After the Prague Spring in 1968, a series of mass protests and short-lived democratic reforms towards political liberalization, Czechoslovakia entered a period known as normalization. The level of repression increased over the years as president Gustáv Husák grew more conservative, and in the cultural realm sometimes approached the levels seen in East Germany and even Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania. This intense control and a sense of motionlessness characterized the athmosphere of everyday life in Czechoslovakia throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Conformity and obedience defined culture as well: independent thinking was persecuted by the government and many artists were silenced or banned. Critical voices in art spread secretly, through samizdat publishing, or underground events where artists in opposition could meet and exchange news about literature, art and music.
Political influence on culture was obvious, and progressive practices of art could only exist in underground clubs. However on a sunny day in 1983 two models of fashion designer Michal Švarc walked down the streets of the city of Brno. They wore bright yellow creations, while passers-by were surprised looking at them donning greyish pants and outerwear in many shades of light brown. Later Švarc staged several fashion happenings on the streets. His performances and designs were manifestos against conformity that he wanted to destroy with the tools of experimental fashion.
Michal Švarc graduated from the Brno Secondary Textile School, an institution that provided a relatively liberal and creative environment in the 1980s. In this setting Švarc had the chance to explore different materials and ways of presenting his clothes. His fashion shows were rather performances with a certain choreography created by Švarc himself. In addition to his own musical compositions, new wave music by internationally renowned bands, including Dead Can Dance and Art of Noise accompanied his presentations.
Švarc used simple materials such as cotton, canvas or viscose and then destroyed them chemically. He often added abstract patterns or texts and applied layers of paint and appliques made of rubber on the garments. The silhouettes of his clothes were asymmetrical, loose and oversized. Beyond clothes, Švarc also designed accessories and costumes for alternative theatre pieces. He developed a particular style in photography and captured his garments on models with something unusual in their characters.
Although Švarc was not interested in the work of commercial fashion designers, he was inspired by the style of Issey Miyake. The simplicity and harmony of Japanese aesthetics influenced his creations and photographs: Švarc fused classical forms and savage details. Another inspiring artist for Švarc was the Hungarian avant-garde fashion designer Tamás Király.
Király appeared on the underground art scene of Budapest at the beginning of the 1980s. Mixing the elements of theatre and fine arts, Király realized grandiose fashion shows in the Music Hall Petőfi Csarnok in front of thousands of people between 1985 and 1989. Király’s revolutionary approach towards fashion was uncommon in the Socialist Bloc. His unwearable, sculpturelike garments designed in the 1980s were inspired by the costumes of the Bauhaus theatre as well as by the spatial structures of Russian constructivism. Alike Švarc, Király was also a significant figure of the underground scene: he styled the musicians of popular Hungarian new wave bands of the time and worked as a costume designer for theatre and film. In his punk boutique, which he founded together with friends Gizella Koppány and Nóra Kováts, he sold particular items such as pheasant leg earrings, a dress made of a Soviet flag and a tarpaper vest. Király continously confronted the dullness of socialist life with his provocative performances: Švarc admired Király for breaking the boundaries between fashion and art in a radical way.
Intersections can be found between the works of Király and Švarc such as the social and political realm or their experimental way of creating that was partly fueled by the shortage of proper materials. While Király denied commercial fashion in his whole life, Švarc established his own brand focusing on menswear. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the socialist system collapsed, investors from Western countries were interested in his business. Despite this increasing attention, he did not want to serve the needs dictated by the fashion industry, and continued to run his brand individually.
Michal Švarc was about to pursue an international career when he died tragically young in 1994. His decade long work was scarcely known until 2016 when curator Andrea Březinová organized a group show called On the Edge, featuring works by Milan Knizák, Libena Rochová and Michal Švarc. Some of Švarc’s creations and photos were acquired by the Department of Textile Design of the Moravian Gallery in Brno.
Meanwhile major exhibitions are dedicated to designers representing progressive ways of fashion. In the past few years Rei Kawakubo’s extraordinary pieces were shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and there was a comprehensive exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London showing the creations of Alexander McQueen. At the moment there is a retrospective of Tamás Király at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest as well.
Along the growing interest towards avant-garde fashion, artists from Eastern Europe are getting even more attention. Also the Soviet aesthetics is fashionable again: designers from Eastern Europe such as Gosha Rubchinskiy or Demna Gvasalia, designer of the brand Vetements gained international success recently. As fashion infiltrates to the white cubes of prestigious museums, it became crucial to interpret the works of Michal Švarc and Tamás Király accurately. It is necessary to reconsider which forms of presentation are appropriate when exposing underground artistic practices. A careful investigation can be a key of understanding of the art of the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s, that can say a lot about the present as well. For Tamás Király and Michal Švarc the thin line between art and fashion was a territory of rebelling against an oppressing, but eroding system.
The author was a curator-in-residence at the House of Arts in Brno, Czech Republic. Special thanks for curators Andrea Březinová (Moravian Gallery) and Marika Svobodová (House of Arts) who helped the research of the works of Michal Švarc.
Cover image: Fashion experiment by the sea, around 1982, courtesy of Moravian Gallery, Brno