A Transformation in Style: Polish Fashion in 1989
default, A Transformation in Style:
Polish Fashion in 1989, Spring fashion show of the 'Moda Polska' collection at the Palace of Culture, Warsaw, 1989, photo: Tadeusz Zagoździński / PAP, center, moda_polska_1989_pap.jpg
The collapse of the communist regime dramatically altered Poland’s economy and society – and, of course, its fashion as well. In June 1989, however, its creators, as well as the publications that covered it, had yet to find out about the problems and opportunities that would arise with capitalism.
Concerned primarily with the scarcity of raw materials and lack of access to new technologies, polish magazines mainly wrote about the crisis and various bold attempts to overcome its consequences. They also wrote about the emerging trends of the West and their impact on Polish fashion.
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But how was fashion actually written about in 1989? Follow Culture.pl as we delve into the pages of three landmark magazines – Nowa Wieś (The New Countryside), Zwierciadło (Mirror) and Przekrój. Let’s explore the unique ways they captured the style – and spirit – of this transformational moment in Polish culture.
‘Nowa Wieś’ – socially conscious style
Nowa Wieś, established in 1930, was associated with the peasant movement. This leftist monthly was shut down in 1934 and revived in the 1950s in the form of a biweekly. It shared not only the problems of the countryside, but also its lifestyle, fashion and culture. Nowa Wieś was modern and quite in vogue, and at the same time, it offered a sense of empathy – it prioritised social issues, and the texts' protagonists were often outcasts.
Fashion played a special role in the publication. A column devoted to current trends was placed on the back cover. In today's market economy, this is where you publish the most profitable and prestigious advertisements – a testament to the magazine’s style. Here, Nowa Wieś was the only publication of its kind to be something of a ‘window to the West’.
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reported a journalist by the name of Maria in the 11th June 1989 issue of Nowa Wieś – the first printed after the partially free elections. The column showcased novelties from Western European fashion magazines to readers with no access to media across the Iron Curtain. Photographs were reprinted from, amongst others: Brigitte, Burda, Elle, Gazie and Marie France.
Most interesting in Nowa Wieś, however, were the articles in which fashion and clothing appeared in the context of economic and social themes concerning Poland. The 21st May 1989 issue saw an interview with Czesława Górecka, the manager of Dom Sprzedaży Wysyłkowej (Mail Order House, also known as DSW) in Łódź. In the piece, titled The Weakest Have the Greatest Chance, we read:
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When it happens that we lack the goods to carry out orders, we use the ‘swap’ method. We try to make sure that these are the actual desired goods, such as towels or tights. A recent example: I got 1,000 Shetland-type sweaters, inexpensive, for 29,000 złotys. I'll just ‘swap’ these [for similar items that people ask for, but we don’t have].
This situation draws attention to the lack of choice that marked Poland in this period. For a client who has access to a free market, fashion involves decisions: an individual can imitate trends or create their own aesthetics, develop a personal style, communicate their aspirations and symbolically place themselves within a group. In this scenario, fashion is communication – referring to a metropolis, ideas, rebellion, elegance, artistry, courage, fear... But all that the clients of Dom Sprzedaży Wysyłkowej could communicate was that they were... DSW clients.
Photo shoot for the Telimena fashion house, fall/winter collection 1989, Łodz, June 1988, photo: Andrzej Wiernicki / East News
The embattled manager of the Łódź DSW, with no way to fulfil all of his orders, added:
I dream, of course, about the times when a customer will order, for example, a carpet, a food processor and curtains, and I will be able to carry out the entire order. With us, the weakest have the greatest chance: people with disabilities. That's what we’ve decided. In addition, regular customers, both for better or for worse [...] as well as mothers with small children. Especially those from small villages.
From the interview, conducted by Ewa Pasecka, we also learn that a line of clothing for people with disabilities was created at the initiative of DSW. It was designed at the Institute of Industrial Design in Warsaw, to which Polish fashion owes a great deal in general. Czesława Górecka explained:
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I could not accept the belief that in a time of crisis, when so many goods are unavailable, you shouldn’t sew blouses with longer backs for women who use wheelchairs. Here’s what I think: it’s easy to share what we have too much of, but humanitarianism requires, among other things, that you share what you don’t have. We ought to be compassionate in times of difficulty – not just when it’s easy and convenient.
