Sustainable Fashion in the Soviet Union? A Historical Perspective

Artwork Sustainable Fashion in the Soviet Union Paradigme Mode

Fash­ion has been a con­stant part of human life, and in recent years, sus­tain­able fash­ion has been increas­ing­ly advo­cat­ed for to address the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of the fast fash­ion indus­try. How­ev­er, the con­cept of sus­tain­able fash­ion is not entire­ly new, as we can see from the prac­tices of the Sovi­et Union in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Although the Sovi­et Union attempt­ed to imple­ment a sys­tem of fash­ion that would erad­i­cate fash­ion, the peo­ple con­tin­ued to pro­duce clothes by hand at home, recy­cle, and reuse, result­ing in a sus­tain­able fash­ion approach.

Mass production in the mid-20th century?

The ide­al of mass pro­duc­tion was straight­for­ward — the best fash­ion design­ers from Sovi­et fash­ion hous­es would cre­ate new gar­ment designs, which would be trans­ferred to pro­duc­tion fac­to­ries to prompt­ly sup­ply the USSR with mod­ern cloth­ing. The gov­ern­ment-con­trolled light indus­try would quick­ly erad­i­cate old and thread­bare gar­ments, and the Sovi­et cit­i­zen would per­ma­nent­ly show off in new, fash­ion­able design­er clothes. The Sovi­et gov­ern­ment would mon­i­tor cit­i­zens’ style to become more polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect, pre­dictable, close to an aes­thet­i­cal per­fec­tion, med­i­c­i­nal­ly and cli­mat­i­cal­ly suit­able and con­ve­nient. It would com­plete­ly erad­i­cate the desire for fash­ion beyond the Iron Cur­tain. How­ev­er, this nev­er came to be.

Sustainable Fashion in the Soviet Union?
Con­cept of the Pro­zodezh­da dress, which nev­er suc­ceed­ed

Con­fronting the Sovi­et Union’s fash­ion indus­try with Jean Baudrillard’s con­cept of sim­u­lacrum, one could see an obvi­ous resem­blance between them.

Jean Bau­drillard claims that human­i­ty has replaced all real­i­ty with sym­bols and signs, and that human expe­ri­ence is mere­ly a sim­u­la­tion of real­i­ty. This state­ment on which he wrote his philo­soph­i­cal book Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion gets close to the con­cept of fash­ion that the Sovi­et Union intend­ed to push.

The fash­ion indus­try seemed real from a dis­tance, but when looked at close­ly, it was noth­ing more than a weird con­struc­tion replac­ing real­i­ty with its rep­re­sen­ta­tion. They tried to com­bine the Hous­es of Mod­els (design­er clothes to show the great­ness of the Sovi­et Union) with mass pro­duc­tion, and that’s when it did­n’t hap­pen. Many pieces’ pat­tern-mak­ing and spec­i­fi­ca­tions were not adapt­ed enough for ready-to-wear, and the many pro­duc­tion prob­lems made the best cloth­ing strict­ly lim­it­ed, result­ing in a sit­u­a­tion sim­i­lar to many oth­er coun­tries, with an elite who had access to the best clothes and a major­i­ty with zero new gar­ments, so com­mu­nism was not being applied effec­tive­ly.

The sub­ject of bipo­lar­i­ty of the USSR was addressed by many peo­ple on research papers:

The sewing ate­liers (for the peo­ple) and hous­es of mod­els were two par­al­lel uni­vers­es. Mod­els were to empha­sise the great­ness of the Sovi­et Union (although then it was referred to dif­fer­ent­ly), not made for ready-to-wear. Even though nei­ther pub­lic nor pri­vate trans­porta­tion was suit­able for get­ting any­where in those gar­ments

Fash­ion indus­try and mass pro­duc­tion in a planned econ­o­my could essen­tial­ly be a utopi­an idea, utter­ly impos­si­ble. For a mass pro­duc­tion and a true fash­ion indus­try, a free­dom of choice and cre­ativ­i­ty is always need­ed, it’s always the key piece.

The con­cept of fash­ion itself can­not and will nev­er exist in a total­i­tar­i­an regime as it express­es indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, zeit­geist, and free­dom.

Sustainability then and now

If we com­pare the con­cept of sus­tain­abil­i­ty today to then, we see that recy­cling was a need, not some­thing to teach. Peo­ple were not recy­cling for eco­log­i­cal rea­sons but for eco­nom­ic ones. This com­par­i­son can be done to any of the peri­ods of eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ty or after war of many oth­er coun­tries in Europe as well. Although, they set an exam­ple of how to refor­mu­late our clothes to make some­thing new out of some­thing used.

Sustainable Fashion in the Soviet Union?
Singer sewing machine by Kevin Yud­hi­s­ti­ra Alloni

It is a nice exer­cise to sit, think and observe what we could learn from past soci­eties and meth­ods. They used to be such an ide­al zero waste soci­ety, with many gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives for push­ing DIY and up-cycling so cit­i­zens could make and pro­duce their gar­ments due to the unsuc­cess­ful mass pro­duc­tion prac­tices of the sys­tem itself. It was clear­ly a need, but at least it was viewed as some­thing pos­i­tive, some­thing that had impor­tant know-how, some­thing to pass on to new­er gen­er­a­tions, as they passed the Singer sewing machine.

Cit­i­zens could make a new gar­ment from two or more used ones, or from a com­bi­na­tion of what was avail­able. The Sovi­et gov­ern­ment sup­port­ed the do-it-your­self sub­cul­ture by organ­is­ing spe­cial sewing and con­struc­tion train­ing cours­es for adults and push­ing peo­ple to keep using their exist­ing clothes.

In con­clu­sion, the Sovi­et Union’s fash­ion indus­try pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing case study of an attempt­ed utopi­an approach to fash­ion and mass pro­duc­tion that ulti­mate­ly fell short. How­ev­er, the peo­ple’s resource­ful­ness, cre­ativ­i­ty, and com­mit­ment, even in the face of lim­it­ed resources and a chal­leng­ing polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, offer valu­able lessons for today’s fash­ion indus­try.

As we con­tin­ue to grap­ple with the envi­ron­men­tal and social impacts of the fash­ion indus­try, past soci­eties’ approach­es serve as a reminder that sus­tain­able solu­tions often arise from unex­pect­ed places.

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Written by David Ferrero
March 28, 2023

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