Vladimir, fashion and reunification
Text & Concept: Wladimir Kaminer, Michael Köckritz Pictures: Katja Hentschel
Production: Antonietta Procopio Location: Kink Bar & Restaurant
I. Stately fashion
Fashion was not a strange concept in my home country; it was created each year by government-approved and party-vetted designers at the request of the “Ministry of Basic Commodities” and was published on the last page of countless women’s magazines with names like “Soviet Woman”, “Farmer’s Wife” and “Female Worker”. For reasons unknown, the magazine “Health” also ran four pages on modern clothing. Perhaps our leaders already knew at the time that fashion is related to health. Our fashion was aimed at making every man and woman prettier, though its outcome was rather dull, with quantity taking priority over quality. The primary objective of the socialist planned economy was to provide everyone with up-to-date and durable clothing and shoes. Colors and style were incidental. The biggest challenge for clothing manufacturers was that Soviet citizens needed different sizes. Some had big bums and long legs, others had small bums and short legs, and so on. It was impossible to make all the people happy with fashion all the time, as planned economy was only feasible through mass production. Of course, surveys were conducted on the population’s clothing sizes, and the collected data was meant as an input for planning, but that didn’t work. People tended to change their size on short notice. Some lost weight, others gained weight. This drove the socialist government to madness. It would have loved to have set three standard sizes: small, medium and large. Fortunately, each household had a sewing machine, so the purchased goods could be altered.
Of course, surveys were conducted on the population’s clothing sizes, and the collected data was meant as an input for planning, but that didn’t work. People tended to change their size on short notice. Some lost weight, others gained weight." - Wladimir Kaminer
Suit & Tie: Tom Ford
Even if fashion based on planned economy was able to get the sizes right, an even bigger problem was looming. The citizens resented being clothed by the state and rejected the offering that was forced down their throats. They wanted different gear, different shoes, different colors, different styles. What exactly they wanted remained unclear; in any case, they wanted the opposite of what was available. Try as they might, the government and its designers filled warehouses with clothes, but nobody bought them. At the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly eight hundred million pairs of shoes were stored on the premises of footwear factories – four times more than the number of feet in the Soviet Union. What does this teach us? That fashion is not suited to mass production, fashion is reserved for the individual. This mountain of shoes was a sad monument left behind by my crumbling home country. Millions of shoes that never felt the touch of a human foot.
II. Youth fashion
Young people like us did not want to be clothed by the state. We developed our own fashion, a fashion of protest and resistance to our watchdogs. Those who were lucky had rich parents and were able to procure foreign clothes on the black market, while others made their own fashion. Fine fabrics did exist in our country, you just had to get your hands on them. Take silk for example, as in parachutes. A friend of mine joined a club of young parachutists, a major stepping stone towards military service. At the Vnukovo airfield, he managed to steal a parachute. At home, he disassembled the chute into many pieces and used these to tailor the finest lingerie, G-strings, thongs and bikini bottoms. Lingerie was not openly available, at least not made of fine silk. So by cannibalizing just one parachute, my friend was able to indulge several hundreds of women and eventually became as rich as an Arab sheikh. My then-girlfriend had an even smarter idea. Each year, to celebrate the big socialist holidays, big, red banners and flags with a golden hammer and sickle were hung from houses. Some residential buildings even sported two flags on either side, not too far from the ground. You didn’t even need a ladder to steal these flags. All it took was courage, and my girlfriend had plenty of it. At night, she went hunting for flags.
"Young people like us did not want to be clothed by the state. We developed our own fashion, a fashion of protest and resistance to our watchdogs."
She combined two red-golden flags into a classy skirt. As for me, I was wearing German clothes all the time. My mother’s best friend was married to a German. She went back with him to Germany to raise two boys who were growing very fast. Both were two years my senior, one somewhat bigger than the other, and I was catching up. So I received humanitarian aid from Germany on a regular basis. At first, I was given kids’ clothing – I was the only one in my Soviet kindergarten to wear lederhosen. Later additions to my wardrobe were cool jeans, long pullovers reminiscent of garbage bags, short shirts and a light-brown velvet jacket, very trendy at that time.
In these hand-me-downs, I always looked different from my classmates. It made me feel alien and that I belonged somewhere else in this world, possibly Germany.