Fashion under the communist regime was created thanks to the determination of those who truly wanted to design and distribute clothing, despite the challenging circumstances. Górecka's steadfastness is reminiscent of the attitude of many designers of that time, who continued their work despite the difficult situation in a poorly managed economy. Fashion in this period related neither to the market nor to the real needs of consumers. In the case of well-known fashion designers, such as Barbara Hoff or Grażyna Hase, the aim was to create high-quality design, original fashion for modern Polish women ¬– worthy of a global scale.
The concern for the situation of excluded people found in Nowa Wieś may surprise us today, as this is all but unheard of in contemporary lifestyle media. Published alongside articles about the latest trends, for example, were texts about the tragic state of rural education or the lives of the poor inhabitants of towns and villages. The heroine of the issue from 21st May 1989 is Ms Jadzia, a resident of Warsaw, ‘who is not yet forty and lives from what she finds [...] in rubbish bins’, reported Dariusz Szczęsny, author of the reportage Raj Pani Jadzi (Ms Jadzia’s Paradise).
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‘I stick to mostly old pre-war tenement buildings. Most of them are inhabited by wealthier residents. With these, it’s much easier to find food, and sometimes, I come across fairly decent clothes too. And I like to dress nicely, even when I go to work’, says Ms Jadzia, turning flirtatiously on her own axis, presenting her wardrobe with a smile. A grey, slightly yellowed, light coat of a plush material, black corduroy pants, red boots with a somewhat detached sole. On the head – a stylish leather aviator hat with a string hanging beneath the chin. The whole thing may not exactly be very elegant and fashionable, but at least no one will say that Ms Jadzia looks ‘raggedy’.
A collector of bottles, paper trash and clothes, Ms Jadzia was raising an 11-year-old, Agata, as a single mother. Once, Ms Jadzia found a pile of foreign magazines in the trash. She gave them to a dressmaker, who sewed an outfit for Ms Jadzia’s daughter in return. The story closed with a prophetic commentary:
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Environmentalists are sounding the alarm: in a dozen years or more, our planet will turn into one big rubbish dump. Some are terrified of this prospect, but for Ms Jadzia, it will really be paradise on Earth.
Today, Jadzia is or could have been 70 years old – and could be convinced that she was the original trendsetter of the transformation. In 2019, we are ever closer to a climate disaster. The oceans are overwhelmed by trash. Clothes are made of plastic, and the clothing industry is one of the largest polluters on Earth. But one of the most valuable contemporary tendencies is ‘dumpster diving’, along with buying used items and wearing old or recycled clothes. The more people adopt these tendencies, the greater the chance that disaster might be avoided. For example, there is Vivienne Westwood’s slogan – ‘Buy less. Choose well.’
‘Zwierciadło’ – a ‘Mirror’ to the crisis
Andrzej Friszke wrote convincingly about the depth of the crisis in the 1980s in the 2009 book Rok 1989: Polska Droga do Wolności (1989: The Polish Road to Freedom). Empty shelves were an everyday experience, and ‘in 1985 the national income in Poland was lower than in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria’.
The situation was to be improved by the 1988 laws prepared by Prime Minister Mieczysław Rakowski and the Minister of Industry Mieczysław Wilczek. The so-called Wilczek Act opened the road to capitalism for Poland. On 23rd December 1988, the Sejm passed ‘laws on free economic activity, on economic activity with the participation of foreign entities, which [...] gave rise to the development of private industry and trade’.
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The economic pathologies of the final stages of the communist regime were described, among others, by Zwierciadło – a weekly published from 1956 by the Polish Women's League. In the article Kłopoty z Jakością (Troubles with Quality) from 1st June 1989, Bożena Stolarska wrote:
Clothing store, Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, 1989, photo: Krzysztof Pawela / Forum
We’re buying shoes that will hardly last half a season; we grimace over bad bread and run around to all the repair shops, searching for parts to household appliances that are constantly breaking. Wherever we look, we are surrounded by ugliness and trash.
In the same issue, an extensive article entitled Tryptyk z Modą w Tytule (Triptych with Fashion in the Title) appeared. The text, written by Dobrochna Kędzierska, includes statements from Agnieszka Ritz, president of the Sawena Clothing Work Cooperative in Włocławek.
Ritz begins with a description of trends: ‘Very different garments are being worn. Loose-fitting clothes are becoming a scarcity, and instead, clothing adhering to the body is appearing more and more often.’ There are also some favourable comments about Warsaw and its women residents:
Fashion on the streets of Paris is not unlike ours. To be honest, Warsaw is very elegant. There, feminine elegance is driven around by cars. It’s interesting that French women wear more artificial things. What a Polish woman would never dare to wear is in fashion there! Fashion is truly made by accessorising, and I can assure you that the items sold at, for example, Rutkowskiego Street in Warsaw are absolutely of a worldly quality.
