||In this paper I examine how the meaning of an haute couture model will be altered by switching it to another cultural context and social (institutional) framework. For this I would need to describe the Costume that might have served as a regulator of clothing in Hungary in the 1960s. The term Costume is used by Roland Barthes to refer to the Structure of clothing (Barthes:1982), thus the Costume cannot be reconstructed empirically. However, all the actors in the field of fashion have their own concept of Costume. To this extent the history of fashion could be described as a social history of costume concepts. By figuring out the social background of a concept of Costume that might have had impact on a particular dress in 1966, I hope to describe the way Western consumer goods became the objects of fashion in Hungary.
Socialist economy is a system of central planning with recurrent acute shortages of both raw materials and consumer goods . For the clothing industry this meant the restriction of textile production in quantity as well as quality to what was needed for producing the clothes designed by the Central Design Company for the Garment Industry (RTV, set up in 1950.) These ready-to-wear clothes were usually ugly. Moreover, as one of my interviewees (an old seamstress client) put it, they stank:
"I wouldnt have put on anything, not even a T-shirt bought in the shop. It was disinfected with such a brew of sulphur or whatever that you definitely couldnt remove the smell by washing it a hundred times."
Until the beginning of the New Economic Mechanism in 1968, the suits, trousers and jackets sold in the State Department Stores were not only aesthetically unattractive but available only in a very limited range of sizes. If people wanted to dress fashionably, they either had to wait for suits sold from export remains, or had to have them made, after an extended search for an appropriate fabric (for example curtains, old dresses to be remodelled) or the acquisition of some good brand textile abroad.
According to research conducted by the Hungarian Fashion Institute (the successor of RTV) in 1975, while the proportion of privately imported goods was about 1.5 % of the total foreign trade of Hungary, 10% of textile imports was due from shopping tourism in 1960 (Prognosis for Cloth Consumption up to 1985: 1976). The exact distribution of textiles coming from the west and from other socialist countries is not known, though the range of available textiles was probably more or less the same within the Eastern Block (Sik:1997). The only popular textile goods imported from the neighbouring socialist countries were, as the bulletin reports, pretty good quality underwear and table-cloth produced in Romania or Czechoslovakia. From the capitalist countries mainly materials like jersey and of synthetic fibre textiles were obtained. Ready-made pieces were sometimes sent by relatives living abroad, but these were usually second-hand, regarded fashionable only by the young. Ladies preferred to get the cloth and have it sewn by their own seamstresses.
In 1966 Mr. G., a well positioned diplomat of the Hungarian Peoples Republic attended a one-week conference in London. Before returning to Budapest, on the advice of a colleagues wife at the Embassy, he bought four metres of raw silk cloth for his wife. Mrs. G. was delighted and as usual, she took the material to Lady Z., a widely known couturier, in order to find out what sort of fashionable dress could be made of it. Lady Z. sewed a Chanel suit for her first class client. By elaborating on the difference between the Chanel suit worn in the West and the one fabricated for Mrs. G., I want to throw light on the way the meaning of privately imported goods was constructed.
The "poor look" was created by Coco Chanel at the end of the 1920s. Chanels main intention was to create easy-to-wear and, especially, simple dresses for women. Her suit consists of a skirt cut 4-6 cm beneath the knees and a collarless jacket with hem made of a different material. She wanted to "make the rich girl look like the girl in the street" (Ewing:1974; Wilson: 1987). Chanel models originally wanted to be practical (never had jersey been used on such a large scale before!), but they were also made of other, finer, more expensive textiles. Thus the Chanel suit was favoured among upper class clients as well. In the 1930s, Coco withdrew, though her suits had not ceased to be popular. When she returned in 1953, pre-war themes took a new lease of life, and her original philosophy was renewed: "Elegance in clothes means being able to move freely, to do anything with ease
Those heavy dresses that wont pack into aeroplane luggage, ridiculous. All that boned and corset bodices - out with them. Whats the good of going back to the rigidity of the corset? Now women go in for simpler lives
I am no longer interested in dressing a few hundred women, private clients; I shall dress thousands of women."
