Fashion is important when it fights for some kind of cause, says one of the heroines of Aleksandra Boćkowska’s film, "To nie są moje wielbłądy" (literally meaning "These are not my camels"). This excellent reportage on fashion in the People’s Republic of Poland evokes the historically twisted fates of great fashion designers, visual artists, models and artists who all attempted to drill a hole through the system using fashion.
It isn’t a lexicon of different styles, an encyclopaedia of textiles, or a sentimental review of denim-coloured memories of Pewex stores and cotton nappies getting transformed into ball gowns. Instead, Boćkowska contacted witnesses of an era, and set off their surprisingly sharp memories – they are capable of describing coats tailored a few decades ago, non-irons dug up from heaps of clothes on Szembeka square, and the precise shapes of various buttons as if they still had them right in front of their eyes. Boćkowska explains, "I am trying to understand why fashion in the People’s Republic of Poland had such a huge significance – for the state, which treated it like propaganda, and for the people who wanted to stand out against a grey crowd after the war."
So, together with Aleksandra Boćkowska, we peek into tailoring studios and iconic Polish and Parisian fashion journals, as well as the fashion houses of the PRL and Warsaw markets. It is time to find out who dressed the Poles of the era, and what were they fighting for?
The Polish Chanel: Jadwiga Grabowska
"Working with Ms. Grabowska was really something!” exclaim her models in a talk with Boćkowska. A legendary figure, a dame with pre-war manners, always elegant, inseparable from her turban and Chanel suits. Modern and uncompromising, the artistic director of Moda Polska (meaning Polish Fashion) decided to give Polish women back their style. The Feniks Fashion Salon was founded in April, 1945, in the very heart of the capital, at the intersection of Marszałkowska and Koszykowa streets. As the city dragged itself up from the ruins, Grabowska fished out models on the street, launched the first fashion shows, hired the best tailors and began to dress the elegant dames of Warsaw – the wives of the communist authorities. In interviews, she explains:
"I thought that for the sake of a psychological rebirth, it was incredibly important to form a conviction that in spite of all the atrocities that had taken place, and in spite of what was still so difficult, it was necessary to live normally, to live life in its fullness, which also encompasses dress and fashion."
Thanks to Grabowska, Poland smelled more and more intensely of the West. There are numerous urban legends that illustrate how nothing was impossible for her to arrange. Her collaborators from Moda Polska reminisce about her way of pointing out a lack of taste to the presiding ministers, her throwing ashtrays at them, and the way that she would hold onto the flaps of a suit until they would effectively distribute passports. Grabowska had the uncompromising exigency towards the authorities to grant her access to the best textiles. This restless fashion dictator brought the newest designs, fabric samples and fashion magazines straight from Paris. In the book, Grabowska’s favourite pupil Jerzy Antkowiak says, "She spoke all the languages of the world herself and she looked as if she had never left Paris in the first place." After her retirement, Antkowiak was promoted to the function of main designer a Moda Polska. Many years later, he said:
"Today, I pay homage to her for the fact in those times, when all the dumb ministers wanted to make synthetic cotton-lined coats and just one model of shoe, she fought for a place for fashion."
The little potter from Komorów: Jerzy Antkowiak
Now that’s a personality!
"In a wide coat, with a red scarf, very charismatic. He had all that’s necessary to make a career in fashion: oddities, mood swings, a tendency towards the scandalous, bravery, and, well, talent. He showed wide blouses in the 1970s, when no one in Poland was able to believe they would become the thing. In the 1980s he proposed transparent trousers for men, he created a leather collection which included a jacket with an eagle on the back."
He was an unparalleled party animal who got away with everything. Even when, without the knowledge of his teacher, he organised a very well received carnival fashion show with short dresses, silks, and siphon coats. Why? "We were kind of fed up with the way she was too bossy. She treated me like a grandson, a bit patronising. A little potter from Komorów, that is what she said.” But still, it was Grabowska who opened the doors of high fashion for him, taking him to Paris to see the fashion shows of Pierre Cardin and the like.
Boćkowska also points to the fact that although Antkowiak had a critical stance towards the authorities much like Grabowska, he did not think that he was designing clothes in order to alter the system, but simply because fashion had taken him in and then pulled him under, and he was consumed by the whirl of social life. When Moda Polska travelled to Leipzig during the Martial Law period without a prepared collection, he improvised. He took Solidarność badges and pinned them to clothing rapidly sewn from tent fabric. Jerzy Antkowiak was a designer at Moda Polska from 1961 until the end of its existence in 1998.
Lenin in tweed: Grażyna Hase
It was a bold entry into the world of fashion. A student of interior design, a known model and a debutant designer – the author of the "Kozak look" collection Grażyna Hase stepped out onto the catwalk at the Dziekanka students’ club to the rhythm of rock and roll, styled like… Lenin. She wore a single button-row jacket, a vest, and a polka-dotted tie. She had to have caused quite a stir in the Poland of 1967 with her Russia-inspired fashion that seemed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution.
