Art Undercover: Dress as the Modern Medium

Elizabeth Durst, University of Southern California

In the early twentieth century, women were represented in unprecedented numbers in the leading artistic groups of Russia, and many contributed substantially to the legacy of the avant-garde. The monumental experiments in form and color initiated by this movement led to the radical reordering of modern Russian artistic culture. To a degree, many of the innovations that characterized the evolution of art were also reflected in the changes to modern women's fashion that took place soon after the turn of the century. In the context of a broader cultural transformation, these reforms undermined traditional notions of feminine identity and encouraged new roles rooted in the principles of individuality and personal creative freedom.

Russian experiments in dress design are most often linked to the utopian projects of the early 1920s: Ljubov' Popova's prozodezhda, Vavara Stepanova's textile designs, Nadezhda Lamanova's folk-inspired costumes, and Aleksandra Ekster's designs for Atel'e mod, among the most notable. Yet the serious confrontation of the question of modern women's costume was initiated several years earlier, and appears to have engaged, to greater and lesser degrees, most women artists of the period. Even Natal'ja Goncharova, whose artistic success earned her a major retrospective exhibition as early as 1913, considered the application of her artistic ideas to dress a worthwhile pursuit.

Much of the activity in dress and accessory design conducted by women artists before the revolution has since been overlooked. Unlike the great surviving canvases, this work endured only as long as the fleeting styles of the period. A concern for fashion was characterized as a feminine interest, and was often associated with artifice, superficial aesthetic concerns, and a lack of intellectual or creative depth--in other words, activities thought by many in the early part of the century to be well suited to women, but not of great overall significance. Several talented women artists, however, sensed the expressive potential of the medium, and sought to integrate dress into their individual systems of art. With few exceptions, most women were believed to be incapable of the artistic accomplishments of their male peers, and their work was often judged according to such preconceived notions of gender as those applied within the fashion sphere. Yet, this parallel underestimation--of the abilities of women artists and the impact of fashion--sheltered both from greater outside scrutiny and in some ways allowed for a freer exercise of their influence.

In this presentation I will discuss examples of the reception of women's art in Russia insofar as they reflect gender-based assumptions similar to those articulated in the sphere of fashion. I will also argue the ways in which the transformation of modern fashion that took place before the Revolution initiated and anticipated the more radical advances of the Soviet designs of the 1920s.