In her new book, Anna Pelka reveals the influence of politics on the world of fashion, while discovering Warsaw's surprisingly influential position on the map of East Berliners’ trends in the 1960s.
The book’s original Polish title, Z [politycznym] fasonem. Moda młodzieżowa w PRL i NRD, could be translated as In [political] fashion. Youth trends in Communist Poland and Eastern Germany. It was released by the Gdańsk-based słowo/obraz terytoria publishing company in May, 2014. While tracing the Polish-German connections, Anna Pelka moves on familiar ground. Born in the Silesian city of Chorzów, she lives in Munich, is a graduate of the Warsaw University Art History Department, and completed her doctoral thesis at the Ruhr University in Bochum.
The author herself comments in a talk with the Polish Press Agency:
On the one hand, fashion interests me as a social and artistic phenomenon, and as an element of everyday life within a concrete political system. That is why this book is one that deals with fashion, it is about a fascination with fashion and the making of it. On the other had, I was also interested in their attitude to the communist authorities.
Pelka adds that she wanted to describe the way in which the Cold War ideological battle between the West and the East influenced how people dressed in the two countries.
I wanted to juxtapose two countries which shared the same political system, the same administrative and organisational structures and which also at the same time were completely distinct in their traditions, their mentalities and their political paths. Both states aspired to control youth, as well as all of society, in order to create a new material culture, and the culture of clothing was part of it.
But the two states were rather unsuccessful in this regard.
The youth of both countries was not interested in what the state was trying to propose. In Poland, very early on, from the period of the so-called little stabilisation, the authorities decided to employ fashion in order to legitimize the system on an international arena, and thus, fashion was allowed to develop rather freely.
The author also explains how different the situation was in Germany.
(…) the specific geo-political situation and the newly created state, which directly neighboured West Germany, [resulted in] the political competition between two states and the fascist past of Germany. The authorities attempted to fight against fashion for much longer and in a much more oppressive way than the authorities of Communist Poland. The idea of offering youth a different "socialist" form of clothes failed, because, similarly to Poland, the planned economy was not able to produce even a "politically correct" collection.
According to Pelka, the period of the "Gomułka thaw" saw the Moda Polska (Polish Fashion) enterprise develop under the artistic direction of Jadwiga Grabowska. It proposed "a refined elegance, which traced French tailoring resources as well as the greatest achievements of international fashion designers"
Polish communist authorities did not interfere with Grabowska’s activity too much, and in a way, they even indulged in the idea of Warsaw becoming a Paris of the East. The authorities not only took up front row places at fashion shows, but, according to Jerzy Antkowiak, every secretary of the party also desired to have a Moda Polska shop right in front of their office.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the cuts designed by Barbara Hoff were extremely popular among the young. Pelka describes the way that her collections included "many things which were matched in colour and style, so that they could be bought as sets, but also gave the possiblity of creating one’s own outfits", which in a sense, constituted the avowal for an "individual and independent decision about one’s own looks".
Another important factor of the Hoff collection was the low price of the clothes. The designer even admitted that the clothes were made from cheap cloth, even "the cheapest, unfashionable ones". But they were always the latest craze when it came to the style and cut.
I want to create ephemeric things, fashion for one season, a dress for 100 zloty which is super trendy, let the girls run around in it, so they don’t feel estranged from the newest trends in the world. That these dresses get crumpled up? For a hundred zlotych, let them crumple, but let them be picturesque. In other countries, such as England, for example, girls don’t pay attention to this, it’s only the ladies whose wardrobes always look impeccable.
Ulla Stefke, a designer from East Germany called the Poland of 1960s an "incredibly free, open, and modern country", when comparing it to her own.
We felt that it was a completely different atmosphere than what we had back home in Berlin.
Pelka underscores the fact that the geographical proximity of East Germany and Western countries did not at all mean a better access and knowledge of what was hip in those countries. A review of ladies’ fashion magazines provides excellent proof of this.
While "in Poland, there were numerous reprints of what was previously published in French and Western German magazines, the papers in East Germany almost never published any such material."
It turns out that Warsaw of the 1960s was an icon for the Eastern Berliners. The designs of the Moda Polska stirred the curiosity of one of the best fashion photographers of the period, Peter Knapp, who was working for the French Elle magazine in Paris at the time. He came to Warsaw in 1966 and shot a series of images - among them the miniskirts with folk Łowicz motifs, and op-art dresses.
More proof of the talent of Polish designers from the period is the apparel designed for Polish sportsmen for the 1968 winter Olympic Games in Grenoble. The Polish team went to the games wearing short. white sheepskin coats. This was something completely original and unknown in the West at the time. The coats were also embroidered. According to Pelka, "The sportsmen returned to Poland without their coats, as they gladly responded to marked demand and traded them for foreign currency".
Source: Polish Press Agency. Edited by Natalia Z. Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 28/05/2014