Soon, Chanel-type suits started to be produced on a large scale by the industry, particularly in the United States where, as Elisabeth Wilson notes "it had indelibly stamped the American 'working girl of the fifties " (Wilson:1987:90). It was the same for the working woman in Western Europe, until the arrival of the new trends of the sixties. Chanel fashion lasted even longer in Eastern Europe. This is not explicable in the usual terms of lagging behind and catching up slowly with fashionable trends. It resulted from rational choice, considering what apparel was regarded as proper in Hungary in the late 1960s.
"Tasteful and/but Pretty"
Fashion politics is ambivalent. In the press, the word "fashion" was hardly ever used to refer to the contemporary style of clothing. Usually it was a derogatory term to reflect on some instinctive drive repeatedly braking out among woman (or, later, among young). In most cases it appears in expressions like the craze, rage, or caprice of fashion. A report in the Womens Journal from 1957 is typical in this respect:
"Some Clothing rage has broken out among women
In the early morning about fifty women are queuing up in front of a shattered store. They are not waiting for lemons, bananas or similar delicacies
- nor for cellophane. They are waiting for small-scale produced clothes
They are snatching the 600 Ft silk poplin shirtwaisters out of each others hands, as if they were for free."
However, the political elite did not regard clothing as so frivolous in fact. The possibilities of ideological indoctrination in "plan-ning" what clothes people should wear, and how they should wear them, was realised early. The RTV not only designed clothes, but also organised fashion shows, where the correct interpretation of dress was attempted to be fixed already in the 1950s. ("not a decorated lady, but a healthy working woman" as an often quoted description said at a fashion show held at the Budapest International Fair.) (F.Dózsa:1991)
As to proper clothes for women, the press uses one term again and again to express the quintessence of all the rules, that apply here from 1957 through the late 1960s. It is "taste-ful and pretty" or, sometimes "tasteful but pretty". This vague ideal seems to refer to at least three different things depending on the context. Following the 1956 revolution in Hungary, the political power sought to present itself as different from the capitalism both in pre-war Hungary and in contemporary Western- Europe, as well as from the Stalinist type of socialism between 1949 and 1956. The "poli-tics of fashion", therefore, had to postulate a way of clothing that differed from what was thought to be typical of the systems the state wanted to break with, or set itself apart from.
1. A style no longer fashionable in Hungary, but still present in capitalist society: The fashion trends of pre-war society were regar-ded as accessible for the exploiting class only. Fashionable meant high priced and expressive only of extravagance in leisure. To avoid the anachronism of expensive adornment and superfluous extravagance you should wear cheap, practical and comfortable clothes (tasteful) which are nevertheless individual (pretty). The "Womens Journal" reports on a fashion-show in Rome, as follows:
"The creators have brought back those old lines which might have been nice in their own time, although certainly not very comfortable. But today they seem anachronistic
what is shown in the great salons is unwearable for the working woman.
We hope that this unfavourable and not very tasteful fashion will be short-lived" (Fashion-letter from Rome. Nõk Lapja. 5th June 1958.)
So the reporter has to walk the streets of Rome in order to see what is tasteful fashion now. She finds that:
"pretty Italian women wear everything. Every-thing that is comfortable
striped, chequered, polka-dot
What is in fashion? What is not in fashion? Pretty Italian women bring their own identity to their dresses and they dont have to pay huge sums for them" (Fashion-letter from Rome. Nok Lapja. 5th June 1958.)
2. A style based on the right idea, but in need of some corrections: During the first half of the 1950s many women wore cloth caps and loden coats not simply because there was nothing else to be had, but also to express the seriousness demanded by the creation of a socialist democracy. The Womens Journal in the 1958 first year lesson in the School for Clothing modifies this idea of the preceding area. Tasteful means here "conformist", while pretty stands for "not drab" or even "cheerful":
"Thus, do not dress in a scandalously different way from what is usual or acceptable in our society. The astonished glances will hardly ever express appreciation. Of course, dont go from one extreme to the other. A grey uniform is nothing to be proud of either; it marks the lack of good mood. A woman should start wearing a hat if it is well shaped, or put on a new dress if it makes her pretty and yet she can remain tasteful." (School for Clothing - lesson No. 39. (Nõk Lapja. 2nd Jan. 1958.)
