In her extensive book, FashionEast: The Spectre That Haunted Socialism (2010), Djurdja Bartlett suggests that fashion is primarily a Western phenomenon. In the Eastern Bloc, during the last decades of socialism, if at all, one could only find good copies of it. German designer Claudia Skoda thought the opposite. She was keen to invite someone from the other side of the Iron Curtain to the avant-garde fashion show Dressater: Dressed to Thrill, which she organized in 1988 at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. She had expected Eastern European countries to have a great influence on fashion. Eventually, her choice fell on Tamás Király from Hungary. Király’s show achieved great success and soon his newly created geometric collection was featured in the British i-D and the Mexican Vogue.
Skoda told in an interview that she had traveled all the way to Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg)—which wasn’t easy at that time—in search of possible participants for her show. Presumably because Western journalists, upon returning from Moscow and Leningrad, often reported on outlandish fashion performances joined with concerts by alternative rock bands. For instance, the German Stern—the magazine,that later called Király ‘the Eastern European Jean-Paul Gaultier’—published a whole issue on alternative fashion in the USSR in 1988. However, this enthusiasm didn’t last long and the shimmering performances of perestroika soon fell into oblivion, almost without a trace.
Misha Buster’s recent publications and exhibitions proved to be extremely helpful in gaining a more in-depth knowledge of this period. The Russian curator and researcher organized the show Alternative Fashion Before Glossies 1985-1995 in 2011 (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow) and in 2018, he launched the comprehensive book Perestroika Fashion (only available in Russian), that introduces avant-garde fashion designers emerging at the time of the gradual softening of the Soviet system.
The following text aims at presenting the main characteristics of Eastern European avant-garde fashion, and it strives to prove that fashion existed even under socialism. I present Király’s early works along with artists from the Soviet Union, who, similarly to Király, constructed fragile and ephemeral forms, and put experimentation at the forefront instead of marketability. This, in their case, should not be considered as a mere refusal of mass production and the beauty industry, as it was, in simple terms, the main idea behind avant-garde fashion in the capitalist West. Rather, they gave birth to fantastic collections, in areas determined by the socialist shortage economy. That is to say, where the scarcity of proper materials meant a bigger challenge than staying original and avoiding to become a commodity.
Eastern Europe in fashion
Andy Warhol exhibited his grandiose Hammer and Sickle paintings in 1977 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. According to Arthur C. Danto, the fact, that there was no scandal, indicates that in the United States the communist emblem had lost its power by then. At that time, those who called themselves Marxists were mainly intellectuals, preoccupied with late capitalism and sexual and racial forms of exploitation. They were less interested in class theory and the old dream of economic explanation. At the same time, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a wave of newfound interest in the great generation of Eastern European classical avant-garde. Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Vladimir Tatlin became fashionable in the Western art market. In the text Eastern Europe in Vogue, Hungarian art historian Éva Forgács associates this tendency with the generation of 1968, who collected inspiration from the Bolshevik revolution, alongside Latin American and Chinese movements. However, in the Soviet Union, these prominent figures of the Russian avant-garde became popular only during Gorbachev’s glasnost (‘openness’). Even in the last years prior to the collapse of the Soviet system, underground artists could only learn about the suprematists and constructivists—once emigrated and famous in the West—from smuggled English-language albums. As the political control gradually softened, the empty symbols of the declining regime proved to be similarly fruitful sources of inspiration in art, as the avant-garde generation of the 1920s. Obviously, it didn’t escape the attention of the West.
During my recent trip to Moscow, I got to know the Russian photographer, Sergey Borisov. When I visited him in his studio, he recalled how he had become a sought after photographer for German, British, and French magazines in the aforementioned period. The first one to approach Borisov was Tempo in 1987. The editors of the German magazine requested a few photos of him to illustrate their article about perestroika. Plans changed when they saw his photographs depicting eccentric fashion performances and alternative rock bands. Eventually, the magazine dedicated a whole issue to the underground art scenes of Moscow and Leningrad. Soon, thanks to Borisov’s photos, the works of local alternative fashion designers were featured in further Western magazines, like Face and Actuel. To keep up with the increasing demand for underground fashion, Borisov himself also created a few compositions. One of his pictures, for instance, shows a naked model, wrapped in a transparent plastic foil on which he painted red stars to cover the woman’s intimate body parts. More and more Russian photographers received requests from the West; in 1989 the American Playboy arrived. The first Russian model to be featured in the erotic magazine was Natalya Negoda. On the cover of the May issue, she wears a crop top on which the words ‘WAR’ and ‘PEACE’ appear in the colors of the Soviet and the American flag.
