Disruptive Patterns: Women's Fashion in Early Twentieth-Century Russia

Elizabeth Durst, University of Southern California

This paper is part of a larger study which examines the role of women's fashion in early 20th-century Russia, particularly in its relation to women's identity and representation. The project also examines the depiction and interpretation of fashion in various forms of narrative culture of the period. The chronological parameters of the research extend from 1905, which saw a moderate liberalization of the press and other spheres of culture, and the years of the First World War during which the collective guilt experienced by Russian women at seeing their men go off to war forced many to abruptly modify their fashion habits and seek more innocent, adolescent styles, and to muffle their calls for reform. Throughout this period, Russian women participated in the evolution of the female image and witnessed changes in female social identity that often corresponded to these fashions. I propose to look at women's fashion in Russia as an indicator of Russian women's ability to navigate among the broader changes in feminine culture throughout Europe and to identify fashion as a vehicle of change, albeit subconscious, among many Russian women. My study examines women's own perception of these changes and the social discourse surrounding the shift.

The early Twentieth Century has been identified generally as a period of "reform" in women's clothing. Anne Hollander argues that with the change in the corset from the S-curve to the straight line (and with the abandonment of the corset altogether by some) women soon began to look more "real," and a "visual unity" of the female body was preferred to the bifurcated earlier form. Not unlike in Europe and the United States, aristocratic and merchant women's evening wear in Russia grew lavish in its incorporation of exotic Eastern elements and daring in its sexuality through the use of transparent fabrics (a la Isadora Duncan) and rising hemlines. Fashion historians also note the prevalence of the tailleur style for women's day suits of this period, a fashion which reinterpreted traditional characteristics of men's dress. One must note that these developments were not initially any "freer" than earlier fashions. The hobble skirt, for example, which was popularized in 1910 made it almost impossible for women to walk. A greater importance in fashion developments of this period lies not in their alleged freedom but in their aggressive cultivation of the feminine and the preponderance of a "knowing seduction" among women, to use Maureen Murim's term. While few women in Russia participated in the activities of formal feminist groups, their general propensity for change and willingness to adopt styles that, to a certain degree, were motivated by a changed position among women in society, brought them greater reforms than has been previously recognized. Fashion allowed reform to enter the female psychology on a subconscious rather than conscious level. By drawing on the seductive powers of women and the femininity exalted in exotic or daring fashions at the time, fashion made reform more appealing.

One finds that particular attention was paid to fashion in literature, both high and low, and in the visual arts of the period, reflecting a larger cultural trend. Popular literature, such as the widely read works of Verbickaja and Nagrodskaja often prompted women to emulate the fashion standards of their fictional heroines. Postcards of prominent female celebrities became commonplace. On a commercial level strategies of display and advertising reached greater sophistication with at times elaborate methods of theatricalization used to draw in the consumer. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, women were afflicted with the fashion fever as much as their Western counterparts were. The pictorial image, particularly the "look" of fashion, gained newfound importance. In fashion magazines photographs of live models in the latest trends began to slowly replace fashion drawings. Cinema also allowed for the swift proliferation of live fashionable representations and ensured that the visual image of the new woman reach even mass audiences. These images brought with them ready-made associations, such as those of the fashionable new woman who smokes, dances the tango, and keeps lovers. These women were unusual, but at the same time more real.

In this paper I will discuss elements of women's fashion magazines of early 20th century Russia that I feel reflect the general relationship between fashion and women's social representation. Contradictions abound in these serials, with calls for feminine subservience and modesty in dress coupled with photographs of bold new fashions and accounts of the Suffragists' most recent achievements in London and elsewhere. It is important to remember that even the suffragists discussed their need to cultivate the feminine image. I hope in this paper to give an indication of yet another dimension of the vibrant literary and artistic climate in Russia immediately preceding the First World War and to argue the formative influence of cultural representations for women's identity.