Sunday, February 20, 2011

The French Are Coming!

What did Christian Dior and Soviet Russia have in common in 1959? Not much you may say however the answer just might surprise you!

Even though the Cold War was starting and had started to grip the western world, Nikita Khrushchev and his more liberal policies (anything was liberal compared to Stalin), changes were being made in many aspects of Soviet Life. Fashion was one of them.

High up on the Politburo level decisions were being made that Soviet fashion designers should start learning their trade off their French counterparts, which basically meant that the government was taking this seriously.

Back in the 1930’s Stalin had experimented with this idea, and Schiaparelli had made a tour to the USSR, however nothing became of the experiment.

In 1959 Dior was approached to organise a fashion show in Moscow for the Soviet elite and the highest members of the Communist Party. Dior was chosen for several reasons, the main one being that the Soviets regarded the fashions coming out of the house as classic, regardless of the season or collection - and this suited the Soviet manufacturers immensely. A "classic" cut of a suit would be considered "ideologically neutral" by the Soviets, as well as stable and practical. It would also mean lower production costs, as after having produced a set of patterns, the clothes makers could go on releasing the same clothes for years.

The show took place in House of Culture "Wings of the Soviets", decorated in the French tri-colours.

As a part of a prelude and teaser to the show, a walkabout, through some of the centre of Moscow was arranged so that the regular proletariat could see the fashions. Red Square, local streets and markets and the GUM department store were visited.

The photos taken by Howard Sochurek are a wonderful archive of the dissimilarities between West and East during this period.

They generally show the Moscow populace not only in awe but also bewildered by this small tantalizing glimpse into western culture. People just do not know what to make of these tall elegant western women, dressed in a style of dress that they have not seen before. It would seem too many to be akin to an alien from outer space landing in their midst!

The photos document perfectly the clash between western ideals and culture and the soviet ideology prevailing at the time. Sometimes I am not too sure, however some of our Soviet citizens faces and expressions seem tinged with resentment or jealousey.

After the show Pravda wrote that some of the styles were too open and short, and that "they would not look nice on women who are stout and of short stature." It was evidently taken for granted that the majority of Soviet women were stout and not tall. One of the Soviet magazines of those days described narrow skirts and spike-heeled shoes thus: "Bourgeois fashion makers come up with such styles that the woman has difficulty walking and must wrap herself around her man."

Whether after the show the Politburo had a change of mind or whether just the thought of turning Soviet mothers into walking fashion plates was too daunting the whole project was literally dropped. Clothes were adopted and manufactured however the implementation of new styles and techniques was inhibited by the overall conservatism of the state. The decorative elements of dresses were often omitted (Russian women were considered to be above cheap frills), and the cuts were simplified not to let the seduction slip in.

How different things might have been, if this was adopted with the zeal and fervour of a five year plan!
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