Chapter 3 of the Soviet ABC

Clothes in the Soviet Union were an elaborate dress code system: friend or foe, important or unimportant, and so on.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 80 percent of Russia’s population lived in the countryside and dressed like this:

clothes in the soviet union

For special occasions, men wore three-piece suits, brightly colored shirts, fashionable caps with lacquered peaks, and “creaky boots,” which were all the rage at the time. Women dressed up in long sleeveless gowns, sarafans, and shirts richly decorated with embroidery. Colorful head scarfs were a must; the brighter, the better.

Soviet fashion in the 1920s and 1930s

There was a strict proletarian dress code in the cities. Flappers’ outfits, heavy makeup, and finger wave hairstyles were considered bourgeois. The government believed that a true communist woman should think about the world revolution, not cloche hats or gloves. The same approach was adopted for men’s fashion. If you were not looking for trouble, you should look like a worker or a military man.

soviet fashion in the 1920s

Men tried to dress up the same way as their superiors did, and women relied on their own ingenuity and the ideas picked up in the cinema. My grandmother told me about her and her girlfriends going to dance. They drew fashionable back seams on their bare legs as if they were wearing stockings; they used pounded red pencil tips to make lipstick and styled their hair with beer. The most glamorous piece of my grandmother’s wardrobe was a lace handkerchief, which she showcased by fanning herself after a dance.

WWII era in the Soviet Union

During WWII and the subsequent years, people wore either military uniforms or old hand-me-downs.

Times were tough, and for women, any attempt to make herself alluring was frowned upon. As for men, their outfits and sense of style didn’t really matter since millions died during the war, and there was an acute shortage of marriageable males.

soviet women in the 1950s

Soviet fashion in the 1960s

Gradually, the Soviet industry got back to its feet, and department stores all over the country were filled with standard clothing designed and produced by state factories. All of those items were produced in huge quantities, cost a lot, and failed to impress the opposite sex.

ussr fashion 1960s

The answer to the situation was an army of unofficial homeworkers—dressmakers, knitters, and hatters who could turn your material and idea into reality. A ball of yarn could have numerous reincarnations beginning its service as a sock, then get promoted to a scarf, and then finish its career in the form of a tassel on a children’s hat.

Fashionable accessories in the USSR

Party propagandists did their best to condemn the pursuit of Western fashion, but stylish clothing eventually turned into an important indicator of the social status in the Soviet Union.

There were special stores for elite party members only where the finest outfits and accessories were on sale. If you had something like that in your possession, that meant you belonged to the highest caste of the Soviet society, the nomenclature.

Some people were even luckier: they traveled abroad and came back loaded with suitcases full of Western clothes. They proudly showcased their treasures, gave them to relatives and important acquaintances as presents, or sold them for a huge profit.

profiteers in the soviet union
Castoff clothes from Paris and New York for sale, along with his soul and honor.

Branded items with logos on them were the most desirable and could bring the seller a fortune…or a prison sentence for profiteering.

Counterculture in the USSR

But you should know when to stop in your pursuit of fancy clothes. The conservative elegance was welcomed while all sorts of counterculture styles were rejected intensely and systematically. If a young man wore his hair too long, his trousers too wide, and his necktie too bright, he was a sure target for the militia patrolling the streets.

soviet fashion in the 1960s
"It's just my style!"

However, these were “the first world problems” for the vast majority of the Soviet citizens. They lived paycheck to paycheck and didn’t even dream about a pair of jeans.

But we, the provincials, wanted to look cool too.

In the late 1980s, the school uniform was not “a must” anymore, and kids were allowed to wear whatever they wanted as long as their clothes were brown or dark blue.

After watching a popular Turkish romantic TV series, I decided to get myself wide trousers in oriental style—made from the brown fabric suitable for school. I was quite a looker entering the classroom in my buttoned-up uniform jacket and baggy harem trousers tucked into my winter boots.

But that was not all. During the break, I called my girlfriends to the restroom and opened up my jacket in front of them. There was a “brand” embroidery on the coquette of my trousers—stars, a portrait of Mickey Mouse, and the Adidas logo. I had done it myself, but my classmates didn’t need to know about it.

adidas and mickey mouse
It looked something like this (I recovered the image in Photoshop).

The girls were totally smitten with my look, and I was universally acknowledged as the top fashionista in my school.

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