Book Review & Releated Event for “FashionEast: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism”

Today I am pleased to bring you an exciting double hit on Socialist Fashion – first the author’s lecture by Djurdja Bartlett will take place Feb. 4 at F.I.T. and second, a  book review by Worn Through’s own, Katherine Lapelosa. Lapelosa is an independent scholar interested in connecting fashion and culture in an anthropological sense. Her research includes Communist and post-Communist fashion cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, and studies connecting feminism, gender and dress.

1. Lecture and Book Signing with author Djurdja Bartlett:

February 4, 6 pm, Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC), Fred P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center, first floor (Reservations are required, register here)

2. FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted SocialismBy Djurdja Bartlett The MIT Press (October 31, 2010) Review by Katherine Lapelosa

From a personal standpoint, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read Djurdja Bartlett’s first book, FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism.  Bartlett has been very influential in my research and is one of the only scholars out there who has studied the subject of fashion under Communism and Socialism.  Although her primary focus is on 20th century Russian fashion, her work also spans that of a diverse group of former communist countries.  FASHIONEAST scratches the surface of what is sure to become a hot-topic in fashion studies.

Liubov’ Popova, Design for a shop window, 1924. (pg 23) Via New York Times

Overall, FASHIONEAST is exactly what has been lacking as far as publications on Communist fashion are concerned.  Bartlett’s work is thorough and all-encompassing, providing an in-depth introduction of fashion under Communism in Europe.  She does well to correlate how fashion was, in many cases, affected by the State – for example, much of the clothing industry was controlled by the Soviet government.  Collectivized factories mass-produced garments with designs and materials chosen by government officials, who oftentimes had no prior experience in clothing manufacture. “Though promising fabulous dresses, the regime could still not provide even average clothes in the shops…Bureaucratic over centralization contributed to the failure of the Soviet clothing industry.”[i]

All-Union House of Prototypes (ODMO), dress design, Zhumal mod, Moscow (1954, no. 4) (pg 96) Via New York Times

Bartlett’s first chapter begins with Russian fashion in the 1920s, when Communism in Russia first developed nation-wide.  Each chapter from there goes through various and unique themes in Communist fashion history, and her research is not limited to Russia. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia are also discussed in-depth, as a reminder of Soviet Russia’s influence on other parts of Eastern Europe.  Scholars seeking to locate non-Russian aspects of Communist fashion will benefit from Bartlett’s inclusion of these satellite countries.

Previous reviews of FASHIONEAST have summarized the work with one word – “surprise.”[ii] Western society has dominated the pages of fashion history for hundreds of years; it most definitely is surprising to discover that fashion existed under Communism at all.  Bartlett includes detailed experiences and reactions of major couturiers who traversed into Soviet Russia.  Indeed, Eastern European citizens were inspired by major designers such as Elsa Schiappirelli and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, but readers will find that feeling was mutual.  The 1935 exhibition of the Moscow Dom modelei fascinated Western socialites such as Ada Chesterton, who wrote that “The whole place reeked of Paris.  And remembering Moscow’s longish skirts and dull tones, I was not prepared for the exotic creations shown off by extremely attractive work girls.”[iii]

Hand-Knitted Chanel-style suits, Zena a moda, Prague (1971, No. 8 ) (Pg 250) Via New York Times

I especially enjoyed Barlett’s later chapters that dealt with the decline of Socialist fashion and the impact of Western goods on the black market.  Bartlett truly captures the importance and influence of fashion in the lives of Socialist citizens – jeans, beauty products and other material trends were highly coveted commodities.  People across Eastern Europe idolized them to the point that high percentages of their already low incomes went towards purchasing black market goods.  “I have never felt any guilt about my job,” Bartlett cites a former black market dealer and his emotional ties to this otherwise shady business.  “People need me.”[iv] This section is also particularly appealing because of Bartlett’s details on “self-fashion” under Communism.  Sewing and magazine patterns became the norm for many Socialist women, who attempted to copy the fashions of the West with cheap Soviet materials.[v] I’ve talked to many Czechs who cherished their paper patterns and have proved this reality to me.

