Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain
By Tatiana Lykova


Custume Collection. Source:  The Tsaritsyno National Museum / Press Photo

The Tsaritsyno National Museum will host a major exhibition “Fashion behind the Iron Curtain. From the Wardrobes of Soviet-era Stars” (23 February – 12 June). It is a joint project of the Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve, the National Fashion Museum, a cultural fund, the noted fashion collector and historian Alexandre Vassiliev, the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Ulanova Museum-Apartment), the Museum Association "Moscow's Museum", Stage Costume Departments at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre and private collectors.

The exhibition’s curator Irina Korotkikh talks about the broad retrospective of costume in the 1920s-1990s, when the Soviet Union was a closed society. The Soviet woman was expected to meet a common standard, not to stand out in any way and be like everybody else. No fashion magazines or any information about world fashion trends were available in the country. The trend-setters were individual stars of stage and film, opera and ballet, variety shows and opera. Today it is hard to imagine the lengths to which the icons of the time had to go to keep up the image of genuine stars in that difficult era.

What is the thrust of the exhibition? What can visitors expect to see?

The apparel of Soviet stars contrasts very interestingly with the day-to-day and Sunday-best clothes of ordinary people. It gives an idea of how the members of the Soviet elite managed to follow current European fashion trends. There are relatively few evening gowns and haute couture items, which reflects the real situation at the time.

In the post-war 1940s, amidst universal poverty, many items were brought to the USSR as war booty or under lend-lease arrangements with America. They were brought in from defeated Germany and sold in second-hand shops. So the Soviet élite, in addition to clothes made from domestically manufactured fabrics, had an alternative.

RBTH: Who were the true trend-setters against this backdrop?

Irina Korotkikh: To answer that, one has to look at that part of the exhibition featuring the wardrobes of the great Soviet ballerinas Galina Ulanova (1909-1998), Olga Lepeshinskaya (1917-2008) and Maya Plisetskaya (born 1925), who embodied the ideal of, on the one hand, femininity and, on the other hand, a creative individual for whom dress was a vehicle of self-expression.

The exhibition features about 140 items from the Galina Ulanova museum, a branch of the Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum, a collection that has never before been shown to the public. From the 1940s, when Ulanova came to Moscow, she was for a long time a paragon of elegance. All her clothes were bought abroad. She was not acquainted with any specific fashion designers but some foreign fashion houses and firms felt it would promote their brand if they had a Soviet ballet star among their customers. The most interesting items in Ulanova’s wardrobe date to the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, these are suits (blouse, jacket and straight skirt) handmade by famous haute couture firms, of the same silhouette, a cross between Coco Chanel and Christian Dior differing mainly in how they were decorated. Our stars, for the most part, could not afford such clothes. Ulanova’s friends and patrons of the arts helped her. Accessories for every costume included gloves, a hat, a handbag, shoes or high boots. They are all exclusive items from prestigious firms such as Ophelie, Louis Feraud, Puritan, Viktor Laud, Gucci, Bruno Magli and Salvatore Ferragamo.

Ulanova liked natural furs, her collection containing many short fur coats, all bought in Europe and all very costly. The story goes that Ulanova once took a fancy to an unusually cut fur coat in an Italian shop. She tried it on and decided to buy it but she had barely enough money to pay even a tenth of the price, despite the hefty discount offered by the store. A rich Italian friend paid the difference.

RBTH: Would it be true to say that Ulanova influenced the tastes of fashion-conscious women?

I. K: I would say that she was building up her own image of a refined woman of the arts, elegant and well dressed. Ulanova was somewhat withdrawn, reticent and even tough. No one who ever wrote about her said that anyone tried to copy her, because it was simply impossible to do so. Not everyone who puts on the same clothes as her would look like her. Ulanova did not have diamonds like singer Lyudmila Zykina is thought to have owned. She was not after luxury. The interior and furniture of her flat in the high-rise building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment in Moscow is fairly modest. The only thing of value is her wardrobe.

RBTH: How did personality influence the look of these elite Soviet women?

I. K: I would put Olga Lepeshinskaya side by side with Galina Ulanova. They were of almost the same age, equally talented and could afford to express themselves in the way they dressed. But whereas Ulanova was an independent woman, Lepeshinskaya belonged to the category of wives of Soviet political and military leaders and the creative intelligentsia, i.e., famous directors, artists and writers. They visited the Kremlin and were invited by Stalin and later by Khrushchev. Everybody looked at what they were dressed in. The exhibition will feature Lepeshinskaya’s clothes from the Bakhrushin Museum and Alexander Vasilyev’s collection. Though she enjoyed the same social status as Ulanova, Lepeshinskaya represented a different style in dress. While Ulanova was an ideal of elegance, Lepeshinskaya, who was an army general’s wife, symbolized the Soviet style and dressed like a typical Soviet “lady”. The opulence of her costumes can be seen even in the photographs to be displayed.

Maya Plisetskaya belongs to a different generation and represents a different style. Ulanova and Lepeshinskaya harked back to pre-1917 traditions, whereas Plisetskaya was closer to the avant garde. Her wardrobe was not eccentric but neither was it constrained by the classical style. Her hallmark is modernity and minimalism.  Her wardrobe always included trousers and sweaters. Of course, she also had some classical stage costumes. Yet it was Maya Plisetskaya who became the muse of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, this, in itself, being  a milestone in the history of Soviet fashion. He created costumes in which this impetuous, dashing woman could dance at any moment or move as if she were dancing. Several Pierre Cardin frocks made for Maya Plisetskaya will be on show at the exhibition.

We tried to showcase the unique collection of Soviet-era clothes of the fashion historian, stage designer, art scholar and founder of an international interior decoration prize, Alexandre Vassiliev. He is the guiding spirit behind the project.