I have always been interested in the impact of the Russian Revolution on art, music, textiles and clothes. It was such a radical break with Tsarism that for a while culture really flowered. Some of these designs remain strikingly modern and are quite inspirational. As I was looking for inspiration for lino printing I discovered an interesting set of ideas and images that I want to share with you.
The Russian revolution, was in many ways, a short-lived explosion of creativity and dynamism. Effectively it degenerated in Stalinism and his Soviet Realism approach very rapidly. But during the period of the revolution itself Russian art began to extend beyond the traditions of representational painting. Radical artists such as Kandinsky and Lissitsky began to experiment with colour and form in painting, resulting in pure abstraction. Theatre itself was seen as “Agitprop” – an opportunity to change hearts and minds, and the costumes on show at the V&A exhibition (which has just closed) were interesting for fashion designers to study.
Starting in 1919 Russian Constructivism thought of art as a system of “production” – art with a social meaning and practical purpose. Joining the group were “artists-engineers” Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Lyubov Popova. They saw the potential of art and artistic endeavour to change society, and make new forms of artistic expression available to the people, and this involved clothes and fashion.
They believed that workers – male and female – needed practical, simple, hygienic clothing. They believed that providing good quality clothes, beautiful but practical clothes, would improve the lot of the wearer. They challenged symmetry, fussiness and old style pre-revolution attire, creating geometric shapes and bold, bright, colours. Artists Varvara Stepanova and Lyubov Popova both worked in a textile factory, the Tsindel, designing fabrics and patterns for dresses. Popova designed her own version of the flapper dress, whilst Stepanova collaborated with Alexander Rodchenko to design overalls. Using abstract textile designs they aimed to create clothes that were both useful, and reflective of their own artistic vision of a better world.
Stepanova and Tatlin also developed the idea of “prozodezhda” (“production clothing”) and “’specodezhda” (“specialised clothing”); the latter were for occupations which required something specific such as work in a hospital, or foundary – form would follow function. Unnecessary and decadent decoration was rejected, but they used strongly contrasting textiles, bold matching and stripes, with revealed details such as buttons and stitching to remind the wear of how the garment was made. These were uniforms of sorts – aimed at factory workers and various professional specialist these items rejected individual preferences and social differences which had dominated clothes before the revolution. Instead they emphasised the practical role of the wearer in society. There was also a rejection to some extent of gender specific clothing. None of these ideas ever went into production – the new revolutionary government had more important things to do.