean jacket, or you went “full freak” and became an adept of “alternative fashion”—there was no real middle ground. If you went with the latter—whatever your style might’ve been (even preppy-looking fans of breakdance culture were considered to be outside the norm)—you were ostracized from society and mistrusted at job interviews.
It is to these outcasts (metalheads and punks, Stilyagi and hippies, ravers and avant-garde performance artists) as well as European street fashion at the time (which served as a catalyst and ideal for Soviet youth) that designers like Gvasalia and Rubchinsky hark back to with their collections. Their work invokes a sense of a melancholy feeling of an empire lost—of wasted time and oppression.
During the 1990’s Soviet fashion started truly reflecting what young people were feeling about the disillusioned state the country found itself in after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Grungy, post-punk and gothic influences were prevalent, and yet served only as another sign, that Russian alternative fashion was alive and going. It wasn’t quite sure what direction it was going in specifically—but there was certainly life in that body still.
Now that we have arrived into a state where irony seems to be the favourite topic of ex-Eastern Bloc designers, it’s no wonder that they seem to want to come back to the topic of “normality” time and time again. Be it Rubchinsky’s skinhead youths wearing mock-Adidas sportswear with Cyrillic print, or Gvasalia’s grannies in fur coats, the designers that have experienced a certain amount of Soviet drabness are almost infected with a desire to relive it. Ironically, it was this bland Soviet “mainstream” that truly gave birth to something original—a youth and street subculture clawing it’s way to survival during the 70’s and 80’s, that’s now an entirely new way of looking at what we wear from contemporary sportswear and modern designers. It’s a sarcastic viewpoint, certainly, but one fashion desperately needed to revitalize if it was willing to truly take an honest look at itself.