III. Clothes make the man
There comes a time in our every lives where we define ourselves as a personality. We want to differentiate ourselves and look for a way to best communicate our uniqueness to others. Expressing this through a different rhythm of life is difficult. Most people go to sleep at night and are awake during the day. Some turn this cycle upside down, but the possibilities of creating one’s own rhythm end here. Pretending to be someone else is harder than you think. People categorize and think in stereotypes. One wrong move and you’re a cliché, possibly for the rest of your life. You can express yourself by learning Japanese, playing the violin or going hiking. But who except your closest friends knows about these activities?
"Wearing clothes is also a way of expression, and it does not deceive others."
They see you through your eyes, because the way you dress is the way you want to be noticed and recognized. Donning and doffing clothes is like changing one’s skin. It works like a magic trick: take a look in the mirror, and you behold an entirely different human being. We live in a time where the term “fluid” is growing in importance, as everything is flowing and changing. There is now fluid language and fluid gender – why would people be as solid as a rock, impermeable to change? People change into different garments each night, so they might as well claim that their taste, their fashion is “fluid”. Of course, according to skeptics and cynics, this is not real change, only make-believe, humans wearing camouflage. Don’t judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes. But without looking at the cover, we will never choose a book to read. Clothes are our business card, a kind of greeting, the first reply to the eternal question, “How are you?”
IV. The magic of beauty
Many of life’s challenges and pitfalls are likened to pieces of clothing. Sometimes we are told to “tighten our belts”, or to “buckle down” and “roll up our sleeves”. We better not get “caught with our pants down”, but if we do, we should apologize “hat in hand”. This goes to show that people often act according to their clothing.
Of course, we have to know what we intend to express with our appearance. And this requires fashion – not to follow it mindlessly, but to indulge in our lust for experimentation, to create our own ideas and values, to compare ourselves with others and, maybe, to get to know ourselves a little better. Clothes make some people invisible and others dominant. Fashion is an effort to strike a balance between permanent failure and the fairy-tale of dreams come true, between the magic of beauty and a reality that is not always beautiful. A difficult, if not impossible task. This is why fashion designers are sought-after yet tend to look like aliens stressed by a heavy workload.
A difficult, if not impossible task. This is why fashion designers are sought-after yet tend to look like aliens stressed by a heavy workload.
V. What does “I” mean for myself?
The concept of one’s self may be just an illusion. Each morning, humans assemble themselves from a thousand pieces, and late in the evening, they fall apart. A thousand eyes gaze into the sky every night, and they all see something different. Our reflection in the mirror is inverted without us realizing it. If there were no mirrors at all, would we know what we look like? In that case, everyone would give you a different impression.
In 1976 Julian Jaynes of Princeton University published his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He posited the shocking hypothesis that humans who lived three thousand years ago had no consciousness whatsoever. These humans of yore led a normal life, shared stories, multiplied, went about their daily tasks, but they did all of this without any consciousness. According to this theory, the concept of an “inner self” is new, a development, not a personal but a historical event. In a nutshell, the theory claims that our ancestors had two independent spheres in their brains. They used one half to communicate with God, who spoke to them via rituals and traditions. This is how they received direct instructions, which they followed. The other half was empty. At some point, God became weary and tended to other matters. Unguided people searched high and low for a new voice that would give them instructions and show them the way. In desperation, they even inspected the supposedly empty half of their brain. There, they discovered an “inner self”, a personality that was different for everybody.
»If there were no mirrors at all, would we know what we look like?«
All of a sudden, they valued their distinguishing features. They didn’t want to be the same and act in the same way. It all probably started with a look on a water surface, where people discovered something that did not appear to be a part of the scenery at all: their selves. From that moment on, they started getting dressed, decking themselves out, doing their hair, driven by the desire to look special and stand out from the crowd. Soon after, the first mirror was created, and consciousness kept growing to a point where it occupied both hemispheres of the brain. The production of mirrors increased at a similar pace. The “inner self” opened up new horizons, bestowed the ability to look at ourselves from the outside, through the eyes of God, allowed us to create imaginary situations and to ask ourselves how we would react in this or that situation. Since that time, we have been soliloquizing endlessly and have to change clothes constantly in order to be different from others or, conversely, to imitate others. These days, everyone can look at themselves on the smartphone, millions of selfies are taken each day on this planet, and mirror production is being ramped up. But professional selfie makers know: it’s not the mirror that counts, but how you look in it.