3. A style based on a bad idea but containing some acceptable elements: The general problem commentators have with Western fashion trends is that the place or occasion which a dress should fit is not properly fixed (This type of rhetoric usually ends by impli-cating that no Western clothes can have a suitable place in a socialist culture.) A book entitled "How should we behave?" (1959) mentions the typical cases when good taste
"It repeatedly occurs even in this country that in the theatre or other places of entertainment we meet ladies in trousers. It also happens that men dance in their shirt-sleeves. This is in bad taste just as much as the habit of the young to ape scandalous "Westernish", "spivi-type" clothing which is unsuited to any occasion" (Burget-Kovácsvölgyi:1959)
As is evident from the quotation, tasteful is also used as a synonym for "required", or "appropriate". After having noted how impor-tant harmony with the event was for being tasteful, the handbook says, that in order to be pretty, both the working womans body and her whole wardrobe must be well-kept and clean, if it is so be pretty.:
"However harmoniously and properly combined the pieces of dress, if a button is missing or a stain spoils the beauty of the dress, we will hardly say that this woman was pretty." (Burget-Kovácsvölgyi:1959)
In the decade between 1958 and 1968, the basic notion of "suitableness" (referred to by tasteful) remained the same, while the usage of pretty underwent significant change. In the mid-60s the fashion-shows in the West became more dramatised. A report on the new Paris fashion communicates this fact in 1968:
"This is really something we have to see critically. Up till now I have been able to inform our readers about pretty, ingenious robes that did not lack taste. These sad girls in the newest creations of the Paris salons are found on the pages of Jours de France. Sorrow and distress have come into fashion in Paris. We buy, wear and believe so many things, but this latest sorrow-fashion should be carefully dosaged and followed only
in its own place and time. For example, no circumstances allow sorrow in the presence of our husband, children, boss, or our enemy. Sadness is advisable if our girlfriends suit is mistailored or if the lady next door complains of her burnt cakes
" (Nõk Lapja. 13th Jan. 1968.)
This new sad style would hurt the optimism of any socialist citizen, although the socialist woman is not reluctant to accept an innovative idea, a new mode of appearance, if it is appropriate to the situation.
What sort of generic fashionable dress can be reconstructed from the "Nõk Lapja" dis-course on proper apparel?. According to the idea of "tasteful" the working woman, that is to say, the whole female population over eighteen, should not care for her appearance for its own sake (but be comfortable), must not spend too much money on clothes (but be simple) and, finally, she should never be oblivious about the circumstances (dress fitted to the occasion). To define what "pretty" is supposed to mean, we shall have a look at a book on polite manners published by the Adult Education Propaganda Office (NPI) in 1967. The author tries to offer a formula consonant with the intentions of the political elite, and offering a guideline for the critique of views expressed by journalists of the preceding decade, he defines proper clothes for the working woman as follows:
"Clothing consists of four elements: protection against the vicissitudes of the weather, hygiene (the way the body must be kept clean), the aesthetic effect on our environment, and finally, the stage of a societys political, economical and cultural development. The first two mirror the expediency of clothing, while the latter two reflect good manner in clothing, namely taste.[
] The general rules of good manner in clothes is to wear modern and simple garments, in harmony with the personality as well as with the occasion for which it was put on." [emphasis in the original] (Varjas:1967:89)
In the Propaganda Offices attempt at codification, suggesting the consideration of both natures impact on man, and mans duty toward the society, the functional role of clothing is emphasised. Still, the most important modification of the "Nõk Lapja discourse" is the exclusion of the term "pretty" on this more abstract and more "politically correct" level. At the time when Mrs.G. had her suit made, "pretty" stood for loosening up the rigidity of "tasteful". It meant "individual" (in addition to "comfortable") and "cheerful" (in contrast of the 50s "seriousness"). While in 1957, judging the costume of the West, the idea of "suitableness" was complemented in a way later accepted by the Propaganda Office. Up to the end of the 1960s "careful" was replaced by "inventive", as is illustrated in the report on the Parisian fashion of sorrow.
