In 1989, communism ended in Czechoslovakia, where my mom grew up. On August 20th, 1968, Warsaw Pact Troops led by the Soviet Union invaded the country in an effort to stop the liberalization form lead by Alexander Dubček. At the time, children were considered the communist regime’s future and well taken care of. Health care was free, day care was free, education was free, and summer camps were free. However, food and clothing were severely limited. Many countries today view the fashion industry as synonymous with self-expression and individuality — two aspects of life Czechoslovakia was denied. I conducted this interview to bring awareness to part of history that is often overlooked and explore how the fashion scene at the time was affected by the communist regime.
When you were growing up, Western imports to Czechoslovakia were non-existent. Instead, the government relied on either its own production of goods or imported goods from the Eastern Bloc. As a result, stores had few clothing items. Did you ever take great lengths to carve a small piece of individuality for yourself with regards to fashion? How creative did you have to be to maintain some self-expression in a time when it was being denied?
I lived in a small town with only one store that carried clothing. Most of it was “Made in Czechoslovakia.” Even though the pieces were well made, they lacked individuality and a sense of fashion. The choice was very limited. If we were lucky to buy a new piece of clothing (often after spending several hours waiting in line), my joy was quickly spoiled when the next day several of my classmates wore the same piece. The selection of shoes was very limited as well, and due to that we experienced some funny situations. For example, our school had a policy of leaving our outside shoes every morning in the “coat room” and then change into slippers. As you can imagine, if half of the girls from one class wore the same shoes (but of different sizes), at the end it was hard to find the pair that belonged to you. We often walked home wearing shoes that looked the same, but each a different size. My father’s colleague had relatives in West Germany. They were allowed to visit once a year and they always brought with them the biggest German clothing mail-order catalogue.
I remember flipping through the pages and dreaming that one day I would have access to all the beautiful and fashionable clothes that I was seeing in the catalogue.
Because the choice of clothing was limited, we had to rely on our own creativity. I was lucky that my mother was a skilful seamstress. She got basic sewing patterns from the magazine “Moda” (Fashion) and then I would add some personal touches. Later, during the 1980-ties, we drew inspiration from the German fashion magazine “Burda.” It was published in East Germany which at the time had closer relations with the Western part of Europe. “Burda” guided our sense of fashion for years to come. We were always on the lookout for fabric. Because of the limited choice, the fabric we were able to buy was the inspiration for what we made out of it, rather than the other way around. My mother never sat down without having her knitting needles or crochet in her hands. I proudly wore all the pullovers, sweaters, hats, gloves, and shawls that she made for me. Handy work was such an important part of our lives that skills like sewing, knitting, crocheting, and weaving were taught in schools as a required class.
By the time I was in third grade I already knew the basics. I was happily putting them to use by making things that no one else wore.
I remember that I asked my mother to make me a complicated off-the-shoulder dress with a wide gathered skirt and a fitting bodice. She refused because it was too difficult and felt that she did not have enough expertise to make such a complicated dress. Being a rebellious 19-year-old, I decided to make the dress myself. Eventually my mother agreed to help me, and together we made a gorgeous piece that I wore for years to come. From then on, I made almost all of my clothes, including winter jackets, coats, and evening gowns. It gave me a creative outlet and made me stand out from the crowd.
What kind of political statements were made through fashion? Did you see it as a form of creative freedom? Do you think the government used fashion (or lack thereof) as simply another tool to control the masses?
Until the late 1940s, many women — especially in smaller towns and villages — were still wearing traditional clothing. With the onset of communist regime, they were expected to leave their houses and enter the work force. In the new environment, the traditional clothing was not practical and women had to quickly adjust. The posters from that era were proudly displaying women wearing rather masculine clothing, since the communist ideology was promoting equality between men and women in all areas of life, including work.
To demonstrate ideological unity, especially among young people, the government insisted on wearing communist uniforms.
They consisted of pale blue trousers for boys and same color skirts for girls, a light blue shirt (same for boys and girls), a belt with a metal buckle with communist symbols, and a bright red scarf around the neck. These uniforms were incredibly unflattering. To make them a little more interesting, we were challenging the system by shortening the skirts as much as possible.
In general, we were not allowed to wear tie-died t-shirts because they represented the hippie era, which, for the communist government, represented opposition and rebellion.
Also, during the 1970s, wearing jeans was not encouraged because jeans were viewed as a symbol of the West. Jeans were more acceptable in the 1980s but were still difficult to come across in the stores. In general, fashion back then was non-confrontational and rather conservative. The conservatism dictated what to wear, when to wear it and how to wear it. For example, stockings were required to be worn with all formal dresses. If wearing a dress or a skirt, a short jacket was not acceptable and rather a long coat was to be worn. I studied music, and we were not allowed to enter the stage unless we were dressed properly, including high heels and stockings. Among other expectations, it was clearly established what was appropriate to wear for members of a particular generation. Certain colors, skirt lengths, head covers, etc. were appropriate for certain age groups. I think that these conservative rules created a kind of uniformity expected from the regime.
Would you say your experience growing up with fashion has impacted how you view the industry today in any way?
Since I know how to sew, I check every garment in the store for the quality of the seams and fabric. I have a hard time paying money for a sweater that I could knit, or for a dress that I could make. I learned how to be frugal, so I usually look for pieces that are well made and timeless in style. Shopping for clothes often makes me think of those who make them — women in countries with low wages that are being exploited and underpaid.
When I enter a store that is overflowing with fast-fashion clothes (Zara and Forever 21 come to mind), I question whether the woman who made it would be able to afford it.
And sometimes my mind goes into the communist mode of “we should all be equal”, and the communist mantra that was installed into my mind: “imperialism creates inequity”. If a woman who made the dress that I am about to purchase is not able to buy it, do I have the right to buy it? That’s when I would rather walk into a fabric store, buy a beautiful piece of fabric, and make it myself.