Dressed to impress - The Moda Praha festival and gender stereotypes in Czech fashion

As fashion designers and enthusiasts from all over Europe gathered in the Prague Exhibition Centre in Holesovice, the 5th International Moda Praha Fashion Festival was declared open on Wednesday morning, an event dedicated to the European design world and to the new Czech trends of the upcoming year. But to what extent does the future of the Czech clothing industry retain past preconceptions of male and female attitudes towards fashion?

From Lemmar's elegant display of contemporary wedding dresses to the daring nightwear of the Stredoceska Fashion Corporation, 145 leading Czech and foreign designers were represented on the catwalk this week, attracting over 2000 visitors on the opening day of the expo alone. Among those showcasing their latest conceptions were returning exhibitors from previous years as well as promising, new names, such as 'North Trappers', allowing visitors to gain a sense of the direction in which European and especially Czech fashion is heading.

Yet as the festival concentrates primarily on ladies' fashion, you can't help wondering whether clothing in the Czech Republic is still treated as an exclusively female domain. As Women's Rights organisations gain ground in the country, I posed the question: to what extent is this change in society reflected in the world of fashion? Jindra Konecna, a senior manager of the Moda Praha Fashion Festival:

"I don't think that such a stereotype exists in today's society, since fashions from abroad have already been arriving in the Czech Republic for some time. People are better informed; men too are much better informed and there are no instances of the stereotype in which women prefer to dress well to a greater extent than men. I think that men also dress very well indeed, mainly since they have their own boutiques and facilities, even here in the Czech Republic."

However, despite confidence that the stereotype itself is diminishing, she adds:

"Women always have been and always will be the focus of attention [in this area]; at least that's what we personally think. Fashion is of course centred more on women. Women buy clothing more readily and furthermore men buy for women. Therefore that is perhaps why there's more ladies' fashion currently being produced in the country."

Altogether it seems to be accepted that the core of the Czech fashion market, at least as represented at this year's Moda Praha festival, is indeed predominantly the female consumer, and that certainly in recent years interest from male customers has been limited. The issue provoked various responses from visitors I spoke to at the expo:

Middle-aged woman: "Generally fashion is oriented... the market is oriented towards ladies, towards women, because they are the people who buy fashion and they buy it also for men."

Young woman: "Men are slowly starting to think about colour, to think about a nice jacket..."

Middle-aged man: "Men are very, very uniform, maybe it's in the Czech mentality."

As in many countries, Czech women suffer from the stereotype of their role as mothers and wives. But society is changing fast, equality of the sexes is being increasingly brought into the Czech political spotlight, and as a result the way the sexes dress is also changing. Martina Nevarilova owns the 'Navarila' clothing design company based in Prague, one of the main exhibitors at the trend forum of the festival. She thinks that attitudes of Czech men are still quite conservative:

"Three years ago I made a collection for men also, but because I didn't have the custom for the men's boutique, it didn't sell well. That's why I am making more for the women's boutique, and also I think women in the Czech Republic are ready to spend more money, more often, for fashion, or for themselves to look better, than men. Because the prevailing attitude is still - and sometimes I hear it from my husband - that a man has to smell like a man and it's not that necessary what he looks like. This is maybe a remnant from Communist times."

Do you think the situation is changing?

"I am sure. Men are starting to use perfumes and they are starting to care about what they look like, yes."

And do you think this is reflected in the clothing industry?

"Czech industry is a little bit slowly reflecting the situation, but I am sure this is a good 'haul' for foreign companies. They can feel that the situation is changing and they are coming to the Czech market."

So, it seems that Czech men and women really do see fashion differently. Yet the preconception that women dress well solely to fulfil a certain role expected of them by men is not as prevalent as it once was. As men become more interested in fashion, stereotypes are gradually being undermined. It seems that now more than ever it is a sense of personal interest on the part of the consumer, whether male or female, and a challenging creativity on the part of designers which are driving the Czech fashion world forwards, leaving us to wonder what the Moda Praha Fashion Festival will have in store in future years.