31 May Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 8: Idol of Imported Stuff. Lingerie in Soviet History
The Idol of Imported Stuff.
Outside school walls, the malicious influence of Western music and fashion on the Soviet culture and the society, in general, grew in geometrical proportion to the din that criticized the youth for their idolatry of the West.
That disorienting influence manifested itself in the craving for the depraved boogie-woogie, Charleston, rock-n-roll, and the evil jazz—“playing a saxophone is one step away from using a knife on somebody,” was the warning to the young’uns. Not to mention the adoption of hairstyle “Babette” copied from Brigitte Bardot’s movie Babette Goes to War. Not to mention Marilyn Monroe’s outfits in Some Like it Hot (Russian title Only Girls in Jazz) watched by 44 million people. Not to mention the brazen wearing of slacks by teenage girls in public, though no company stooped to allowing them at work. All of the above obviously played into the enemies’ hands.
The currency reform of 1961 resulted in worsened shortages on everything and exorbitant prices on imported goods. The dull, low-quality stuff churned out by the planned-to-death domestic economy sparked an indiscriminate fascination with products originated abroad, the farther west the better.
My family’s claim to fame was a set of dishes for six, complete with a tureen and four kinds of plates, made by the Czech Kahla Company. It took a convoluted blat scheme for Rakhil to acquire it, so we used it on my birthdays and extra-special occasions, always with repeated reminders that the dishes were Czech and therefore precious. (Six decades later, I discovered that the manufacturer was actually German).
Foreign Bait at Work.
Kiev, at the time the third largest city, was not at all provincial but Moscow, as befits the leading sheep of the flock, became a runway show for the new freer times. The lion share of the foreign tourists and students trickling in stayed in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev shared the rest.
Foreign clothes beggared the imagination of the youth. To them, any spiteful epithet, like bourgeois, idealess, or parasites, sounded just fine if earned by the purchase of a pair of jeans, narrow “pipe” pants, provocative makeup, or platform shoes. A counterculture of stilyagi (style-obsessed) sprung up, too widespread to be persecuted. The misguided whippersnappers paid no heed to warnings that the treacherous West simply baited them. In the spirit of tough love, authorized stilyagi-fighters walked around with large scissors and cut the too-narrow pants and the imported pantyhose.
Resourceful types called fartsovshchiki made the bait available, their illegal status of black marketeers cushioned by the reality that the upper crust clamored for anything with a foreign label as giddily as the lowly crust.
The word imported translated to avant-garde, with the capitalist origin on the top of the desirability pole, almost capitalist East Germany and Yugoslavia close second, the Eastern European allies and the still-remembering-capitalism Baltic republics in third place. Black suits from France flew off the shelves in a flash; as quickly they fell apart at the seams—these were burial suits.
The Soviet press had to admit occasional shortcomings and emphasized the need to improve the quality of consumer goods. These shortcomings, if left unattended, would bolster the fuss over pretty clothes and creature comforts used by the bourgeois savages to corrupt young communism-builders’ minds.
The fact that the humdrum Russian valenki inspired a Western designer attending a Soviet fashion show to create fancy boots for women caused acute embarrassment. The media wrung their hands over the failure of home-grown talent to identify a sure-fire trend staring them in the face. They lamented that the enemies got away, again, with appropriating something that rightfully belonged to the motherland.
No stores were privately owned in the Soviet Union; the pricing was centralized. The scarce and more expensive foreign-made goods theoretically were offered along with their domestic counterparts, with no blat necessary to obtain them. In reality, the staff set them aside for customers paying extra or owed favors. They went under the counter, a location safeguarded from the public like a bank vault. Thus, they were deficit.
When deficit did pop up—was “dumped,” in the Soviet vernacular (literal translation: thrown out)—the throngs in the streets reminded Rakhil of the throngs that had surrounded the cattle trains evacuating people from Kiev before the Nazi occupied the city. Queues formed in minutes and often on the strength of a wishful rumor. If you were fortunate to reach the goodies, you snapped up the maximum allowed, regardless of size, color, or need. A sane person would not ignore a queue, period.