And, as Boćkowska reminds us, it was not just the clothes. The collection was designed for the State Clothing Factory, the Cora Clothing Industry Plant in Warsaw. The whole was directed by Wowo Bielicki, Hase’s partner, who was also connected to Bim-Bom in Gdańsk. Models who resembled Anna Karenina as well as soldiers of the Red Army paraded down the catwalk to the rhythm of the Beatles’ hits. Teresa Kuczyńska, a journalist who wrote for the Ty i ja lifestyle magazine commented "We welcome a new designer, full of energy, imagination, and very determined."
In the following decades, Hase's original collections were presented and enthusiastically received in Paris, Tokyo, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Moscow, and Prague.
Barbara Hoff the dictator
A legend. Number 1 on the list of the most beautiful girls in the country, according to Leopold Tyrmand. The author of an iconic fashion column in the Przekrój magazine, as well as hundreds of different tricks instantly taken up on the streets. A specialist in creative remakes, she taught how to make a skirt out of a pair of trousers, how to turn trainers into trendy pumps, and how to make elegant evening blouses from sporty T-shirts. She also gave hints on how to obtain fabric for trousers:
" You do it like this: you buy a tie (there are ties available). You give it to grandpa. From grandpa, you coax an old pair of trousers. They are a bit destroyed, but they are made from good wool (…)."
She designed her first dress when she was 4 years old, and her first corduroy dress collection in 1967. One had to order them quite a while in advance, because as soon as they appeared in stores, the place filled up and products disappeared even from off the mannequins. Hoffman soon opened a stand of her own in the Junior shopping mall – Hoffland. And once again, there were huge queues. Boćkowska, who tried on numerous occasions to get her heroine to speak about fashion, explains her success in the following way:
The principle was simple. Any possible fabric, even the kinds that seemed unfashionable, but always with a great cut and a great idea. Corduroy dresses once again. A dark red one with big blue pockets and a wide collar, a pink one with blue rope and a stand-up collar, a blue one with beige elements and the hit-model called Mariola: yellow, with a navy vertical stripe, buttons under the neck and pockets, also sewn onto the sleeves."
In a talk with Włodzimierz Kalicki, Hoff confesses that designing fashionable clothes for ordinary people was like showing them light at the end of a tunnel:
"This fashion of mine was letting in fresh air from Europe. And the authorities knew this – there were incidences of censorship at Przekrój in matters such as the cut of a dress. (…) I was a fashion dictator. I wanted to have power. I love power and I always wanted to be a politician. I wanted to rule. In those times, any political activity was out of the question for someone with my views, but in fashion I ruled like a dictator. I wrote with a style that would tolerate no criticism.”
(Wysokie Obcasy magazine)
Pierre d'Alby: the miraculous pret-a-porter
His is among the most surprising biographies in the book. Pierre d'Alby commissioned Polish factories to sew his clothes, and he dressed the streets of Warsaw. Trench coats, dresses with camel patterns and corduroy suits with a French label – all those treasures were hunted for by the Polish elite in the city of Puck. But if anyone thinks that this is the name of a French fashion designer, do not be fooled. Pierre d'Alby is a brand founded by a creative 19 year old, Polish Jew Zyga Pianko. Boćkowska stumbled upon his traces by chance, and only a month before the scheduled publication of her book, she had a ticket to Paris. In a talk with Anna Luboń, she says:
"From the beginning I knew that Paris had to be part of the book, because everyone was longing for it, but I wanted to break with the cliche that Poles hardly ever obtained a passport, then they gathered their pennies and felt very insecure there. And then, I came upon Zyga Pianko."
A runaway from war-torn Warsaw, he made it to France through Arkhangelsk, Tehran, and then Uganda. He founded a two-storey boutique at 60 rue de Richelieu, which soon became a fashionable Parisian address. Great names of the fashion world collaborated with him enthusiastically, including agnes.b. Boćkowska thus recounts her meeting with the 90-year-old visionary:
"Sometimes, I have the impression that everyone among the thousands of Poles who lived in Paris at the time went through the office of Zyga Pianko. He must have had something in him, if so many stuck to this man. It could not have been the mere fact that in an instant, he conjured up new trends. It would be simplest to say: he was classy."
His collaborators, models, and friends – among them the actor Wojciech Pszoniak – also speak of his incredible intuition. Pianka had it not only in the realm of business, but also when it came to people. He would save them from oppression, find them homes, rent out apartments at very low prices. "He was neither a patron nor a boss, he was someone who organised a family around himself”, Małgorzata Wyrzykowska-Feillard sums it up in her talk with Boćkowska. The titular camel affair remains to be explained, but I send you off to read the book for this. In it, you will also be able to read about the affair between fashion and industry under the watchful eye of Roman Modzelewski, of the university troubles of Władysław Strzemiński, of women visual artists from Łódź who paraded across Piotrkowska street in Indian tunics and plastic coats, and of the stories behind starting up the Ty i ja magazine. Ty i ja was the source of the Polish readership’s knowledge about op-art and the Parisian queues lining up for a pair of Yves Saint Laurent pants.
The text is based on the book by Aleksandra Boćkowska "To nie są moje wielbłądy. O modzie w PRL" (These Are No Camels of Mine. On Fashion in the People’s Republic of Poland), Czarne publishing house, Wołowiec 2015, edited by Anna Legierska, June 2015, sources: Wysokie Obcasy, gazeta.pl,
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 14/06/2015