The Soviets Who Wanted Fashion for All

In the years after the revolution, Russian designers rethought style. Among them was Varvara Stepanova, who aimed to take fashion out of the realm of luxury and make it accessible to all.

Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova, photographed by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924.

In the autumn of 1923, as Vladimir Lenin shadowed the newly formed Soviet Union from his deathbed, one of Moscow’s largest factories became the domain of two artists determined to seize style for the people.

The experiment had a trace of desperation. After Russia’s imperial regime collapsed at the climax of World War I, its political factions started fighting each other instead, until the Red Army finally defeated an unlovely collection of monarchists, landowners, and generals auditioning for Supreme Leader. Millions of Russians were killed or starved; industrial output fell to a fraction of its prewar level.

Few things could still go wrong at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory, to use its postrevolutionary title. But the facility’s director did not invite Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, a wealthy painter and a working-class one, to come there shrugging haplessly. He believed in their movement, which argued that Soviet artists had to reimagine the commodities of everyday life — to collectivize the economy of desire. The workers deserved both bread and satin.

The working-class Russian painter and fashion designer Varvara Stepanova with her husband, the avant-gardist Alexander Rodchenko, in 1920. (TASS via Getty Images)

“I wanted to produce actual objects,” Stepanova told an interviewer from the theatre journal Zrelishcha, “a total material environment in which the living human material was to act.” Many of her fellow constructivists came to that revelation by the same path, floating around Moscow’s avant-garde in the late 1910s, playing with abstraction. Now they wanted to “destroy the sacred value” of the individual artwork.

Varvara Stepanova’s Figure, 1921.

Constructivists exalted posters, photomontages, and the undulating light of cinema, all mass-produced things. In her book Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Christina Kiaer writes: “Constructivist aesthetics was an attempt to enrich the body of the socialist subject through the most appropriate forms of modern objects — to have industrial technology amplify sensory experience, rather than sedate or lull it, as it did under capitalism . . . the deadening of the senses that was the body’s natural response to the sensory shock of the factory, the railroad, the metropolis.”

Unlike those of her older friend Popova, Stepanova’s paintings were coolly received: the Russian-French modernist artist Marc Chagall had described her only gallery show, at Moscow’s 1920 state exhibition, as “unbalanced” and “ungovernable.” Seeing one of those canvases at New York’s Museum of Modern Art years ago, I loved the movement it suggested with a few bent lines, how colors churned inside the dancing figure’s form. Despite critical indifference towards Stepanova’s painting, she was renowned for the costumes she contributed to experimental plays — she thought every profession should have its own customized uniform, a pageant of labor.

That dream went unfulfilled, but the outfits she did make turned function into spectacle. Stepanova’s clothes emphasized light material and a comfortable cut, while her fabrics latticed shapes across each other in radiant geometry. Factory management rejected one for being “like a metro,” with the zoetrope effect of a subway tunnel passing beyond the eye.

In the Long Shadow of Luxury

Luxury can never stand aloof from history, especially when looking dated is a national anxiety. Finding his tsardom far too tacky, and coveting a more modern empire, Peter the Great decreed in 1701 that all Muscovites would now wear German dress; anyone caught selling traditional styles faced “dreadful punishment,” an ominous promise given that Peter also tortured his own son to death.

Christine Ruane’s 2009 book, The Empire’s New Clothes, records how fashion dictated Russian policy throughout this imperial period: the government initially allowed free trade in foreign clothes, hoping to encourage them, but later imposed huge tariffs trying to support domestic industry. Like the rest of the press, would-be Vogues received only suspicion; censors once declared a short story about the French Revolution “unsuitable” for such titles.

Stepanova’s designs for unisex sports kit, 1923.

As the Romanov monarchy wobbled in 1905, hundreds of salesclerks at ready-to-wear boutiques marched through central Moscow, down the streets rebels would barricade only months later. The Empire’s New Clothes notes that garment workers often represented “the radical core” of leftist groups: apprenticeships made the city intimate to them, and when their masters sent them out with a delivery, they confronted the bourgeoisie inside its own houses.

One labor action by the cutters and stitchers of St Petersburg grew into a wider strike, which the state tried to suppress by exiling union leaders. “Perhaps in retaliation,” Ruane writes, “thieves broke into the Viennese Chic clothing store. . . . They stole thousands of rubles-worth of goods and destroyed the merchandise that they left behind.’ Picture workers posing in stolen furs, the princes and countesses of an inverse aristocracy.

Many Russian conservatives saw fashion itself as moral depravity because it gave women license. Christine Ruane quotes from Epidemic Insanity: Toward the Overthrow of the Yoke of Fashion, a 1914 text by the right-wing journalist Iulii Elets:

This book about the most burning and painful question in modern social and family life appears as a sincere howl of despair about how women disfigure themselves with ugly and absurd clothes, how they extort countless sums of money, how debauchery and disintegration are introduced into the family by constant yearnings for the newest fashionable nonsense, how colorful rags cultivate emptiness in women’s minds and hearts, how many crimes are committed because of the mindless laws of fashion, and how many people perish because of them!

Socialism, But Make It Fashion

Imperial opulence went out of style with the revolution, but the question remained: What replaces each yearned-for blouse or radio after the market is gone? Artists like Stepanova broke away from the more ascetic communists to propose a new kind of materialism. She would make things that responded to life around them — fellow travelers, not hoarded baubles. Socialism, but make it fashion.