The Moscow city government went as far as opening a department store aptly named Moskva (Moscow) that had no roomy counters holding deficit. Brightly lit and spacious, it sported friendly service, a café, even a beauty shop. The radio announced new arrivals, some of them imported – Yugoslavian boots and pantyhose, Polish makeup and 7-pack man’s underwear “Week” in 7 different colors, Bulgarian shampoo, Romanian shirts, East-German lingerie.
Soviet consumers did not need the media to reveal that other countries produced better clothes, shoes, pens, perfume, stereo players and pots. The quality and variety did not tell the whole story. The vision of the forbidden world behind the item was no less titillating. (For days following the business trip to Yugoslavia by the head and the Party boss of my company, female staff surrounded them in the hallways just to soak in the sight of their soft leather shoes that screamed “imported.” Firsthand details, not-to-be-divulged but freely circulating, of an alien life, namely the striptease they attended with their KGB overseers, were equally tantalizing.)
The Lingerie Issue.
Luckily, I inherited Rakhil’s indifference to fashion but flaunters of non-Soviet-made clothes were a painful sight to behold for most women.
The awareness of choices and glamor was doggedly spreading to lingerie. Pretty underthings stubbornly remained an unreachable dream, a mirage hovering beyond the women’s earthly experience full of trauma. How else could it be in a communal apartment… where your body had no secrets that only you knew… where the laundry soaked in a basin in the middle of the kitchen then hung drying in the hallway… where everyone saw every stitch, every darning, every patch, every blemish… where one expected to be watched through the keyhole by the neighbors, the janitor, the militiaman. But at least they now had the mirage.
Pantyhose crossed the border from Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and, for a long time, they were a deficit and their price astronomical. Even pantyhose produced domestically beginning in 1970s were unaffordable; in 1976, a pair cost four rubles, almost my daily wages. With their remarkable coping skills, Soviet women quickly exposed the pioneering fashion for what it truly was: stockings attached to underwear. So, they did the attaching. And they wore the result proudly. (I acquired my first pair in Chicago… in a supermarket, of all places!)
The bulky, ungainly Soviet tricot would have been anti-erotic had it occurred to the masses that they could – or should – be erotic. For forty years, underwear came only in blue, pink and yellow or, in official parlance, “bright sky,” “gentle pink,” and “the May’s greenery,” respectively. Of course, the undies in porno clips smuggled from the West looked quite different but how many had access to those clips and, anyway, a respectable lady would not want them to distract her from building communism.
In 1953, coincidentally after Stalin’s death, brotherly China enlivened the tricot palette with bright-colored options. When the relationship soured a decade later, the industry dutifully replaced the now-hostile choices with light brown and shades of grey.
But it was the bra that took the cake in Soviet lingerie history. As a matter of fact, its role proved so dramatic that it came up for discussion at a high-level government meeting. The only female at the gathering, the Minister of Culture, made a stir by declaring that she must broach the subject of bras. She even suggested a slogan for the better-bra campaign: “Every Soviet woman has the right to wear a quality bra.”
The USSR bra shape never changed: with or without a tuck, with a bell-shaped cup. Buttons fell off quickly. The country that was first to send a man into space could not figure out the design of a bra cup. In stores, bras came in three cup sizes: 1, 2, and 3, where 3 corresponded roughly to what we know as C. Other sizes could be custom-made at ateliers or bought at farmer’s markets from seamstresses who made them at home, illegally. Following the Minister of Culture’s revolt, two new designs were introduced, one of them sported lace and was only offered at the central department store in Moscow.
With the assistance of that rebellious Minister of Culture the department store Moskva received permission to produce underclothing during the night. The store sold the portion made from underworld suppliers off-the-books. Illicit production was of good quality. It became chic to let the lacy bras wink from the décolletage and the lacy slip peek out from under the skirt in what was known “a la Sophia Loren” fashion. The best lingerie went to the Minister of Culture.
