Who Am I? And If So, How Many?
Text & Concept: Wladimir Kaminer, Michael Köckritz Photos: 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.