Fashion occupied a curious place in the Soviet Union from the Revolution of 1917 and until the perestroika in 1995. From the Communist Party’s point of view, fashion did not exist. There were things much more urgent and important for a real communist worker than the length of skirts and shape of shoes. As a result, the textile industry had lagged behind and there was not much clothing to choose from in the shops. Russian women often made their own clothes and had to be contented with dress-making manuals.
The first Soviet catwalks appeared in Russia after the death of Stalin in 1953. They exhibited clothes produced by the only Modelling house in the Soviet Union, the All-Union Fashion House.
As modelling schools did not exist, models were invited to catwalks by friends who knew someone in the industry. Many of these women, often in their 20s or 30s, had completed higher education. They were architects, painters, artists, engineers. Not only they were labelled as “workers” on their CV, but the highly stereotyped Soviet society looked down on their work. The job was not prestigious. In the mind of the general public it was equal to prostitution. The average model’s salary was 76 roubles per month, 20 roubles below average.
The Brezhnev policy of the 1960s brought about a few changes. The country remained closed but some Russian sportsmen, artists and scientists could now go abroad and represent Russia. Fashion also became an important ideological tool.
Models started to participate in the Western catwalks to represent Russian fashion. Those who travelled abroad were carefully selected by the KGB and had to follow a strict code of behaviour during their trips. The girls could go out only in groups, never alone, never at night, never seen in the restaurants, coffee shops or in public with men.
The Soviet-made designs and advertisements destined for the West showed elegantly dressed men and women who also advertised Soviet champagne and the latest Lada (a Russian car, known as RIVA in the UK).