Moscow in the 1920s:
„All decorative and ornamental parts of clothing will be destroyed by the motto: Comfy and usefulness of clothing that fits the needs of production” writes Varvara Stepanova in a programme conceptualising her work as artist and fashion designer within the frames of the Russian avant-garde movement in the 1920s.* Destruction and creative chaos were worshiped by the Russian constructivist circles, because “future is our only objective”, that is what Stepanova, Rodchenko and the other avantgardists in Moscow were writing in their manifesto at the beginning of the 20th century.
Spring 2006, Berlin.
It is an evening in late spring. Five editors within the Plotki femzine are sitting around a table in Café Gorki Park, Mitte. Some of us come from cities like Warsaw and Berlin, others study and work in towns like Lublin or Frankfurt/Oder. We want to do a feminist magazine, and we have a lot of ideas, images and texts, but no money. There is a vague idea to create our own feminist uniforms, Pilotki fashion. To finance ourselves through our own work. On the table lies a Robotka-Oberteil, im einfachen blauen Schnitt. One of us had traveled to Moscow and had visited an exhibition of the fashion of the Russian avant-garde movement. She begins telling about artists designing and wearing workers fashion: “I saw this exhibition. They did unisex uniforms for workers, surgeons, pilots and sport wear.”
Searching in Brussels, in Berlin and in Zurich
On that evening in Café Gorki Park begins a search for the creators of Russian avantgardists uniforms. Plotkistas search is the internet and visit museums who hosted exhibitions on the Russian avantgarde, without success: “Sorry, but the last book on the avant-garde has just sold out. And if you ask me, you won’t find anything on clothing inside. On Rodchenko, yes, you will find. But women artists and fashion design? I remember they did some dresses for theatre plays.”
Plotki members search on the internet, in antiques bookstores and universities in Brussels, in Berlin, and in Zürich. We find books with text and paintings or fotographs. We learn a lot on Rodchenko, Tatlin and Malevitch. However, we rarely find the mentioning of those artists who did avant-garde everyday fashion for workers, doctors, nurses and pilots, that is, Varvara Stepanova and Ljubov Popova.
Better opportunities for women to study arts in Russia than in Germany
Finally, we get in touch with the art historian and bookwriter Ada Raev. “You search for Varvara Stepanova? She was not exactly a feminist in today’s sense. But Stepanova like others was able to study art thanks to an opening of the education system for women.” Due to the political transformation and crisis of the tsarist system, women were given the allowance to study art. Interestingly enough, Russian regulation, then, was less restrictive regarding female arts students than was the German regulation: “Women of the middle-classes were financially more independent through the marriage laws and allowed to at least learn some professions, like medicine and teaching” Ada Raev has written the book “Russische Künstlerinnen der Moderne”.
Stepanova: the artist as constructor and political agitator
From Ada Raev, we learn more about the artist Varvara Stepanova who understood herself work as a constructor of and agitor for the life of ordinary people. Ada Raev: “Stepanova went to study art in a school for applied arts, but not the high art. The tsarist reform politics had allowed women to study applied arts in order to become teachers for art, while the privilege to study the fine arts at university was reserved to men only.
The progressive function of destruction and the objective to destroy the traditional concept of arts
Further, it is likely that Stepanova, like other women, financed her studies by means of a faked marriage arranged with a friend, so as to receive money from her family for her education. At the art school in Kazan, Varvara Stepanova met Alexander Rodchenko. Their shared studio was a place where life and art were supposed to melt in a creative, chaotic and inspiring way. “The progressive function of destruction and the objective to destroy the traditional concept of arts in the Russian avant-garde can be understood in the historical context of a bourgeois or tsarist society transforming into the wished future class-free system.”
Working as a constructor of functionalist uniforms for female and male workers
In working as a ‘constructor’ of functionalist uniforms for female and male pilots and specialised workers, Stepanova symbolically challenged the traditional romantic image of women associated to the old order. “While other avantgardists staid with designing dresses for theatre plays, Stepanova designed overalls for pilots, the pilot being the signifier of ‘the modern’ in itself, the metaphor of flying that was very important at that time all over Europe. With the soon arrival of repression in Sowjet Russia, Stepanova ‘flexibly’ continued doing professional work as graphic designer, stopped producing clothing AND worked within the system in order to finance herself, Rodchenko’s and their daugther’s life” says Ada Raev.
Future is our only objective – How can we re-invent the ‘New’ today?
At this stage of our search on who the women of the Russian avant-garde were and how we could relate to them, many questions are still open. Avantgardists wanted to design new simple functional clothing for new Humans in a new society, but as we learnt from Ada Raev, their idea to change the forms and to introduce the ‘Karo’ or other geometrical forms did not exactly meet popular taste of the time and of women in the working classes who were more oriented towards folklore motives or flowers. What can we take from the example of Varvara Stepanova for feminism, post-feminism and a possible emerging new Central Eastern ‘feminology’ in the Plotki femzine network? How can we re-invent the ‘New’? How could progressive clothing look like today? Don’t we have to reject the concept of the avantgarde as being elitist and biased in itself? Or (how) could we appropriate it to our needs? And finally, who are ‘we’ and what do we want? It would be great to begin a discussion about all this.
*Varvara Stepanova cited after Angela Völker (1992): Alexander Rodtschenko, Warwara F. Stepanowa, die Zukunft ist unser eiziges Ziel. In: Rodcenko, Aleksandr M. p. 27.
*Ada Raev Russische Künstlerinnen der Moderne: 1870 – 1930 ; historische Studien, Kunstkonzepte, Weiblichkeitsentwürfe. München: Fink, 2002.