Fashion and Femininity in Soviet Russia

Essay 2006 12 Pages

Gender Studies



1 Introduction

2 Theory
2.1 Kathy Davis: Embody-ing Theory
2.1.1 Body as a message of Individuality
2.1.2 Feminism and the Body
2.2 Sandra Lee Bartky: Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power
2.2.1 What makes a body feminine?
2.2.2 Disciplinary Institutions

3 Fashion and Femininity in Soviet Russia
3.1 The Soviet Look
3.1.1 Symbolic clothes
3.1.2 Disciplinary Institutions
3.2 The 1980s and 1990s

4 Summary

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“Clothing as one of the most visible forms of consumption, performs a major role in the social construction of identity.”[1]

The First and Second Five Year Plan of Stalin, to create out of Russia as soon as possible a fully industrialized economy, brought drastic changes in social life. Women were especially affected by these plans. They could find themselves in a dilemma between how to balance the fact to be a worker and keep in the same way their femininity.[2] These plans offered women rights they never had before, as entering in the workforce. But in the same way it was difficult to keep femininity, especially regarded to fashion. In Soviet Russia Western luxus was seen as the “evil” – women would rather dress as men than wear the latest fashions and risk being considered traitors.[3] In the first line a Soviet woman was an industrial worker and a housewife. Her clothes had to comply with this function – fashion had to be practicable neither than feminine.

An important issue about clothes in Soviet times was the fact that they were used by authorities and society to produce and strengthen the collective ideology. One result was social repression of people who did not fit into the collective scheme.

The following essay gives an overview of the women fashion in Soviet Russia; how Soviet fashion looked like and what symbols are behind these clothes. But at first I will point out two analysis about body theories; Kathy Davis’ “Embody-ing Theory” and Sandra Lee Bartky: “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”. These theoretical aspects are important to understand the impact of clothing on the society, in our case the impact on women and their femininity in Soviet Russia.

2 Theory

2.1 Kathy Davis: Embody-ing Theory

2.1.1 Body as a message of Individuality

For Davis the ideology that personal consumption presents the individual as free, to be able to construct the own small world, dominates our contemporary society. For her the body is the ideal vehicle to achieve a glamorous life-style. The body is used as an identity-project. With it people can show who they are. The majority wants to have a young, thin, sporty, sexual and successful looking body. Therefore humans exercise the body, undergo plastic surgeries and so on.[4]

2.1.2 Feminism and the Body

Feminists used the body as a political issue to gain control over women fertility and the right of abortion. The body was their measure to make analyses of power relations and patriarchy. The woman’s body showed everything weak as emotionality, irrationality and sensuality which had to be brought under control by the (dis)embodied objective, the man who is masterful with a masculine will, the locus of social power, rationality and self-control.[5]

A very interesting issue of Davis’ analysis is the impact of the beginning and development of the sexual education, especially of the woman’s body. The science of women’s health focused her weakness as menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy. This supported the view of the weak feminine body. It showed that a woman is by her nature unstable, deficient, diseased, compared to a man’s body. For a lot of people this was an argument to bare women from high education, typical men professions, top management positions or the service in the army. The female body was used to show domination and control.[6]

For Davis sexual difference plays an important role for the explanation of embodiment. One reason is that individuals interact with their body, through their body. If somebody talks to a person they sea each others bodies, the movements, the reactions caused by the conversation. The body is one reason of social repression. Dominant cultures estimate groups according to their bodies. And subordinate groups are almost every time defined by their bodies: female, skin colour, fat, elderly. The dominant, disembodied groups as men or white coloured humans set the standards of what is aesthetic or merit less.[7] In our case the dominant, disembodied group consists of men. For centuries they dominated women. The female body justified social inequality and power hierarchies based on gender and body differences. These differences caused male domination and female subordination.[8]

According to Susan Bordo some women try to escape out of this cycle of “never being good enough” with disciplining their bodies more and more through sports or exercises. Others women as Madonna upset their own normative concept of male or female. They create symbolic space and use the body as a statement.[9] And at least many become sick; they suffer anorexia and other psychological and physical diseases.

2.2 Sandra Lee Bartky: Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power

2.2.1 What makes a body feminine?

According to Sandra Lee Bartky a human being is born female or male, but not feminine or masculine. To be masculine or feminine is an achievement which includes three categories of practices to make a body feminine.

Firstly the practices that produce a specific type of the boy, a certain size, weight and so on. The ideal body of a woman of the present western society is marked by a taut, small breasted, narrow hipped and slim figure. To reach this ideal women discipline their bodies through diets, sports and finally plastic surgeries. Sometimes women discipline their body in a way they get sick, psychological diseases, anorexia.

Secondly, Bartky mentions that there are gender specific gestures, postures and movements. In her point of view typically for the women’s movements is grace and eroticism and they are more trained to smile than men are.

And finally women can create their bodies to an ornamented surface through make-up and clothes. What clothes or make-up a woman has to wear is told for example by the movie or cosmetic industry. They show the perfect image of a woman, soft and smooth skin without any sign of age and removed from every hair besides the head.[10]

In Bartky’s opinion on the one hand the industry tells the women that they can produce a high level of self expression with a different combination of clothes and make-up, but on the other hand the industry gives schemes about what is in and feminine. At the end this shrinks the self expression. For her the whole feminine behaviour is put on a fixed timetable as for prisoners or school kids.[11]

For upper-class women the ideal picture of a woman is relatively easy to reach, but not for women of poorer backgrounds. They don’t have the money to buy the most fashionable clothes, make-up or go to the hairdresser that often. In the point of view of the upper class or the industry such women are less feminine.


[1] Craine (2000),p.1.

[2] Needham, [WWW document].

[3] Needham, [WWW document].

[4] Davis (1997), p.2.

[5] Davis (1997), p.5.

[6] Davis (1997), pp.6-7.

[7] Davis (1997), pp.9-10.

[8] Davis (1997), p.10.

[9] Davis (1997), p.12-13.

[10] Bartky (1993), pp.27-33.

[11] Bartky (1993), pp.32-33.


ISBN (eBook)
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387 KB
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Institution / College
University of Tampere
1,0 Germany, 5 Finland
Fashion Femininity Soviet Russia



Title: Fashion and Femininity in Soviet Russia