Rutkowskiego Street, or today's Chmielna Street, was famous for its private artisanal shops, as well as second-hand boutiques, where used clothing from abroad was sold. At building 36, located next to the department stores, was the most important one – Polska Moda (Polish Fashion). But only a few had access to clothes from such places, and only the well-to-do and the residents of big cities could wear and create fashion. Only they had the privilege of escaping from the shabbiness and ugliness.
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From Tryptyk z Modą w Tytule, we also learn that Saweny products were exported to Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland, as well as Germany, and in Poland, it was possible to purchase them at Moda Polska and SPHW Gallux (Producer Cooperative for Trade and Crafts) in Warsaw. The company from Włocławek did not manage, however, to avoid the problems that resulted from the economic crisis. Ritz also described in detail the way the cooperative operated just after the introduction of ‘Wilczek’s Act’:
‘By doing what we are doing, we’ve entered into an eternal struggle. What do we need so that what we are doing is at least at the level of decency? First of all, we need good machines; secondly, professionals; and third, materials’ – she explains. ‘I consider my greatest success to be the purchase of a computerised production preparation system from the Komitech cooperative in Warsaw. This is the first such solution in CMEA countries. [...] The constant choice is the worst. You never know if you’ve made the right or wrong decision. Now, everyone is constantly nervous, thinking about what to spend the dollars from the so-called foreign exchange write-offs on.’
The president of Sawena also explained the phenomenon of greyness that marked life under the communist regime:
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[...] the materials produced in Poland rarely have a uniform colour; there are three to five shades in them, and hence the grey-brown tones prevailing in all shades [...] In addition, the quality of yarns is so poor that it’s impossible for it to adopt a uniform colour. We are really afraid to even think that you can take a sample of material and choose a lining and button for it without any problems. Given the difficulties we have, we try to just follow the principle of the ‘lesser evil’.
‘Przekrój’ – the most fashionable of all
Cover and spread from 'Przekroj' nr 2295 (23/1989), photo: https://przekroj.pl
Meanwhile, the more intellectual Przekrój magazine depicted a completely different reality. Barbara Hoff, the creator of the iconic Hoffland brand and one of the most respected designers in the history of Polish culture, wrote about fashion for the publication. On 4th June 1989, she allayed:
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The ‘Madonna’ style has gone off somewhere, as if departed to some distant suburb [...] Girls! We're turning into ladies! We are getting rid of excess jewellery. For now, the cabaret is over ¬– we’re putting on flat heels, our look will be relaxed. But not boring! It's the summer of '89, and no one is shocked by a miniskirt or wide shorts in the city anymore.
In the photographs, the models Urszula Krzyżanowska and Gabi Grzywacz posed in then-highly desired Hoffland clothing, available at Centrum Department Stores. The designer acknowledged:
I cannot make unfashionable things – it’s just not possible for me. In addition, the company assures what will be trendy in next year’s fashion.
In 1989, it was still believed that something could be the ‘most’ fashionable and that there were leading trends. Today, we know that fashion is infinitely divided into many styles and a variety of aesthetics.
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From the magazines that came out in 1989, we find out, first of all, that ready-made fashion was all but inaccessible. Poles were doomed to the same clothing in all shops, as well as to grey fabric palettes – unless, of course, they hunted down something at the expensive second-hand shops or artisanal factories on Rutkowskiego Street. Another option was to break through the queue at the Centre Department Stores, when something from Hoffland had just dropped onto the shelves.
Hoffland fashion show, Centrum Department Stores, Warszawa, 1990, photo: Andrzej Wiernicki / East News
Overall, DIY fashion also played a crucial role in this period. On the pages of Nowa Wieś, Zwierciadło or Przekrój, you could see what was currently being launched in the West – and then either do it yourself or order it from a dressmaker, shoemaker or purse-maker. There were also many artisanal factories, which the authorities of the communist regime, who were rather hostile toward private property, never managed to annihilate.
No one could know, however, that in a few years, all of the fashion houses, not to mention the entire textile and clothing industry, would fall apart and that its employees would lose their jobs. Capitalism woulud eventually take its toll on the industry, causing this Polish craft to disappear. Global retail chains were to blame – stores that offered fast, cheap and appealing fashion. The transformation also led to the collapse of all of the communist regime-era fashion houses, along with nearly the entire textile and clothing industry.
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Written by Marcin Różyc, translated by AD, edited by LD, Jun 2019