Vladka Dobiasova - life devoted to fashion

The fall of communism twelve years ago affected people in different ways. Some believe they have lost their old securities, some feel threatened by rising crime or the world around them getting ever more complicated. But some have taken the opportunity to indulge in their own particular passions. One such person is Vladka Dobiasova. She exchanged the tedium of office work for what had been her hobby since childhood. Vladka is a collector of pretty much everything related to clothes and fashion.

"I started collecting buttons, costume jewellery - broaches in particular, and then I added hats, shoes, handbags, scarves and other pieces of clothing; skirts, blouses and coats and even historic props which I use at the fashion shows. At first I kept it secret, I wouldn't show anyone what treasures I had. But about 10 or 12 years ago I founded my own agency and started presenting the things, and now I sort of do it for a living."

Vladka is glad she can exhibit her collection to a wider public. She organises several fashion shows a year where models parade the historic and often unique garments. The shows are usually held in places that offer a good historical context - castles, museums, concert halls or vintage car shows. The most recent was a show of 20th century fashion in Prague's Municipal House - a grand art-nouveau building in the centre of the city.

The show presented Czech fashion throughout the 20th century, with clothes typical for different periods and styles. The range was wide: there were long evening dresses, wedding dresses, afternoon clothes, and also things of a more private nature: underwear, pyjamas or romantic old nightgowns. Women's clothes, men's clothes, children's clothes, sportswear and sports gear, such as a pair of skis and ice-skates. Everything was matched with period accessories, pictures, photos and old ads projected on a screen above. Right after the show I spoke to one of the models, Lucie, and asked her about the catwalk experience.

As a model you obviously have different impressions from the show than the audience. For us it was fun and entertainment, for you it's work...

"Well, the positive thing is that we don't have to be so formal. And the disadvantage - the only disadvantage - is that some of the things are old pieces and when we're changing the clothes we have to be really careful and someone must be helping because we are under time pressure and also the things are really fragile."

I can imagine. Can you compare this sort of work - presenting historic clothes - to a normal, designer fashion show?

"Well, I've been to many shows but here the audience is really different. They're clapping and they're all excited and it's fun for all of us as well. We don't have to be so formal, I mean, we all enjoy doing this, it's real fun."

And what was your favourite outfit tonight?

"Well, that's a difficult question, I have to say. Because as you know, it was fashion presented from the beginning of the century till the end of the century. And at the beginning I was wearing this beautiful wedding dress which was purple and I felt really like a princess. And then I was wearing - like a contrast- the fashion of the fifties. These blue baggy outfits, which everyone at that time used to wear for work and they looked like a uniform. In the fifties, under communism, there were not many chances to buy anything different. So everyone had this - in Czech it's called 'teplaky'."

I should explain it's a kind of cotton tracksuit - very popular back then and apparently very comfortable.

Lucie was referring to the second part of the show portraying the latter half of the century and the drab communist years which didn't favour fashion and glamour. But fashion could not be stopped by the Iron Curtain. Czech women were extremely imaginative and skilful and using secret do-it-yourself methods always managed to produce homemade copies of the latest western vogue.

Looking at the tall and thin models, I couldn't help wondering whether the oldest clothes needed a bit of adjusting, since women must have had different figures at the beginning of the last century. Vladka Dobiasova agrees that this fact poses certain problems.

"You can see that the models are taller than the former owners of the clothes. All the pyjamas and nighties are only mid-calf length while they should be ankle- length. Or skirts from the 1920's should reach below the knees; they shouldn't be shorter. What is completely useless today are shoes - our models have larger feet than women in the last century. When I find a model these days who wears size five, I admire her tiny feet."

Vladka says that like every collector she is totally obsessed and is always hunting for new finds. She buys some things but people also give her old clothes which they think of as nothing but old junk. If she has several copies of the same or similar garment, she sells them, although it's always difficult to part with the items. Sometimes fashion or costume designers seek advice from Vladka and borrow things from her collections when they want to look back in history for inspiration. The oldest item in Vladka's collection is a wrap from mid-19th centrury. Such old pieces can't be easy to look after...

"The moth is our greatest enemy. When I see a moth I turn pale. They can destroy clothes in a matter of moments and then it's very difficult to mend. We need to wash and iron the clothes again and again and fold and refold them to prevent the fabric from breaking. Some materials don't have a long life, such as some types of silk or taffeta. So some of the fabrics really look old and worn out."

These old garments saw things we can only dream about today, romantic balls, promenades through Prague, first rides in open top cars...

"I always like to know the story of the clothes. I always ask whom the things belonged to. Some of the things I have belonged to interesting people, such as the famous Czech actors Oldrich Novy, Olga Scheinpflugova and Natasa Gollova. And these items are very precious to me."

Now from the past to the future. What are Vladka's plans? She says she certainly doesn't feel like quitting.

"There will be other fashion shows but I have this one dream I would like to come true - to have my own museum - a private museum of fashion where I could display clothes that used to belong to famous people and sell some items as well."

Although Vladka Dobiasova cannot pick one garment from her collection that she likes the most, she has a favourite period in 20th century fashion. It's the 1930's and 40's with clothes and accessories matching to the last detail. At least for us today the years of pre-war Czechoslovakia seem idyllic - a time of elegance and prosperity, just as it is portrayed in the black-and-white romantic films from those decades. This is a famous film tune Oci tmavohnede sung by the popular actor and singer Oldrich Novy.