Around this time, Skoda, organizing Dressater, believed that the Socialist Bloc would soon have a big influence on fashion—she explains in an interview. The avant-garde fashion show, where she invited Király, was dedicated to the most outstanding designers of the time; Vivienne Westwood, Yoshiki Hishinuma, and Rudi Gernreich among others. The common feature of the eight participants of Dressater was the quest for alternatives to mainstream fashion driven by consumer capitalism and the beauty industry. In short, at the core of avant-garde fashion is the emphasis on form over function. From the late 1970s, early 1980s on, the primarily postmodern approach puts the century-long history of fashion in brackets. Earlier, clothing served to demonstrate one’s gender and class as if they were naturally given. Therefore, an appropriate way to critically reflect on this understanding of fashion was to reveal its constructedness. Among the main characteristics of avant-garde fashion shows are excessive forms, unusual fabrics, costume-like creations, unconventional models, theatricality, and strong visual effects. Király’s weird creatures did well on the stage of Dressater. The collection represented Eastern Europeanness in a unique way and with its unusual, abstract forms, it gracefully subverted what people knew about fashion in the 1980s.
Fashion performance as a genre wasn’t so popular in Eastern European art during socialism. It’s also hard to find fashion designers from this period motivated by artistic visions comparable to that of Király. Worthy of mentioning is Michal Svarc (1961-1994) from Czechoslovakia, who, just like Király, often turned city streets into a catwalk. A few years later, however, the Untamed Fashion Assembly in Riga (organized yearly between 1990 and 1999) became a hot spot for avant-garde fashion designers as well as artists interested in costume, the body and its variability. The first edition had 40 participants. Following Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union, in 1992, more than 150 designers showcased outrageous collections. The Assembly, envisioned and brought to life by Latvian designer Bruno Birmanis, was the first major event in Eastern Europe that gave place to anti-commercial fashion shows and dress performances. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, similar events were organized in other parts of the Eastern Bloc, such as the Avant-garde Fashion Assembly in Tbilisi (1995-1999).
What makes the Assembly in Riga so special is that it provided an opportunity for Eastern and Western designers to meet. Artists from the ex-Soviet Bloc easily made alliances with their colleagues arriving to the avant-garde show from London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Many alternative fashion designers active in Moscow from the mid-1980s—whose names I mention in my previous article What is Not New in the New East?—were also present. Andrey Bartenev showcased his surreal body-objects in Riga several times. With the theatrical piece Botanical Ballett, performed in black and white sculptural costumes, that the artist made out of papier-mache, he won the Grand Prix of the Assembly in 1992. The same year Katya Filippova’s punk tsarinas made a stunning impression when they went through the catwalk with lips painted black and a veil depicting Orthodox icons fluttered behind them.
Based on the first few years of the Assembly or Buster’s above-mentioned catalog Perestroika Fashion, the ironic play with Soviet imagery appears to be an important feature of avant-garde fashion in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Eastern Europe. Filippova was fond of throwing new light upon hackneyed symbols that define the Moscow cityscape up until this day; once by placing Lenin’s portrait in the middle of a crucifix, other times by converting a propaganda flag into an haute couture dress. Sculptor and performance artist Andrew Logan, the show’s guest from London, learned from the locals, too. In his performance at the Assembly in 1992, the models walked through the stage raising glittery sickles, hammers, and five-pointed stars in the air. Suddenly, the choreography was disrupted by one of the performers who took all the symbols from the models’ hands and threw them on the floor.
In Russian, overidentification with Soviet aesthetics in art is called stiob. The purpose behind this particular form of irony, considered provocative and banal at the same time, is not only to domesticate and invalidate the left-over symbols and monuments of power. As noted by Russian theorist Boris Groys, irony, in general, is a tool to publicly justify ‘a private wish to occupy oneself with certain things simply because one likes them, while at the same time sensing that they would not be unconditionally acceptable to the public’. The ironic appropriation of Soviet rituals and aesthetics is appealing because it holds the potential for self-analysis. It remains the only way for art, permitted and appreciated by the globalized public, to deal with the Soviet reality. Few artists dug deeper in the past and collected inspiration from the 1920s. For instance, Gosha Ostretsov’s first collection was influenced by Yakov Protazanov’s avant-garde film Aelita (1924). The artist created astronaut costumes based on the Soviet sci-fi and decorated them with toy airplanes and tanks.
