“They signified America”: Prague exhibition spotlights jeans, pre-1989

It is well-known that jeans – a symbol of the West – were a highly sought-after commodity in the final decades of communism in Czechoslovakia. How did people manage to obtain them? And what imported brands were even available? I visited a new exhibition in Prague dedicated to all things denim, pre-1989.

On the top floor of the mid-1970s Kotva Department Store in Prague is where you will find the Retro Museum, which operators say has drawn over 50,000 visitors since opening just over a year ago.

Recently it acquired a new attraction in the form of an exhibition dedicated to jeans, a hard to get but greatly desired commodity in late communist Czechoslovakia.

Photo: JOTA

The curator of the show is Michal Petrov, author of the book Jeans Story. He says denims were relatively expensive, with an average monthly pay packet in the 1980s being equivalent to four and a half pairs.

“We weren’t isolated from the world. In fact we were in very close contact with it, because we neighboured West Germany and Austria.

"There were a lot of tourists from the West, and we wanted to be like them.

"Also of course jeans signified America. It was the biggest enemy of the USSR and the USSR was our biggest enemy.

"That’s why we wanted to have jeans.”

Given they were so closely associated with the West and were not encouraged by the authorities, how did Czechoslovaks get their hands on jeans?

“The easiest way was from relatives abroad. There were also boutiques here where occasionally some would appear for regular, unconvertible crowns.

"In addition there was a network of illegal tailors’ shops, run by Vietnamese guest workers; they worked in regular factories by day and knocked out jeans at home at night.

"But the dominant method was to buy them at Tuzex shops, legally using hard currency that relatives abroad had sent you, or to buy them from dealers on the black market.”

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Tuzex was a chain of luxury stores where regular Czechoslovak crowns were not accepted. Instead shoppers needed to use special vouchers.

Michal Petrov says the most in-demand make was also a market leader in the West.

“The most popular were definitely Levi’s, 501s – the legend was also alive here. But other brands were popular too.

"There were Rifle jeans from Italy, and the brand Wildcat from Scotland. Then, for a small but dedicated group of people, there was the British label Pace – I’m still not sure what the correct pronunciation is!

"Also Tuzex carried dungarees by DC; they were actually the last US jeans you could buy here in Tuzex.”

Photo: inmorino,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

For many older Czechs, Rifle (pronounced phonetically) is still a synonym for jeans, perhaps stemming from the fact they were the first – and for many years only – imported label in Czechoslovakia.

The old school nickname Rifle is today more common in Moravia than Bohemia, says Mr. Petrov.