Socialist regimes always had a stormy and hostile relationship with fashion. The early Bolsheviks rejected even the word “fashion”, and insisted on functional and undecorated clothing, and the post-war East European socialist regimes initially embraced that ideology and officially rejected western fashion. A new ideological turn took place after Khrushchev affirmed his rule in 1956, and attacked excessive Stalinist aesthetics. Official attitudes towards western fashion mellowed in both Russia and East European socialist countries. But with neither tradition nor market, and aspiring to control fashion changes inside their centralized fashion systems, the socialist regimes could neither keep up with nor embrace western fashion trends. In this paper I offer an interpretation of that encounter between socialism and western fashion, which occurred between 1958 and 1968. It resulted in the sartorial phenomenon that I call “official socialist dress” which was connected to the creation of a new socialist middle class by the socialist regimes. In practice, however, official socialist dress had little to do with everyday reality. Queues, shortages and poor quality supply in the shops continued, confirming in differing degrees the socialist regimes' domination of both the time and the consumption of their citizens. Official socialist dress was an ideological construct, a discourse channeled through the state-owned media. The aesthetics of official socialist dress was informed by simple and moderate lines. I call that conventional style “socialist good taste”. By advocating modesty, and suggesting creativity within standardization, socialist good taste served the new stylistic synthesis of proletarian asceticism and petit bourgeois prettiness. While official socialist dress and socialist good taste eased the introduction of western fashion into the socialist systems, they were at the same time fatal factors that arrested the development of a genuine socialist fashion in the decades to follow. All the distortions that characterized socialist fashion were already transparent in the conservative aesthetics of official socialist dress from the end of the 1950s: an ontological anxiety about the fluidity of time, a pathological fear of change, the hierarchical levels of decision making in planned economies, the negligence of the market, the confused relationship towards western fashion, cultural autarky, and a lack of experience informed by an earlier ideological rejection of fashion's history.
As the first comparative and historical analysis of socialist dress codes, the paper is based on in-depth field research of a variety of documentary sources including women’s magazines, art journals, picture weeklies, political dailies and satirical magazines. The analysis crosses the boundaries between different disciplines, drawing on ideas from fashion studies, cultural anthropology, critical theory, gender studies, political science and studies on the everyday in socialism. Embedded in this broad theoretical foundation, the paper analyses the concepts of time, class, taste and gender in socialism in relation to dress. The investigation of the ideologised uses of these catagories facilitates a comparison of Western fashions with their socialist counterparts. By analysing dress practices which were informed by different ideological and organisational principles, the paper broadens the field of fashion studies that had previously been exclusively organised around Western fashion and its practices.