Did people care about fashion during Communism?

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

By Oana Orzac

Romania was under a Communist regime for 42 years until 1989. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union, existed from 1922 to 1991.

We know a lot about the history of Romania during those turbulent times. But one thing we know little about: how much did people care about what they wore during those dictatorial days?

The fashion industry, like many other industries at the time, was owned by the state, with the only fashion houses referred to as “unions of craftsmen”: UCECOM (National Union of Craftsmen’s Cooperatives) and UBCM (Union of Bucharest Craftsmen’s Cooperatives), where designers, sometimes known as craftsmen, worked.

The only place you could buy clothes was the state-owned store, Romarta. Here, you would find clothes produced by the craftsmen’s unions, which took the materials from the Ministry of Light Industries (which governed light industries such as tailoring, knitting and storage).

The Communist Party took great care in forbidding the use of the word ‘luxury’ from the Romanians. As such, Romanians at the time were always dressed the same, smelled the same and worked the same. While the Ceausescu couple had expensive materials and jewellery hidden from average people’s eyes, the Romanians became more creative, with cheap materials and no influence.

Simple tailors became fashion designers, sometimes taking materials from abroad, which was not allowed. Whatever the case, one line that the Romanians could not cross was being more beautiful than Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu.

Under Communism, you had to be creative

Retired teacher Anuta Dinu, 76, went to college in Brasov under Communism. “It was another world. It was easier to get more expensive materials, and the inspiration for creating clothes was everywhere on the street,” said the retired music teacher.

Peasant and teacher fashion of the ’60s

“We would get a material made of lace or cotton from the USSR together with fashion magazines. I would go to the tailor, and ask them to design the same pattern pictured in the magazine. Of course, only if you had money.”

City vs village

Of course, the most significant difference in terms of fashion was between rural and urban ways of dressing. There were different materials and styles. In the village, nothing changed – peasants wore the same clothes.

“When I returned to the village to become a music teacher, I had clothes different from the women living there. I had dresses and hats. People didn’t look at me with good eyes. Although I liked elegance, I had to stay modest. I was a teacher, so I had to be a role-model for my students,” Dinu added.

Village teachers during the ’70s

Mirza Ion, 70, a farmer, said that fashion in those days was no different from how old people are dressed now in village areas. “If you want to know how we dress, then look at the old people, here in the village. They dress the same, in clothes that were probably their parents or grandparents.”

Even if the people living in rural areas were satisfied with their clothes, in the cities it was different: people aspired to wear something more modern and colourful. Although the regime wanted simple and safe fashion for everyone, people found tricks to fool the government and express themselves.

Romanian folk costumes from the ’60s

Designers were restricted

During Communism, it is difficult to talk about fashion in real terms. Designers did exist in Romania but they were restricted. Textiles industries only released collections about twice a year, calling them ‘a collective collection’ and their models were the women who worked in the factory.

Fabric worker shows the new shirt:1984

These clothes prove the lack of refinement and insufficient knowledge that was present in Communism at the time. People had no style because they had no idea what was fashionable, they only knew from the people who travelled abroad.

“There was a desire to document ourselves, to be fashionable like the Germans or the French, but we didn’t have time or money,” said Ileana Stef, 58, bookkeeper.  The fashion was unique but imperfect, and people could tell if someone came from abroad because their style was so different.

Soviet influence

Fashion was influenced mainly by the Soviets, because Party members were allowed to visit the Soviet Union. They would then come back to with furs, jewellery and other expensive things. Even the military uniforms of those times were similar to those of the Soviets.

Military uniform: 1980

In the early ’50s and ’60s, women did not have the money to go to the hairdresser, and often even women in the city resorted to wearing scarves to hide their unkempt locks. Women became creative and tried to work with what they had.

Dinu said: “If I had a bigger dress, I would obtain two of them. If we had clothes no longer usable, we kept every material in case other clothes had to be patched.” Only after the 1960s, when Ceausescu came to power as head of state, did Western fashion expand its influence towards Romania.

Western influence
In the ’60s, the famous English model Twiggy influenced some of Romania’s fashion pieces, such as the miniskirt. Later on, hippie and rock n’ roll fashion appeared, which also changed the youth fashion of those times.

Folk costumes with a leather jacket: 1985

It was only after the fall of Communism in 1989 that Romanians were free to dress how they liked. They were so free, they didn’t know where to get their inspiration from. The wave of pop music and colourful clothes arrived, which Romanian people loved; it was a trend that finally promoted freedom and youth.

Soviet fashion

As mentioned above, Romania’s fashion was at one time dictated by the Russian side. Style in the Soviet Union largely followed the general trends of the Western world. However, the same ideology followed. The state would moderate and influence the trends and the lack of consumer goods would prevent the public from accessing prefabricated fashion.

However, in the ’50s, Stalin finally agreed to promote fashion magazines, even in rural areas. This type of fashion promoted was so different from what people were otherwise used to, from urban sophistication to rustic decorations.

Fashionable, but dictated by the state

Image by Петр Никитин from Pixbay

Nevertheless, fashion remained strict. The fashionable colours were dark, and the materials were always cheap. Soviet youth felt the need to imitate the most stylish types of clothing in the West. However, the regime interpreted this behaviour as a revolt against them. This was partly because war veterans would bring confiscated clothing from German, or other Eastern European countries, back to the Soviet Union, including stylish coats from Romania which were still elegant in 1945.

The youth revolt became more visible after 1953 when the fear of how the regime would react, disappeared. After 1991, fashion in Russia diversified. Unlike in Romania, Russia remained with a unique style, somehow bringing classic Russian elements to Western fashion.

Glorious capitalism, hateful communism

No matter what country you come from if it was a Communist country you were limited in terms of fashion. Insufficient money and daily problems did not allow you to be as free with your choices then you wanted. Plus, there were much more important life issues than clothes. “We lived daily with the thought that we would have nothing to eat tomorrow. Those who lived well did not have these problems,” said farmer Ion.

*Photos courtesy Orzac family

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