It became essential for the pretty woman to be resourceful in inventing small variations in her clothes. The 1962 handbook on "Etiquette, Social Life, Protocol" specifies the role of clothes for women in a position like that of Mrs.G.: the working wife of a high status diplomat, who often travels abroad.
"Hungarian women and girls are famous for their fine clothing all around the world. Their elegant dress is not only a money-problem. There are women who are real artists of variety. Sometimes they work miracles with a skirt that is too wide or tight at the waist with one or two pullovers or a scarf. Their motto: If money is scarce, add an idea!" (Etikett, társasélet, protokoll: 1962.:251.)
nstead of suggesting mirroring the stage of development realised in the garment industry, the handbook emphasises the notion of inventiveness as a national characteristic of Hungarian women, which is to be represented while being abroad. Women should not hesitate making use of any means available for this goal:
"If a woman is skilful with her hands, she may sew her clothes herself. If she is not, why not ask the help of a clever couturière, or a home seamstress?" (Etikett, társasélet, protokoll: 1962.:252).
The Couturier and the seamstress
Haute couture is the exclusive cutting shop, which sells its own models made of its own, tested materials. The couturier in Hungary is either male or a female of aristocratic in lineage. Since the middle of the 19th century, the haute couture of Budapest had been assessed as on a level with Paris, London, or Berlin. Although with an undeniable delay of a year or two, the motifs of Girardi or Stoll reappeared in the models of the great salons. (F. Dózsa:1989.) In the 20th century, the number of couturières was steadily growing, attracting more and more middle-class parti-cipants and practitioners. By the late 1930s it became a typically female and socially less exclusive profession, although with obvious stratification. The ranks within the couturière class were associated with various districts of Budapest. The top rank had their shops in Váci Street or Petõfi Sándor Street. There followed the less exclusive, cheaper but "still very clever" ladies who would also work with cloth provided by the client. Their shops were along the old boundary of the inner city, the outer part of Rákóczi Road and in Király Street. At the bottom, we find the home seamstress who moves in with the family for two or three days, and mends or alters old suits, sews back the buttons for board and lodging. Except the poorest, who usually did their shopping on Teleki Square flea-market, the whole female population used the services of couturières or seamstresses. Although there were department stores with a steadily growing number of customers, their ready-to-wear collections were either expensive or of low quality. Lets see then how the institutional background, the order of the couturières changed after World War II.
Between 1945 and 1948, the couturière community was restructured, showing signi-ficant circular as well as structural mobility. The total number of seamstresses definitely decreased, despite an increase in those not legalised. Most of the elite were either removed to the country (especially aristo-crats), or not given a trade licence, or pushed out of the inner city to the area along Andrássy Avenue. A great many ex-housewives tried to earn their living in this sphere. Most of them started to work at home, or, in the few cases when they had good connections, managed to get a shop and licence. Some former home-seamstresses also obtained licences. Although with a new principle of stratification (licensed or not), pre-war cultural, social or symbolic capital could often be converted into profit in the socialist system.
Lady Z. had to abandon her famous "Conchita Szalon" in Petõfi Sándor Street to yield room for a self-service restaurant. She described the post-war years as follows:
"There was no real couturier life after the war. We went on working for a while, as long as we could with all those troubles. There were no materials, even I couldnt get any, though I was among the top ten. We were given passports to go and see what was going on in Paris, but in vain. Because nobody could import textiles, only Rotschild was allowed to. Then came nationali-sation, and I had to move to Andrássy Avenue. Everyone had to make over the business to her own name. It was a much smaller shop, the whole business was miniaturised, I had no em-ployee. Well, I couldnt have given work to my girls
Well, it was still work and I was legalised.
