Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain: A new book explores how Czechoslovakia’s communist regime used fashion to further its ideological aims

Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain, Grada publishing

A new book, Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain, released by Grada and Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts (UPM) has taken on the task of mapping fashion in Czechoslovakia from 1948 – 1989, a period that followed the Second World War, the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, a brief window of democracy and freedom and itself was marked by 40 years of totalitarian rule.

Konstantína Hlaváčková,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Author and curator at UPM Konstantína Hlaváčková was instrumental in putting together the work; in an interview for Czech Radio she explained that one of the book’s main goals was to show how the communist regime in Czechoslovakia after 1948 used fashion for its own ideological aims.

“I’m not sure how much people [today] are aware just how much peoples’ lives changed under the communist regime. They were affected to the very core and not even fashion was exempt. The regime was very aware of the role fashion could play. They knew that fashion could influence thinking, could present a new way of life and ‘educate’ citizens of the new socialist or communist state.”

Although the new regime had great ambitions, numerous factors proved negative in the early years. One problem? The monumental task of creating a new style which ignored fashion trends in the West.

“It was really very tough to create new fashion from scratch as well as to create new institutions which would dress the whole nation and fill wardrobes emptied during the war. The regime knew it needed skilled designers and others but they had to work within set rules, not to create freely and creatively as they had before. Everything was to be carefully monitored and according to the regime.”

Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,  Grada publishing
Compounding difficulties, the textiles industry had been decimated by the war and by the expulsion of some three million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia where much of the textile industry was based. The communists called for brave new fashion for the proletariat but who would come up with the design and who would produce them? To help, in 1949, the Communists launched an institute known as National Textile Production which brought together experts and some of the best talents and workers in the textile industry of the period: seamstresses, tailors, and designers – including some of the most respected names from the earlier era – to come up with solutions.

While their involvement, was largely positive, what was not were many of the restrictions within which they would soon work as well as some of the targets they had to meet. UPM’s Hlaváčková again:

“They weren’t responsible only for what the new fashion would be but they also bore responsibility for production – whether the items would actually be made. And that wasn’t at all easy. Under the Beneš Decree, the German population in the Sudentenland had to leave Czechoslovakia after 1945. That had a huge impact on the textile and clothing business.

“Much of the textile industry had been located in the Sudetenland and suddenly there were factories without workers, without expert craftsmen, and without owners. Expert craftsmen are not easy to replace and that left factories unable to meet the new demands.”

Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,  Grada publishing
Matters were further complicated by the nationalisation of large industry under the communists, a process which had begun even earlier in 1945 under Czechoslovakia’s second president, Eduard Beneš. The industry reinvented under the new regime, Konstantína Hlaváčková says, also had to deal with shortages in materials: most needed fabrics had always been shipped to Czecholsovakia.

“Wool, cotton, silk, the last being a luxury, had always been imported. Flax or linen was a traditional textile but in any case there wasn’t enough. Capital had to be found to import enough fabrics and new factories had to be built up and last but not least a new fashion had to be invented.”

The last, says Hlaváčková, was a monumental task. A new theory of fashion behind the Iron Curtain was needed by the regime, one not influenced by the fashion houses in Paris or London. The new prescribed styles were to reflect the ideals of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, similar in style to other countries in the Soviet bloc. UPM Konstantína Hlaváčková outlines the main principle:

“The most important requirement was ‘function’. Designs needed to be simple and easy to wear – without needless decorative elements. Take, for example, the woman’s suit: it can be wonderful, in the French or English style. But women’s suits under the new regime were very strict, akin to uniforms.

“Slim skirts were rejected as they were hard to sit or walk in and jackets, for example, were to feature little variation in collars. Certainly there were few frills or decorative edging or ornaments Fake pockets were out as they served no practical function. Such a jacket was worn with a simple blouse underneath also with few decorative elements.”

Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,  Grada publishing
The grim new utilitarian fashion, aimed at women labourers as icons of socialism, however, was not really liked by many, not as the regime had hoped. And that meant things would again change.

“The second you had female labourers rebel against the style, saying they had been promised beautiful and colourful new fashion – something they had not been able to afford under the capitalist system, the theoreticians had to go back to the drawing board and find new solutions.”

One solution was to celebrate and indeed elevate traditional folk costumes which were indeed far more colourful, historic and had the added advantage for the ideologues of being purely Slavic in origin. Head scarves served as a needed and suitable alternative for women of all ages, to replace women’s hats which had been worn before; those were now considered a bourgeois symbol to be completely avoided. Of course, the celebration of folk costumes could only go so far - there were obvious limitations. Such clothes had no place on the factory floor or in heavy industry, and not much in agriculture in either; so, even that source of inspiration was not a solution for the worker – the hero of the new regime.

Konstantína Hlaváčková points out, that as a result designers were sent to pig or cow farms to see how women worked, to try and find solutions, to modify designs labourer’s needs. She points out when it came to some work clothes, paradoxically, there wasn’t that much to reinvent: for example, overalls (what later also came to be called the boiler suit) had existed since the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

Then, there was the matter of the regime coming up with suitable dress outside the workplace: clothes to be worn to and from work or in leisure time or formal dress at evening events. Evening dress was among the very most problematic, as previous so-called bourgeois elements were shunned. The odd mix of strict new uniforms and other designs continued up until the year of 1953 when things, to a degree, began to change. Konstantína Hlaváčková once more:

Fashion Behind the Iron Curtain,  Grada publishing
“That was the year Stalin and Gottwald died and those historic events influenced even fashion in Czechoslovakia. After their deaths, the country began to breathe a little more freely again. It began to be apparent that maybe breaking away from world fashion hadn’t been the wisest decision.

“Still, it was only another three years later, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the cult of personality began to be dismantled, that there was an apology to our women that they deserved to be nicely dressed and that it had been mistake. It is hard to do fashion by five-year-plans so gradually Paris fashion became an example again and, with certain variations, fashion in Czechoslovakia developed in a different direction up until 1989.”