History Stories

In post-revolutionary Russia, as the country’s thinkers attempted to work out a new way of life for citizens of the Soviet Union, a small number of artists grappled with a different problem: the clothes of the future. 

Soviet clothing, they reasoned, should be “rational,” practical and comfortable and a place where art and politics came together on the body. This meant garments that were blocky and structured, with an androgynous quality not unlike the flapper dresses making headway over in the Capitalist west. They were known as ‘prozodezhda,” a portmanteau of the Russian words for industrial (proizvodstvennaya) and clothing (odezhda), and intended to serve as the post-revolutionary uniform for decades to come. 

Artists in the Soviet Union looked towards Western fashion and saw unthinking fussiness and waste, with “luxury and privilege sewed into [the] seams” of garments, as one put it. In the Soviet Union, they declared, an entire repudiation of the fashion industry was necessary, from the shop window to the mannequin through to bespoke craft production. 

The enemy, after all, was profit. “The question of a rational dress could not be left to a fashion magazine which dictates to the masses the will of the capitalist manufacturers,” writer Sergei Tret’iakov explained in the radical Constructivist magazine Lef. 

Instead, they felt, clothing should be utilitarian and produced on grand industrial scale, with no emphasis on profiteering or market trends. Aesthetically, the focus was on action, with a modernist bent that prioritized movement and purity of form. And so Constructivist artists, who were often referred to as “artist-engineers,” set to solving these problems—though their abstract thinking usually led to work that was functionally impossible to replicate and altogether too conceptual to be of much practical use.

Prozodezhda began in the theater. Inspired by the overalls worn by factory workers in the late 19th century, in 1921, artists Liubov’ Popova and Varvara Stepanova began designing costumes with colorful geometric patterns that echoed the actors’ movements across the stage—running, crouching, jumping. They would printed in red and black onto cheap, mass-produced cotton. These decorations were not merely ornamental, Stepanova wrote in Lef, but instead communicated something important about the body and its ability to move: “Any decorative detail is abolished with the following slogan: the comfort and functionality of clothing must be linked to a specific productive function.”

To a modern eye, some of the designs from these theatrical experiments bear more than a passing resemblance to the flapper dresses that were growing popular in the West. They would have hated to admit it, but designs on both sides of the Soviet border were struggling with questions of modernity, writes fashion historian Djurdja Bartlett in her book FashionEast: “The Constructivists shared with their Western contemporaries an urge for change, a drive toward novelty and an appreciation of innovation.”

Artists Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, circa 1920.

Artists Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, circa 1920.

But while Western fashions of the 1920s attempted to encapsulate a fashion moment, Constructivist designers had their hearts set on something altogether more ambitious. Prozodezhda were intended to be the clothing not just of the present, but of the future—a kind of anti-fashion that approached timelessness.

Even their name suggests this political aim, taking its inspiration from the revolutionary motto of the Russian avant-garde: “V proizvodstvo!”, or “Into Production!” Eventually, they hoped, all design would be Constructivist, with the impractical art and design of yesteryear relegated to museums. While Popova and Stepanova concentrated on the reinvention of textiles, fellow Constructivists Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatin were furnishing proletarian kitchens with redesigned stoves and pots. In applied arts, the theory went, the masses could interact directly with concepts: What better way to communicate ideals to workers than through things they could hold, touch, wear and, above all, use?

Unfortunately, workers seldom got the opportunity to do so—and when they did, they didn’t always like the goods that were on offer. As a result of their costume designs, Stepanova and Popova were engaged as textile designers in Moscow’s First State Textile Print Factory in the late fall of 1923. In a sense, it was a canny hire: They’d become famous, even notorious, across the city for their artistic credentials and avant-garde theatrical designs. On arrival, they insisted on a hands-on approach to textile production and design, encompassing even being present in the laboratory that produced the dyes.

But though they saw the hire as an opportunity to propagate their views on design, they’d been brought in by the Factory to help boost sales, which necessitated some compromise. They struggled, therefore, to communicate the subtleties of their designs to management. Humiliatingly, their use of compasses and rulers, supposed to eliminate any trace of human handiwork in favor of industrial glory, was misinterpreted as an inability to draw. 

The public were used to flowers, not triangles, factory management said, and it was worried that they would not respond positively to these radical designs. On top of that, what little factory equipment on offer was out-of-date, and dyes and fabrics increasingly hard to come by. A few dozen fabrics were designed, produced and sold, but the experiment was not especially successful for either the factory or the designers.

Stepanova and Popova were highbrow thinkers, with a dream of dressing the socialist masses in puritanical silhouettes. But their ideal customers proved far from enthusiastic about such ascetic, radical garments, which downplayed their abilities to express themselves as individuals. In the end, the experiment failed and prozodezhda was relegated to the history books. They had proven impractical, unpopular and expensive to mass-produce: the literal opposite of everything the Constructivists had hoped to achieve. 

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