Guest contributor Dominika Łukoszek is a PhD graduate from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and freelance researcher. She is interested in fashion theory, fashion exhibitions and fashion history during the socialist period in Poland. Since February 2011, she has been also running a blog on fashion – Modologia (‘fashionology’).
Vintage mania has many faces. In Poland it is the face of nostalgia for designs of the 1950s and 1960s – furniture, ceramics and, last but not least, clothing. It was only a matter of time then before museum curators reached for this topic. The National Museum in Kraków, together with the National Museum in Wrocław have combined their efforts and in December 2015 opened the exhibition Modna i już! Moda w PRL-u (‘FASHIONable in Communist Poland in Kraków’), which ran from 19th December 2015 – 17th April 2016.
The leaflet for the event stated that the exhibition “shows how difficult and important Polish women’s pursuit of fashion in communist Poland was. It was often a form of escapism from the drab reality of life. Despite difficulties in procuring fashionable items, women were determined to look attractive and follow fashion, and to the dismay of the authorities looked up to the West for inspiration.” At the very entrance of the exhibition hall, there is also a quote from Janina Ipohorska, a co-editor of Przekrój – a popular magazine that was created in 1945 and presented innovations from the West to its Polish readers. Ipohorska claimed that “Fashion is an discipline of art in which everybody can be an artist”, which seems to be a credo for Polish women living in a socialist reality, who had to be creative to follow western fashions when the shops did not offer much. Joanna Kowalska and Małgorzata Możdżyńska-Nowotka, the curators of the exhibition, claim that “being fashionable gave the sense of belonging to the free world” to Polish women, and hope that the clothing from the period of the People’s Republic of Poland presented in the exhibition would become “a source of inspiration for modern women.”
The exhibition consists of several parts, concentrating on different aspects of fashion. The first aspect refers to the historical periods: After the Second World War, the Battle for the New Look (1947-1956), the Pleasures of the ‘small stabilisation’ (1956-1970), Prosperity on credit (1970-1980) and Fashion against reality (1980-1989). These periods reflect the crucial breakthrough moments in Polish history. The second aspect in the exhibition refers to diverse topics like Women of Poland – citizens of the world, Bridal Fashion in PRL or Maryla Rodowicz – icon of style. The third aspect is connected with famous Polish fashion designers, Barbara Hoff and Grażyna Hase, and the most desirable and luxury fashion brand Moda Polska (Polish Fashion). The exhibition catalogue is in the form of a fashion magazine, where clothing from the socialist period in Poland is illustrated by objects from the exhibition, as well as being presented in contemporary stylizations, using modern accessories.
Polish publications during the time portrayed the fashion system in socialist Poland as a struggle against the political system (as government officials disapproved of the copying of Western fashions) and a struggle against the reality of the shortage of desirable materials and fashionable, mass produced clothes. The exhibition curators follow this pattern, and show that during this period achieving a fashionable look was possible thanks to dressmakers, to Western charity organizations (e.g. UNRRA) that sent clothing, or from relatives living abroad. Another way of achieving a fashionable look was by finding Western clothes or textiles at bazaars with used goods, or to imitate the stylish looks published in magazines that played the role of a ‘window on the West’.
However, Socialist Poland also had its own star-designers. The designers honored in this exhibition were influential for different reasons: Barbara Hoff was (and still is) considered a ‘fashion dictator’ of that period. She was a fashion journalist from 1954 until 2002 for the weekly magazine Przekrój, and she also designed her own collections. Her collections were published in Przekrój and, later, she also created her own brand, Hoffland, which was unique in the countries under the influence of the USSR. It was extraordinary at that time for an individual to create collections under her own name and not for a state company.
Grażyna Hase, who started her career as a model for Przekrój, quickly became renowned for her fashion collections when, in 1967, she designed the Cossack Look collection to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution (1917). She worked as a fashion designer for Cora, a Polish clothing manufacturer producing garments mostly for export. She also founded her own art gallery in Warsaw, where she presented her designs and art by Polish artists.
Among Moda Polska’s designers, two were particularly famous: its first director, Jadwiga Grabowska, and its artistic director, Jerzy Antkowiak, who took over the leading role when Grabowska retired in 1968. Both very charismatic and passionate about fashion, they left an imprint on Polish fashion history by creating the most luxurious fashion brand for Polish customers. For the countries under the influence of the USSR, Moda Polska was an unusual institution that sought to prove that a socialist country could also have its own fashion. State clothing manufacturers produced clothing to meet norms of production and to realize production plans, and not to create clothing according to the latest trends. Thus, the role of these individuals in promoting Western fashion was twofold: to fight the unifying Soviet aesthetic, embodied by the image of a working woman sitting on a tractor, and to fight the ugliness, flatness and low quality of many of the Polish garments. Even if the clothes designed by Hoff, Hase or Antkowiak were not available in every Polish city, they created an ideal, an original to be copied, they encouraged others to experiment with their wardrobe and with ways of expressing individuality. These elements constituted their legend, and today they remind us about their activities in the years of shortages and servitude.
