Grace Under Pressure: Fashion in the People's Republic of Poland
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Fashion in the People's Republic of Poland, Barbara Hoff’s Collection SS 1978, photo: Janusz Sobolewski / Forum, barbara_hoff_ss_1978_fot_janusz_sobolewski_forum.jpg
The post-war period saw the advent of youth culture, prêt-à-porter and visual media forever changing the way we dress. In the People's Republic of Poland, despite the harsh political and economic reality, the will to express oneself still found means through fashion.
In the early days after World War II, the newly-installed communist authorities pushed outfits emblematic of the socialist worker. Despite poverty and a shortage of goods, people looked for other points of reference. Pre-war elegance and the French New Look were early inspirations. During the 1950s, Warsaw saw the establishment of the leading fashion house of its era, Moda Polska. Its creator, Jadwiga Grabowska ('The Polish Coco Chanel'), sought to establish independent Polish high fashion, something original yet international, during a time of political duress. Needless to say, her items were obtainable only by a small elite.
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Lifestyle magazines became the most important factor in Polish fashion life, but for a rather particular reason. The Polish textile industry was prominent within the Eastern Bloc, but geared mostly towards export. As desirable items were often very hard to come by, objects would either have to be hand produced or bought on the black market. Fashion magazines from the West were used to replicate clothes worn by icons like Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.
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Inspiration also came from domestic publications, and fashion photography functioned more as instruction guideline than advertisement. Barbara Hoff, originally a designer for Moda Polska, ran a column in Przekrój magazine from 1954 to 2002 featuring her projects and designs, and became immensely influential. In 1964, she launched her Hoffland brand, devoted to the mass market. It was the first European brand named after a designer going into mass production, and was only discontinued in 2007.
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Dzidzia Reutt, a stylish Polish woman who travelled extensively in Europe, was photographed by her husband in many outfits. These photos were recently compiled into an exhibition called Just Being There: Somewhere in Teksas-Land. She would either buy her foreign clothes from a friend, during her travels, or order copies from her seamstress:
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All you needed was to show a fashion magazine and she was able to produce a perfect copy. She never wasted a piece of a fabric. She was quite cheap and she worked with Polish fabrics that, I have to say, were normally of good quality.
From a 2011 interview: http://somewhereinteksasland.blogspot.com.es/p/charla-con-dzidzia-reutt-verano-2011.html
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Still from the film 'History of Polish Rock', photo: press release
The advent of rebellious youth culture also left its mark on Polish fashion from the very start. Deviant haircuts, from Bardot-style 'big hair' to the untamed manes of hippies and punks, were considered suspicious by the authorities. Jeans became status objects eagerly traded. Also, international trends were given local touches, like how folk singers would wear Slavic folk embroideries as an ethnic flavour to their hippie outfits.
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A recent Vistula collection, photo: press release
Over 30 years after the fall of the People's Republic, what legacy has its fashion left behind today? Some consumer brands has survived and evolved, such as Vistula and Wółczanka. More generally, to young Poles with no recollection of life in the Cold War era, recurrent designs and trends from yesterday tend to blend with more international retro trends, alluding to idealistically reconstructed bygone eras.
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Yet, particularly Polish quirks remain today. You can see it in the ironic and affectionate appropriation of old logos and designs by brand Pan Tu Nie Stał from Łódź. Another example is that colourful folk patterns, as propagated by the Cepelia arts and crafts foundation, are now reappearing in more contemporary forms, even in DIY crafts sold over the Internet, as well as in tourism branding.
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For more, watch Szafa Polska 1945-89, a TV documentary about Polish fashion of the era available at the TVP website (in Polish).
Author: Gabriel Stille, July 2014