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Fashion in the USSR in the 50s & 60s: the Cold War and fashion PART 1

Fashion in the USSR in the 50s & 60s:  the Cold War and fashion PART 1

Consolidating his rule in 1956, Khrushchev abandoned Stalinist isolationism and opened the Soviet Union toward the West. This ideological turn introduced the culturally more liberal “thaw” period which brough about a change in official attitudes toward fashion. From then on, the official fashion practices in the Soviet Union and East European countries ran parallel to one another. As the Cold War race in technology was supplemented by a competition in everyday lifestyles, the socialist regimes embarked on a fashion war with their Western counterparts. Since the Soviet Union had rejected fashion for decades, and the Eastern European socialist regimes had broken with their prewar fashion traditions, they were unable to keep up with the Western fashion trends. However, aspiring to control fashion changes through their centralized systems of clothes production and distribution, the socialist regimes preferred to control the vagaries of fashion on their own terms. They tried to do this in various ways, including the international lifestyle exhibitions, the managed reappearance of Western fashion in domestic fashion magazines, the opening of model department stores, a new ideological emphasis on private fashion salons, and fashion presentations at socialist fashion congresses and domestic and international fairs. 

Exhibitions in Moscow and New York

The development of mass culture brought the Cold War to a new phase. By the late 1950s, having emphasized the Soviet victory in the space war, Khrushchev extended the competition with the West to everyday culture and lifestyle. Thus, in the summer of 1959 the Cold War moved to the field of cultural exchange. The Soviets organized an exhibition of their scientific, technological, and cultural achievements in New York, and the Americans followed with their own National Exhibition in Moscow. Both Russians and Americans tried to show off their best clothes on each occasion. The official repositioning of the phenomenon of fashion in socialism therefore took place within the context of a fight for cultural supremacy. 

In 1959, American vice president Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, travelled to Moscow to open the American National Exhibition. She looked like a sophisticated and well-heeled American housewife in her natural raw silk suit and smart hat. The message was clear: the Russians might still be ahead in space research, but they could not match the sophistication of Western dress, and the easy smoothness of an American lady going about her everyday life.

During the exhibition, American fashion was presented at four 45-minute-long fashion shows that took place each day, each of them attended by three thousand to five thousand Russians. Newsweek described the fashion show as boring, but acknowledged the political meaning behind the clothes: “The dresses were all right, though a bit on the dull side… The whole idea behind it was to show the people of the Soviet Union how the average American woman dresses at work and at play – not the glamorous girl on Park Avenue, but the young matron on Main Street”. The choice of everyday massproduced American clothes was very powerful propaganda. If sophisticated outfits from New York fashion salons had been shown, they could easily have been attacked as elitist clothes meant for the exploiting class. But the Americans knew only too well that the Russians could not compete in the field of decent mass-produced clothing. 

In the meantime, the American media commented on the shortcomings in the culture of everyday Soviet life at the Russian exchange exhibition that had taken place in the New York Coliseum. The New York Times reported: “The Soviet exhibition strives for an image of abundance with clothes and furs that are rarely seen on Moscow streets”. Time reported that “the textiles, mostly thick, heavytextured woollen suits, are more impressive for their usefulness against the Russian winter than for their styles, which are clumsy attempts to copy western designs”. This Stalinist glorification of reality, which tried to remove all conflicting and erratic elements from everyday life, could not compete with ordinary life in the West. Thus, with the opening of the Soviet Union toward the West, the disjunction between the deprivation of everyday life and its ideal representation became blatantly obvious. 

The cover of Life magazine from august 1959 showed that the fashion war was taking place even at the highest diplomatic level. Flanked by Mrs. Mikoian (on her left), Nina Khrushcheva (right), and Mrs. Kozlova (far right), Pat Nixon appeared as a smartly dresses upper-class American housewife. The Life cover was a visual testament to the Soviet diplomats’ wives’ inability to match the sophisticated, worldly style of Pat Nixon in her silk, flower-printed dress, string of pearl, and carefully applied makeup. 

To be continued...

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