The part of the exhibition devoted to Moda Polska is important, as it mentions many designers who worked toward the success of the company but are almost entirely absent from the publications on its history. Including Kalina Paroll, Magda Ignar, Krystyna Wasylkowska, Irena Biegańska or Krystyna Dziak, and presenting their works on an equal basis with the designs of Antkowiak, is a step forward in broadening our knowledge about this period. Presenting the works of Barbara Hoff and Grażyna Hase alongside this exemplifies the different positions of the designer: the luxury designer (Antkowiak), the mass designer (Hase) and the state designer with an individual touch (Hase). However, while commemorating the individual creators with their iconic designs, it seems that the curators decided to mostly present the glamorous face of the fashion system in socialist Poland.
Despite the common understanding of Poland as a country separated from Western Europe by the Iron Curtain, Polish people were not totally cut off from what was happening in the West. Due to an act signed between Poland and France in 1947, referring to intellectual cooperation, Polish designers were allowed to travel to Paris to see the latest fashion collections. When the 1960s came nothing stopped Polish women from including mini-skirts in their wardrobes. On the other hand, when the hippie movement was conquering the world, smart Polish designers offered folk collections that were often inspired by Polish traditional costumes, emphasizing their local, peasant origins, and omitting the rebellious background connected with hippie subculture (hippies in Poland were a peripheral phenomenon) which was unacceptable to the Polish government. The last decade of socialism was affected by martial law, introduced in 1981, and an economic crisis. This, in turn, was reflected in the development of unique garments that today would merit the label ‘art-to-wear,’ but in the Polish reality it was a necessity to be able to sew clothes at home and knit sweaters. The exhibition gives us wonderful examples of these creative forces as the exhibition contains garments such as a jacket made of parachute cloth (1945), as well as a homemade teenager’s outfit, consisting of a red blouse and colourful skirt (dated to the end of the 1940s – beginning of the 1950s). We can also see examples of no-name ordinary dresses that reflected the dominant trends, but in a less glamorous manner than the Dior-like dresses.
Last but not least, you will not see many of the mass produced garments that were actually worn by the majority of Polish people. Of course, such ordinary, everyday garments are difficult to find in private collections or in museum archives, as they were worn, made over and thrown away once they had no further value. This is not only a problem of this particular exhibition: in many fashion exhibitions, presenting the clothing from a particular designer comes down to showing to the public the well-known pieces of clothing, the ‘artistic’ dresses, or pieces valuable for their aesthetic value. Constructing an exhibition with the most beautiful outfits means creating an imaginary world of fashion in socialist Poland. Such an approach concentrates more on how the curators would like to this period to be remembered – which may be acceptable when it is clearly stated in the exhibition’s description – but which is questionable when the exhibition pretends to tell the story of fashion practices in the People’s Republic of Poland as a whole. If you did not know the history of Poland, you could leave the exhibition with a feeling that life during socialism was not so oppressive, that it was quite colourful and that there was freedom to create. You do not see the censorship, interrogations, surveillance, the Communist Party government and its decisions. You are also not informed about the period of Solidarity, and the moment when, on the 4th of June, 1989, “communism in Poland is finally over” – as the famous Polish actress Joanna Szczepkowska announced on public television (one might ask, what was she wearing when that happened? Was her clothing also a political statement, or not?). I mention the symbolic end of the People’s Republic of Poland on purpose here, as in the exhibition you can also see a few objects from the early 1990s (e.g. a golden dress designed by Jerzy Antkowiak in 1991) without any explanation why it is included in the exhibition.
It is also a pity that in the events accompanying the exhibition there were no academic talks or conferences that would have enabled them to further develop the discussion introduced by the exhibition concept. However, there were many other events that engaged the public, such as a talk by designer Grażyna Hase, which provided a rare chance to hear her story. Sewing workshops held by the exhibition also convey the idea of ‘creating something out of nothing,’ and lessons for schools about the period (1945-1989) showed that the programme was intended to spread not only a nostalgic effect but to promote knowledge of and involvement in our own past. This is a great outcome for this exhibition – bringing different generations together who get a chance to talk about the not so distant past. However sentimental it might sound, I hope that if a grandchild starts talking with their grandparents about the beautiful clothes shown at the exhibition, then they will hear about the life in the past that consisted of hunting for Western textiles, reading Przekrój and copying Moda Polska’s designs. It is just a pity that the curators did not accentuate the historical context more in the exhibition. I also believe that English descriptions are something that should definitely appear in the exhibition, as this is a rare chance to present such perspective on fashion history in Poland to a non-Polish speaking audience. The quote mentioned at the beginning, pinpointing that fashion is art, also leaves the audience without an answer. Unfortunately, it is referred to in none of the exhibition’s parts. Maybe the artistic garments from the 1980s are a hint towards a possible reply, however vague this might be.
To sum up, I see this exhibition as a first step in displaying fashion in socialist Poland. Like an iceberg what we’ve seen so far is just the tip. However, there is still a huge part of the iceberg that requires delving into. I believe that this exhibition will provoke a deeper discussion in several areas: displaying fashion in museums in Poland, returning to the basic question about the definition of fashion, and an expedition into the still undiscovered land of socialist fashion in Poland under the influence of the USSR (1944-1989).
The exhibition has recently travelled to the National Museum in Wrocław, Poland, and you can see it there until the 28th of August 2016.