Anyway, it was not so bad. I am still an enthusiastic couturière . After the war the Americans, then Austrians, English people - a few came to me. And there were the swimming champions who emigrated later.
They came home with their children and wives every year, so I was doing well. My clientele was widening as far as it was possible. And most people knew about this,
that I was good for the top sportsmen. So they came. In those years this was important."
Our Mrs G. was eager to have Lady Z. sew her a new suit because she could not find one in the department store, and she had already got good quality cloth - which could be transformed into a dress only by a seamstress. Mrs G. would choose Lady Z., who was known to be up to with contemporary values (the couturière of the top sports men). Presumably, another reason, reported by Lady Z., was the most important:
"We didnt have to discuss the cut. Most of my clients would tell what occasion the dresses were needed for. Sometimes they also had an idea about the cut, but it was often doubtful, disharmonic or a bit old. This is why sometimes I sketched it first and then we discussed it. But most of them brought the textile and said when they wanted to wear the dress. Otherwise it was <<You do what you want and then we have a fitting!>>
I went to Paris several times, I had really good friends there, so I knew what was on there. If I couldnt go, my clients brought fashion magazines from the GDR. Thus I took the pattern
I did not copy it
I always softened them a bit,
not as much as those [official designers of state firms] did, but a bit
and I took the textile, the client told me where she would want to appear in it and I put all this together as I felt it would be correct." (Lady Z.)
Lady Z. was not only familiar with the latest fashion trends, and knew what counted as proper apparel according to the press in Hungary, but she had an idea about how the clothes would be labelled as fashionable/ proper in reality. In other words, she was able to synthesise these demands in her own concept of costume, and produce dresses according to it. Therefore in most cases the client did not have to care about fashion itself (the changing of trends dictated by haute couture) to be fashionable. Mrs. G. reports the birth of her one-time favourite Chanel suit as follows:
"I got this raw silk cloth around 1966. Originally it was made in China, but my husband brought it from London. Before the war we called this kind of material shantung
it has always been an expensive fabric, it needs much care. The only thing I told Z. was that I needed some multi-functional thing, that I could put on in the office
or on a special occasion like going to the theatre. Then she had an idea
. there was my little old English tailored suit, in which I had done my years in the office for a decade, and to make use of it, she thought to make a passepoil [suit hem]
She would have never wasted even a small piece of textile,.. for that she sewed a Chanel suit. .
The rest was mine
I put it on once or twice a week, always with different bijou [cheep jewellery]
I always varied them, so each day I was new
I was always elegant. At that time they said "tasteful and pretty". I was going to the West very often, because of my job
and my friends said how fashionable I was. I was, but not because of that
Some creativity and the good seamstress (who is a very good friend, by the way)"
Mrs. G.s appearance in her Chanel suit was absolutely proper according to official ex-pectations and demands. The cut was not ostentatious, yet she looked elegant both in Hungary and in the West.
Shortage and consumption practices under socialism
By extending the meaning of the term shortage , on the example of the institution of the seamstress, I try to shed light on how and in what sense the fashion of Western consumer goods was set up and reproduced. After the state had restored its political power in the late 1950s, from 1962 special stress was laid on the so called politics of living standards. This fact is usually accounted for back in the Hruschev programme of "reach and surpass the capitalist system", that promised higher living standards and wider consumer possibilities for the citizens of the socialist states in the following five years, than was possible in the capitalist system (Vörös: 1997). However, in comparison with other countries of the Eastern Block, in Hungary people lived in (relative) well-being, which is to be explained by the Partys perception of the 1956 revolution. In their interpretation, the revolution resulted from the unsatisfied basic needs and decreasing living standards. A marginal reactionary group took advantage of that by leading the people into counter-revolution though the majority of the population desired nothing else but more consumer goods. This is why the reintroduction of rationing has been strictly avoided in Hungary. Owing to the objective capacity of the economy, and the labour division within the CMEA, and above all the actual political considerations, shortage in none of its forms could be ceased, although the Party hoped to base its legitimisation on living standard policy, which was perceived by the population as growing possibilities for consumerism (Hamm-Dessewffy:1997). This is why private and personal modes of satisfaction were implicitly tolerated, such as household farming, (shopping) tourism, or, the legalised institute of the seamstress to compensate for the insufficiency of supply in department stores.