Stepanova poses in clothes she designed, 1923.

“The light from the East is not only the liberation of workers,” Stepanova’s friend Alexander Rodchenko wrote. “The light from the East is in the new relation to the person, to woman, to things. Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades, and not these mournful slaves.”

Constructivists had a foreign ally in the critic Walter Benjamin, who believed that mass culture contained revolutionary potential; he beautifully described such revelations as “that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” Benjamin granted fashion an almost mystical power:

Each season brings, in its newest creations, various secret signals of things to come. Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions. Here, surely, lies the greatest charm of fashion, but also the difficulty of making the charming fruitful.

Inside the unfinished Arcades Project, Benjamin’s literary-historical-Marxist collage about hanging out at the mall, one comes across this fragment: “The eternal is, in any case, far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea.” The cycle of style can collapse history into the immediate moment.

An example of Stepanova’s textile designs.

By obscuring the domination that drives it, capitalism hides those collisions between past and present, reducing the prettiest ornament to a rigid corpse. It ruptures objects from their social context, from the sensual world. We liberate them briefly, like the dreamer unclaimed by gravity: friends passing around a cigarette lighter, lovers sharing clothes. Most of my favorite outfits — a Commes des Garçons sweater covered in black flowers, a Haider Ackermann jacket the color of gold-flecked blood — came second-hand, and I often wonder about the people who designed them, sewed them, wore them.

The vast wealth and ecological ruin piled up by fast-fashion chains depend on obscured, exhausting labor: these companies can only transform their inventory so rapidly and profitably because of the workers they exploit. The sociologist Madison Van Oort once described working at such a store, unable to recognize the shifting layout: “I would wander in circles around my section, trying incessantly to find a blouse I knew I had seen just moments before.” Capitalism’s nightmare logic strands the clerk inside her own boutique.

Even the constructivists found their country hesitant to escape that system entirely; during the 1920s, the Soviet Union encouraged limited private enterprise out of economic desperation, allowing financiers to make huge amounts of money. The Bolshevik leadership gave all these former painters bemused tolerance, but little funding. (“Tastes differ,” Lenin once told a group of avant-garde artists. “I am an old man.”)

The Constructivist architect Vladimir Tatlin proposed his Monument to the Third International, a double helix meant to broadcast all forms of media, revolving endlessly around itself. It never became more than a scale model, and even that famously had to use wood. Most of the ideas his movement devised shared the same fate, as blueprints and prototypes. From the wreckage, constructivists imagined vast engines, landscapes of glass and steel, manifestos beamed across the sky: a fantasy of modernity. When they wore a flapper dress designed by Popova or Stepanova, ordinary people could touch it.

The Results of the First Five-Year Plan, a photomontage by Stepanova, 1932.

It’s tempting to think of that world as a paradise denied, but it would also be a political betrayal. Constructivists wanted to address the present, even while defying it. They were the most practical of utopians: after his unbuilt tower, Vladimir Tatlin set about constructing a better stove. “Today’s dress must be seen in action,” Stepanova wrote. “Beyond this there is no dress, just as the machine cannot be conceived outside the work it is supposed to be doing.”

She also argued that women’s emancipation was made visible through fashion. With their androgynous shape, their mesmeric grills and spirals, Stepanova’s clothes mutinied against convention. (It seems unfair that she never got to meet Rick Owens.) No slouch there, Popova once ran off a pattern covered in chic little hammers and sickles. According to the critic Iakov Tugendkhol’d, they “breached the Bastille of factory conservatism.”

A Slice of Time

Stepanova with compass and cigarette.

The experiment at the First State Cotton-Printing Factory only lasted for a year or two. Though Popova and Stepanova hoped to join the industrial process, they couldn’t get any time in the research laboratory; factory management was still reluctant to fully accept two outsiders. But their designs became popular, seen all over Moscow and far beyond.

Stricken by scarlet fever in 1924, a disease that had already killed her child, Popova said that she never felt more satisfied as an artist than she did seeing a peasant or worker buy her patterns. In Imagine No Possessions, Kiaer tries to summarize Stepanova’s socialist prophecy: “Clothes would fall out of use, not because they start to look funny when the market generates novel fashions, but because the conditions of byt [everyday life, particularly in the sense of banal drudgery] have changed, necessitating new forms of clothing.” By that measure, she managed to stitch the lightning.

The best-known photograph of Stepanova shows her poised with a compass, cigarette between her lips. The constructivists liked to mock their own heroic image, but here the factory council did it for her: they thought it was hilarious that an artist needed such tools to render a line, not realizing that Stepanova wanted to draw unnaturally. A different photo captivates me: Stepanova smoking yet another cigarette, arm crooked behind her head, half-smiling at the camera. It was taken by her lover; you can tell. The picture is a hundred years old, but she could be leaning against the hour that just passed.

“Fashion accessibly offers a set of the predominant lines and forms of a given slice of time,” Stepanova once wrote, “the outer signs of an epoch. It never repeats the forms it has already found.” Her own clothes are lost to memory, along with the constructivist utopia she hoped to decorate, but we can use them as a wormhole, entering history at new angles. A life of permanent apocalypse, scrabbling for purchase inside the abyss — all this was never inevitable. What does glamour look like without empire to hoard it? Which uniforms will people wear after class has been abolished? Dimly we may recognize the finery of a world yet to come.