(Less known is the bra’s Gulag connection. The same kind of bra was supplied to the military and the Gulag. But it only looked the same. The enemies of the people received the version with looser seams that lice were happy to inhabit. To reduce typhus outbreaks, the task of cleaning out those seams was one of the tasks in the camps. Supposedly, Molotov’s wife – as the Minister of Fisheries she had introduced canned fish in the Soviet Union – was assigned to it when doing her five years of hard labor for treason (for the record: her husband had bravely abstained from voting in favor of her arrest). She had his position of Foreign Minister to thank for this plum assignment. Hence the joke “the husband in Kremlin, the wife in jail” (it rhymes in Russian). Apparently the irony of the situation was lost on her: when released from camp she inquired after Stalin’s wellbeing and fainted when told that he had recently died.
If the Gulag guards confiscated the bra it was a tragedy, a torturous scenario crushing a woman’s spirit. If they didn’t, mending and re-mending it remained her top priority during the entire incarceration. The scars of mending saved the bra and saved her sanity.)
The public bathroom on the Kiev main street, Kreshchatik, teemed with frumpy women clutching roomy purses. The more enterprising sellers, on guard against a random militia ambush, waylaid potential customers on the way to the facility. With a practiced glance they appraised their prey’s worth and her degree of aversion to domestic underclothing.
Upon finding a suitable mark, they accosted the prospect with a nod toward the purse and a faint “Czech underwear?” or “German bra?” A pair of underwear that went for a day’s wages passed through many channels, beginning with a sailor or a ballerina traveling internationally and ending in the Kiev public bathroom.
(Yves Montand, a sufficiently left-leaning French singer to perform in the USSR in the mid-1950’s, was bowled over by the ugliness of Soviet lingerie. He bought a large amount of bras called “bitch’s udder” for their bell-shaped cups, and tricot and slips dubbed, “slipovers for a tank” and “cassocks,” respectively. The purchase appeared at a Paris exhibit “Underthings they are loved in.”
To the French, worshippers of women’s beauty, that collection, though entertaining, proved the inadequacy of the Soviet regime perhaps more persuasively than human rights violations. Needless to say, Yves Montand became persona-non-grata for the purposes of future concerts in the Soviet Union. He put the last nail into his reputation in 1968 by criticizing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; his records were removed from Soviet stores.)
More flirtatious Soviet-made intimates – with scratchy lace but, still, lace – finally popped up en masse in the mid-1960s. To improve the quality of the lace, the Ukrainian Ministry of Light Industry acquired Italian lace-weaving equipment. Newspapers showed Party officials observing the luxurious purchase operated by Soviet workers. In a predictable scenario, the Ministry declined maintenance agreements, the workers ignored manuals. Eventually, hammers, the preferred repair tool, turned the capricious machinery into scrap metal. Someone told me that the electronic equipment received from Japan had tags, in Russian, “do not use hammer to open.”
A store dedicated to underclothing opened next to the Kiev’s central movie theater. It was tiny and always crowded. Women were resolutely gaining ground against the dehumanizing lingerie. A renowned Russian costume designer called Soviet underclothing a memorial to the Soviet Union.
So, how did the venture at the Moskva do? Well, it did not end well: the scheme was discovered, production closed down, about 150 participants arrested, 21 of them tortured and executed and buried in unmarked graves, the rest exiled. The head of the store died of alcohol poisoning; the Minister of Culture committed suicide. All for making laced slips and silky long johns.
The presence of Jews among the criminals served to prove his belief that Jews were exploiters, politically unreliable, and at fault that Hitler attacked the USSR. He also told a French reporter that they didn’t like discipline and collective work and only wanted to study in universities. (He closed 300 synagogues, did not allow Jews into his inner circle, defined Russians as an older brother of all other ethnicities, first among equals). Khrushchev was soon forced into retirement and died in 1971 as emigration was gaining steam.