An elegant former hotel employee remembers dyeing gauze bandages and turning them into ruffled skirts to remain fashionable despite chronic shortages in communist-era Poland.
“It was a major challenge; to make something that was impossible to get your hands on otherwise,” recalled Iwona Koczwanska who groaned when asked her age.
“We had to be creative. I remember once sewing myself a lovely summer dress out of a duvet cover,” she said at the “FASHIONable in Communist Poland” exhibition at the National Museum in Krakow.
Dressed in a leopard-print hat, beige turtleneck and long brown skirt with tassels, Koczwanska reminisced while watching old fashion reels projected onto a gallery wall.
“Look how drab the women are. That’s how it was. Mostly drab women. All alike, in brown, navy blue, grey, grey, grey,” she said of footage that showed women queueing before empty shelves at a shop.
Inventiveness was a must for looking good in Poland’s communist decades from 1944 to 1989 faced with the limitations of a planned economy.
“This exhibition is largely about a time when to participate in fashion, cultural capital mattered more than financial capital,” said Malgorzata Mozdzynska-Nawotka, one of the curators who had been mulling the idea for this exhibit for years.
Fashion under communism reflected the impact of the system on social reality â€” showing the resourcefulness of Poles now on display in Krakow.
In the immediate post-World War II period, with the economy in ruins and privation everywhere, it was the reign of recycled fashion.
Examples in the exhibition include a Girl Scout jacket made out of a parachute and a blouse sewn out of one of the silk maps carried by World War II airmen for when they were shot down over enemy territory.
By the time Christian Dior’s cinched, full-skirted New Look debuted in the West in 1947, the situation in Soviet-controlled Poland had worsened.
“The Stalinist period was a period of repression, a period when communist ideology was heavily enforced, when there was censorship and no shows of sympathy with the West were allowed,” co-curator Joanna Regina Kowalska said.
The regime highlighted the values of a worker or peasant, stressing that daily wear should be comfortable and practical. Aspiring to a higher echelon was a no-no.
Dior’s “New Look” still managed to seep into Polish fashion, though toned down. The exaggerated lines were softened in the copy-cat items because Poles had little access to the right materials or necessary tools to give a skirt its proper form.
The confrontation between the desired and the feasible under communism could be seen in the popular mid-1960s raincoat made of a polyamide fabric called ortalion.
“The desire was for an Italian ortalion coat, which hung nicely and didn’t rustle. But the available alternative was a Polish ortalion coat, which was a lot stiffer and gave off a very distinctive sound,” said Mozdzynska-Nawotka.
“The Western originals were so sought after that there were these gangs in Poland who would switch out the originals for coats of domestic production at restaurants.”
This scam even inspired the 1968 short comedy “Ortalionowy Dziadek” or “Ortalion Grandpa” about a charming old man who supplements his pension by swapping out coats only to get caught by the intrepid militia.
A popular accessory at the time was the mesh bag, nicknamed Anuzka for the phrase in Polish that means “What if I buy something”?
Whatever they had, you bought
“Even an elegantly dressed woman could fit a mesh bag in her purse, so if a store happened to get merchandise that day, you could queue up and you were ready,” said Kowalska.
“Which is typical of the communist era. You didn’t go out to buy anything in particular, you just went to the stores. And whatever they had, you bought it.”
Store shelves were literally bare by the 1980s, when Poland was in deep political, social and economic crisis and a pair of Western jeans could cost an entire month’s salary.
This brought back the kind of DIY creativity that saw Poles dye cotton diapers and turn them into colourful skirts or make tennis wristbands out of sock cuffs. Fashion under communism was also an outlet for blowing off steam, said Kazimierz Bujak, a 66-year-old university lecturer visiting the exhibition, which moves to the National Museum in Wroclaw in May.
“At the very beginning, in the 1950s and 60s, the regime tried to gain some control over how people dressed,â€ he said.