One can notice sophisticated references to the revolutionary avant-garde trends in Tamás Király’s early designs as well. Especially in the collection that debuted at the Hamburger Bahnhof. It consisted of ca. forty geometric pieces that Király created under the motto ‘Open Doors’. The motto was given to Király by Skoda, communicating that such an event is a great opportunity for an artist coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain. The models walked through the catwalk, following a slow, eight-minute choreography for music composed by Steve Brown, member of the band Tuxedomoon. Women wore tiered, pyramidal and spherical skirts with the layout of a disk or a star. Men were dressed in dark blue and grey attires, resembling the socialist military uniforms and workwear. The iron-shod boots and safety goggles, added as accessories, evoked the world of the working class on the avant-garde catwalk, that involved a massive steel plate hanging from the ceiling of the abandoned railway station. Altogether, with the triangle-shaped hats, the collection reminded of the costumes in Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus theatrical piece, the Triadic Ballet (1922). The simpler pieces were made of blue canvas, while the robust, sculptural dresses were covered with black velvet combined with a red silk lining—recalling the characteristic colors of Russian constructivism.
The return to the classical avant-garde wasn’t unusual in the art of the 1980s in Hungary. The phenomenon is analyzed by Andrea Soós in the book Tamás Király 80s. Soós places Király in the company of experimental architects Gábor Bachman, László Rajk, and Attila Kovács who realized their utopistic and radical visions in movie sets instead of the state-run design agencies. Király, whose ideas were also far from the ready-made clothes demanded by the socialist planned economy, often collaborated with them as a costume designer in films of Gábor Bódy, János Xantus, and Pál Sándor. These collaborations resulted in fantastic constructions, in which forms and styles blended freely. The narratives of history, pop culture, and the declining regime were accumulated and mixed in the spirit of postmodern eclecticism. Eastern European Alarm (1987), realized in Kiárly and Bachman’s collaboration, is a perfect example of this. In the film, a woman dressed as a red star is walking up the stairs of the Kunsthalle in Budapest, along with a commissar, holding the Pravda—the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. They hug, and then they start fighting; the woman slaps the man who drops a vodka bottle with Cyrillic label on the ground. The banner of the exhibition Art and Revolution—also designed by Bachman—appears behind them. With the exhibition in the background, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Great October Revolution by presenting the first two decades of the Russian-Soviet avant-garde (1910-1932), the particular relationship the artists of the time had with this legacy becomes clear. Their works show an interest in Constructivism, but at the same time, they approach it in a deconstructive manner. In the 1980s, characterized by political apathy, they drew attention to nothing but ‘the falling apart and the historic failures of the one-time beauty and one-time idealism’ of the revolutionary trend.
Cover image: Dress by Katya Filippova from the end of the 1980s. Photo: V. Yeitmiyev and V. Kostichev, 1992
 Djurdja Bartlett, Fashion East. The Spectre that Hounted Socialism (London: MIT Press, 2010), 40.
 David Bowie told me to move to New York, interview by Andrea Soós with Claudia Skoda, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 52.
 Jan Kromschröder, Whores and Mata Haris, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 46.
 Misha Buster, Alternative Fashion Before Glossies 1985-1995 (Moscow: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, 2011), 44.
 Misha Buster, Perestroyka mody (Perestroika Fashion) (Moscow: RIP Holding, 2018)
 Arthur Danto, CocaCola Bottle, in The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy, and the Ends of Taste (Psychology Press, 1988), 177-178.
 Éva Forgács: Kelet-Európa a divat (Eastern Europe in Vogue), in Ez most a divat (This is in Fashion) (Budapest: Gondolat, 1981), 124-140.
 David Bowie told me to move to New York, interview by Andrea Soós with Claudia Skoda, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 50-55.
 List of participants: Tom Adams, Marc Audibet, Rudi Gernreich, Yoshiki Hishinuma, Tamás Király, Francis Montesions, Claudia Skoda, Vivienne Westwood
 Gyula Muskovics, ‘What Is Not New in the New East? Post-Soviet Fashion and the 1980s’, Artportal, 13 October, 2019, https://artportal.hu/magazin/what-is-not-new-in-the-new-east-post-soviet-fashion-and-the-1980s/.
 Kalinina Ekaterina, Fashionable Irony and Stiob: The Use of Soviet Heritage in Russian Fashion Design and Soviet Subcultures, in Niklas Bernsand—Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Cultural and Political Imaginaries in Putin’s Russia(Leiden: Brill, 2018), 194.
 Artemy Troitsky, From Stalin to Style In, in Tusovka. Who’s Who in the New Soviet Rock Cultur (London: Omniubus Press, 1990), 92.
 Boris Groys, Privatizations/Psychologizations (1995), in Joseph Bakstein—Ekaterina Degot— Boris Groy, Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s, London: Haunch of Version, 2010), 261.
 David Bowie told me to move to New York, interview by Andrea Soós with Claudia Skoda, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 50-55.
 Andrea Soós, Eastern Europe In Vogue, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 8-14.
 David Crowley, Tamás Király’s Immoderate Fashion, in Muskovics—Soós, Tamás Király 80s, 63.
Cover photo: Sergey Borisov’s photo, 1987 (Source: birdinflight.com)