We may differentiate three basic forms of shortage. Absolute shortage means the absence of goods that people are accustomed to being able to purchase without special effort, or their absence is regarded as tem-poral (these good are counted in the category of real/true needs by the political powers). By the term relative shortage the circle of those goods could be described, that are not available in a socialist country (and officially labelled as false needs). Due to pre-war memories, Western relatives, magazines brought from the West etc., a great number of these objects (French champagne, cars, or good quality textiles) were virtually present. This want could not be satisfied as the more people managed to get Chesterfield cigarettes, the deprivation of others became deeper. There is another form of relative shortage, when it is not the desired object itself which is specified, but only one or two of its (social) features. How this appears in everyday life may correspond to a want rhetoric thought to be typical when a fashion mechanism is in place ("I want to buy something in X. department store " "I want to wear something, worn by the upper strata", or "I want to have anything made in the West").
To understand the role of couturières in the culture of consumerism in state socialism, it is to be noted that it was not only the absolute shortage of material and the relatively low price of having bespoke dresses that led the women to visit Lady Z. Mrs M., another client tells how she got acquainted with Lady Z.:
"I used to have an old seamstress who lived in the suburbs and was not very talented
but I felt badly about leaving her, because my mother had bequeathed her to me.
Once my sister [who was living in Vienna] sent me some special, very expensive jersey of a kind I had never seen before.
I used to know its exact name
but I have forgotten. This is why I had to search for a real couturière
Finally, a colleague of mine introduced me to Z.
I remember when another colleague of ours heard that I had changed
she wanted to come, too."
Privately imported fabric can be made into a nice dress only by a couturière, and a good seamstress only works with brought mate-rial. The clients status is indicated by the quality of the material she can bring. It indicates her Western connections and her having access to a good seamstress. A good seamstress evokes good materials and Western connec-tions, while Western connections entail good materials and a good seamstress. The seamstress, the good material, and the Western connection mutually refer to one another. Anyone of them implies the other two. Together they represent the three dimensions of a single status symbol, which remained a typical marker of status in the middle and upper strata until the early eighties. Whoever wants to become a customer of a couturier, or is already one and wants to preserve her status, needs to have access to good quality cloths, which can be obtained from the west. By implication, then, "Western article" ("nyugati cucc") becomes the synonym of good quality, consequently, anything obtained from the west will be found better than its eastern counterpart.
Walking in a raw-silk Chanel suit in the street not simply indicates that an item which is not purchasable in the state department store is "fashionable", but also, reinforces the fashion of Western consumer goods. The clients of Lady Z., while trying to satisfy their needs created in the absolute shortage, reproduced relative shortage in both of its meanings: the yearning for particular goods which happened to be unavailable in a socialist country on the one hand, and generally for those that are available outside of the socialist countries on the other.
From the early seventies on, Western-type fashion, concentrated on the ready-to-wear industry (thus on trademarks), was becoming easier to access. The state garment firms and the Fashion Institute experimented first with their own "counter trademarks", like the Trapper Jeans in opposition to Levis or Wrangler. This experiment failed (as was obvious in the case of Trapper which was stamped "dicy" already in the Seventies). Then they bought licenses, like that of Lee Coopers, but this led only to a new fashion of "original Lee Cooper" jeans, as against licensed, home produced jeans. Finally, at the turn of the 80s, along with the "not prohibited" widening of the second economy, the private tiny shops were legalised which put the (almost) latest Western fashion on sale. Although these boutiques were quite expen-sive, and many of their "original" goods were fakes, Western products became accessible to most people, and this changed, though did not abolish, their fetish character.
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