FASHIONEAST is by far, the best source on the market concerning Communist fashion.  One fault I encountered however, was a severe lack of context.  Indeed, Bartlett does her best to condense more than 60 years of complicated fashion theory and history spanning several unique countries.  But although FASHIONEAST is thorough and engaging, it is sometimes difficult to understand how Barlett’s research findings fit into history at the time.  Names appear with very little background information, and foreign words are used throughout the book, sometimes with only one line dedicated to their meaning.  Communist political and economic history is only sprinkled throughout the text, making it difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the stifling government’s impact on its citizens and the rest of the world.  If one was not familiar with these topics at all, FASHIONEAST could be a challenging read.

Bartlett is lucky to have broken ground with a topic that has been in the dark for so long.   However, as this publication touches on themes that have been so under-researched, the information provided can feel a bit overwhelming at times. It is my sincere hope that dress enthusiasts use FASHIONEAST as a “jumping-off” point for their own research on Communist fashion, so it can be better understood and taken more seriously by other disciplines.


Ayoub, Nina C. “Communist Chic; and 10 Super-Hot ‘Cosmo’ Secrets!The Chronicle of Higher Education (2010).

Bartlett, Djurdja “Communist Dress”, entry in: Steele, V. et al (eds.) Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. pp 286-289

_________.   “Let Them Wear Beige: The Petit-bourgeois World of Official Socialist Dress”.  Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2006. N 2: 127-164.

_________.   “Soviet Fashion Magazines”, entry in: Evans-Romaine, K., H. Goscilo and T. Smorodinskaya (eds.) Encyclopedia of Contemporary Russian Culture, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2006.

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee.  Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 2007

Fehérváry, Krisztina. “Goods and States: The Political Logic of State-Socialist Material Culture”. Comparative Studies in Society and History.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009 Vol. 51:02, 426.

Heyman, Stephen. “Comrade, That Suit is So ChanelFashion and Design – T Magazine Blog – 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.

Hlaváčková, Konstantina.  Flowers in the Dustbin: Society and Fashion in Czechoslovakia in the Seventies.  Prague: Museum of Applied Arts in Prague, 2007.

Reid, Susan E., and David Crowley, eds. Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe. New York: Berg, 2000.

Schwartz, Shalom H. And Anat Bardi.  “Influences of Adaptation to Communist Rule on Value Priorities in Eastern Europe”.  Political Psychology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.  Vol. 18 N 2.

Sredl, Katherine.  “Consumption and Class During and After State Socialism”, entry in: Belk, Russel W. and John F. Sherry, Consumer Culture Theory: Research in Consumer Behavior. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 2007.  Vol 11.

Stitziel, Judd. Fashioning Socialism: Clothing, Politics and Consumer Culture in East Germany. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

[i] Bartlett, Djurdja. FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2010) 84.


[ii] Heyman, Stephen., “Comrade, That Suit is So Chanel,” The New York Times Style Magazine 9 Dec. 2010.

[iii] Bartlett, Djurdja. FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2010) 76.

[iv] Bartlett, 268.

[v] Bartlett, 251.

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  • Tove Hermanson February 08, 2011 11.25 pm

    Kat, you’ve summed up precisely what I felt about Ms. Bartlett’s lecture (haven’t read the book yet)! SUCH and interesting– and, as you’ve pointed out, under-researched– topic, SO much information to synthesize… and yet, I too left the lecture hall still curious about how current events affected the industry developments she spoke of, which I imagined would help explain *why* fashion changed in the ways that it did under Communist / Socialist rule.

  • Kat February 10, 2011 11.01 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the lecture! You can totally borrow my copy 🙂 I think it was hard for Djurdja to pull together the whole of her research in a 30 minute lecture. If she had included other aspects of Communist history, she would have had very little time to discuss the topic at all. Like I said, this topic is so new that it can be difficult to make it all-encompassing without being overwhelming. I would recommend future readers at least Wikipedia Russian Communist history before reading this work so they can become a bit more familiar with context and just enjoy the fashion history Djurdja provides.

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