How is Fashion Used to Affirm Ideology

Let’s look at the Soviet Union…

woman shopping
Collage by Velika / Images from Unsplash and RawPixel

“Shop windows containing variously dressed wax dummies are just an aesthetic relic. Contemporary clothing must be seen “in action”. It makes no sense out of its context, just as any machine looks absurd out of the context of its function.” (Stepanova, V., 1923)

In a communist/socialist regime, in order for it to work on a grand scale, everything ought to be synchronized as a well-oiled machine. There’s no real place for radical differences in how things (or people) work or are perceived — this is opposite from a society in which individuals are left to their own “will” and desires and are free to branch out and pursue them in certain legal frames. In theory, to create this specific utopia, where everyone does and receives the same, one should have a society where everyone perceives the same.

Clothes, as Spenanova and many of her peers and like-minded artists point out, have always been a phenomenon which drives these perceptions. It translates cultural, emotional and individual traits in an isolated and clear visual field that is accessible for all to understand and communicate on a semiological level.

In a field where people are expected to act and think according to a very narrow conceptual framework, it is only logical to dress them also accordingly. The “artisanal” or frivolous touch when it comes to dress, has no place here if the grand idea is to abolish any deviation from the goal at hand.

Varvara Stepanova design, 1923

Plainly dressing people in a very strict, unchanging code, however, is not a sustainable approach and this is something the Soviet Union realized.
In order for fashion to still be “fashionable” and to make sense for people, some approaches were necessary — it is not possible for an ideology to sink into society if it is forcibly and instantly introduced in an illogical matter (except maybe cases like North Korea where the story is different).

Grape-gathering — advertisement campaign from Bulgaria, the 1970s.
NADEZHDA LAMANOVA CONCERNING CONTEMPORARY DRESS “O sovremenem kostiume,” Krasnaia niva, no. 27 (1923)

New fashions and concepts of dress were introduced as a mixture of traditional heritage, very modernist aesthetics and socialist values all in one. It is a way to engage people on a personal, cultural and patriotic level. The other point being that strictness seemed to be linked to the importance of practicality but this practicality meant that you would clearly divide your professional role from your personal and social one while still having the same value metrics.

There are many other instances in history where we can see the involvement of dress in the artistic aspirations of various movements and ideological climates. Romanticism, and the simplicity of English fashion at the end of the 19th century with the arts and crafts movement opposing the commercialization of the artform (Edwards, Tim; 2011).

Fashion is “called upon” as a crucial or collateral tool for expressing and spreading out the structures of meaning and the aesthetic signifiers of ideas and rules. In a very individualistic Western society in the 19th and 20th century, fashion is an assimilated and understood mechanism of separating oneself from a specific idea or value system. Take as examples all political movements of the 60s and 70s and the associated styles.

Punk girls in Sofia, source: capital.bg
nazi fashion for women soldiers in Germany during WW2; at dailymail.co.uk

The advocating of radical change in the fashion system was absolutely not confined to the Communist regimes — one can witness various instances in which a more simplistic, practical or wasteless approach to clothes is sought after, with the clear aim to showcase or impose a specific lifestyle relating to a similarly specific worldview. Want women to work — put them in trousers and overalls; want women to be housewives — give them a Dior collection.

The ideological approach to looking at and examining visual elements of culture — in the same sense, fashion — is one that I was familiar with from the works of John Berger. The very importance of this type of approach is exactly its idea of putting the artwork or visual element “in its social rather than… individual context” (Howells, R, and Joaquim N; 2019) which evidently pertains to fashion as a phenomenon even more. It is, however, susceptible to becoming narrow if enough attention isn’t paid to how people interact or perceive said visual element. As good as a viewpoint Berger provides, it might be true that there are other perspectives through which to examine visuals in their cultural context — by investigating specifics in the social interactions and realities within the given ideological system and not the system on its own.

Women were encouraged to subscribe to the fashion visuals on magazines — even though what was available in the shops was clearly not what the models were wearing. Seamstresses and private sewing businesses flourished and contraband jeans or fabrics sometimes appeared in the countries of Eastern Europe.

“The Fashion Line for 1965”; Bulgarian fashion magazine

According to Althusser, ideology is not something that straightforwardly manipulates people but is responsible for the very creation of their subjectivity. (same, 2019) This is why “escaping” it is a difficult task but also why using such elements as fashion would be so successful in implementing it.

If we look at the example of the Panopticon — a utopian plan for a building from 1787 in which a central guard tower is surrounded by concentric rings of cells — but no one being able to see if anyone is standing or watching from it, the way fashion moulds perception and subjectivity in a society with socialist values is by generating the “internalization of a potential observer” (same, 2019), making people act — in this case, dress — appropriately for there are certain values and specifications relating to popular dress codes that allow for mass self-regulation or co-regulation in the case of deviation.

And by Baudrillard’s examples of simulacra, Socialist fashion magazines and media simulate the “external” fashionable realities, a world in which one is able to indulge and achieve a standard of living, in order to conceal the fact that their fashion industry doesn’t allow nor intend to allow for people to fully exist in such reality. (Hard to argue that modern capitalistic market and entertainment logic differs greatly but that’s beside the point).

According to Howells and Negreiro (2019), Roger Fry points out that the form of the visual structure IS its meaning and argues that this allows for all people to understand and interact with the art or piece of culture. This is interesting to debate since according to Adorno’s idea of cultural capital and cultural dissemination, the trouble with imposing new fashions in any cultural field through market (trickle-down) logic, there is no cultural context in the “lower” levels of society which would even allow them to examine and consume these fashions productively.

Advertisement photography for a textile factory in Pleven, Bulgaria, the 1970s.

Rather like former UK prime minster Margaret Thatcher’s infamous assertion that there was no such thing as society, only individuals, it seemed there was no such thing as a designer label culture, just designers and their adorers.
Edwards, Tim (2011)

It is important to distinguish fashion from dress even (or especially) in the case of fashion magazines in the socialist period. Similar to Tatcher’s example here and how it relates to fashion seen as individual designers and garment work, during the socialist culture fashion and dress both had to be seen as practical, enduring and proper facets of life just like the State party was. The other element in the world of fashion and media that works in the same logic everywhere is how it is dictated and promoted by a handful of selected “experts”.

Constructivism helped shape the notion that each cultural element was specifically constructed for the society and time at hand so there was no need to continue or evolve a practice that isn’t seen as serving a role.

As fashion (in the meaning of developing fashion trends) is seen traditionally as an element of a developing capitalistic society, it would make sense for the socialist agenda to specifically focus on eradicating this aspect of dress — it’s only “use value” is clothing.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store