Styled in his­tory

Para­chute jack­ets and bandage skirts spelt fash­ion in com­mu­nist Poland.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By Anna Maria Jakubek

AN el­e­gant for­mer ho­tel em­ployee re­mem­bers dye­ing gauze ban­dages and turn­ing them into ruf­fled skirts to re­main fash­ion­able de­spite chronic short­ages in com­mu­nist- era Poland.

“It was a ma­jor chal­lenge; to make some­thing that was im­pos­si­ble to get your hands on oth­er­wise,” re­called Iwona Koczwan­ska who groaned when asked her age.

“We had to be cre­ative. I re­mem­ber once sewing my­self a lovely sum­mer dress out of a du­vet cover,” she said at the “FASH­ION­able in Com­mu­nist Poland” ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Krakow.

Dressed in a leop­ard- print hat, beige turtle­neck and long brown skirt with tas­sels, Koczwan­ska rem­i­nisced while watch­ing old fash­ion reels pro­jected onto a gallery wall.

“Look how drab the women are. That’s how it was. Mostly drab women. All alike, in brown, navy blue, grey, grey, grey,” she said of footage that showed women queue­ing be­fore empty shelves at a shop.

In­ven­tive­ness was a must for look­ing good in Poland’s com­mu­nist era – from 1944 to 1989 – when its peo­ple faced the lim­i­ta­tions of a planned econ­omy.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion is largely about a time when to par­tic­i­pate in fash­ion, cul­tural cap­i­tal mat­tered more than fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal,” said Mal­go­rzata Mozdzyn­ska- Na­wotka, one of the cu­ra­tors who had been mulling the idea for this ex­hibit for years.

Fash­ion un­der com­mu­nism re­flected the im­pact of the sys­tem on so­cial re­al­ity – show­ing the re­source­ful­ness of Poles now on dis­play in Krakow.

In the im­me­di­ate post- World War II pe­riod, with the econ­omy in ru­ins and pri­va­tion ev­ery­where, it was the reign of re­cy­cled fash­ion.

Ex­am­ples in the ex­hi­bi­tion in­clude a Girl Scout jacket made out of a para­chute and a blouse sewn out of one of the silk maps car­ried by World War II air­men for when they were shot down over en­emy ter­ri­tory.

By the time Chris­tian Dior’s cinched, full- skirted New Look de­buted in the West in 1947, the situation in Soviet- con­trolled Poland had wors­ened.

“The Stal­in­ist pe­riod was a pe­riod of re­pres­sion, a pe­riod when com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy was heav­ily en­forced, when there

was cen­sor­ship and no shows of sym­pa­thy with the West were al­lowed,” co- cu­ra­tor Joanna Regina Kowal­ska said.

The regime high­lighted the val­ues of a worker or peas­ant, stress­ing that daily wear should be com­fort­able and prac­ti­cal. As­pir­ing to a higher ech­e­lon was a no- no.

Dior’s “New Look” still man­aged to seep into Pol­ish fash­ion, though toned down.

The ex­ag­ger­ated lines were soft­ened in the copy- cat items be­cause Poles had lit­tle ac­cess to the right ma­te­ri­als or nec­es­sary tools to give a skirt its proper form.

The con­fronta­tion be­tween the de­sired and the fea­si­ble un­der com­mu­nism could be seen in the pop­u­lar mid- 1960s rain­coat made of a polyamide fab­ric called or­tal­ion.

“The de­sire was for an Ital­ian or­tal­ion coat, which hung nicely and didn’t rus­tle. But the avail­able al­ter­na­tive was a Pol­ish or­tal­ion coat, which was a lot stiffer and gave off a very dis­tinc­tive sound,” said Mozdzyn­ska- Na­wotka.

“The West­ern orig­i­nals were so sought af­ter that there were these gangs in Poland who would switch out the orig­i­nals for coats of do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion at restau­rants.”

This scam even in­spired the 1968 short com­edy Or­tal­ionowy Dzi­adek or Or­tal­ion

Grandpa about a charm­ing old man who sup­ple­ments his pen­sion by swap­ping out coats only to get caught by the in­trepid mili­tia.

A pop­u­lar accessory at the time was the mesh bag, nick­named Anuzka for the phrase in Pol­ish that means “What if I buy some­thing“?

“Even an el­e­gantly dressed woman could fit a mesh bag in her purse, so if a store hap­pened to get mer­chan­dise that day, you could queue up and you were ready,” said Kowal­ska.

“Which is typ­i­cal of the com­mu­nist era. You didn’t go out to buy any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, you just went to the stores. And what­ever they had, you bought it.”

Store shelves were lit­er­ally bare by the 1980s, when Poland was in deep po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic cri­sis and a pair of West­ern jeans could cost an en­tire month’s salary.

This brought back the kind of DIY cre­ativ­ity that saw Poles dye cot­ton di­a­pers and turn them into colour­ful skirts or make ten­nis wrist­bands out of sock cuffs.

Fash­ion un­der com­mu­nism was also an out­let for blow­ing off steam, said Kaz­imierz Bu­jak, a 66- year- old univer­sity lec­turer vis­it­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion, which moves to the Na­tional Mu­seum in Wro­claw in May.

“At the very be­gin­ning, in the 1950s and 60s, the regime tried to gain some con­trol over how peo­ple dressed, but then fash­ion be­came a kind of safety valve,” he said.

It was also a sta­tus symbol, whereas today he says what mat­ters more is the car you drive or the house you own.

“Soon it’ll be like it is in the US,” said Bu­jak.

“Who do you find at stores for mil­lion­aires on Fifth Av­enue but a guy in a stretched out T- shirt, dis­tressed jeans and tat­tered sneak­ers, right?

“He has so much money he no longer needs to show he’s bet­ter than oth­ers... we’re head­ing in that di­rec­tion.” – AFP

The FASh­ION­able in Com­mu­nist Poland ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum in Krakow presents Pol­ish fash­ion in the time of com­mu­nism.

Photos: BAr­TOSZ SIEDLIK/ AFP

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