Artists Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova entered into the new world for women in post-Revolutionary Russia as designers for a new way of life for the liberated woman. But beneath the jaunty new outfits and the vivid fabrics was the actual lived existence of real women. As they found, the old ways die hard and men, used to being in power, were loath to share social prestige or economic advantages. Even though the early revolutionaries were eager to utilized the creative talents of women and hard labor of women was desperately needed to remake the post war world, the Revolution itself launched a hundred-year struggle for equality between men and women. During the Great War, women had moved into industrial positions once filled by men, but when the Civil War ended in 1921 and the New Economic Policy caused huge shifts in the labor force, women were laid off so that men could be rehired. The repositioning of the economy from capitalism to socialism to a modified capitalism meant that women were caught up in years of employment insecurity and that, due to prevailing patriarchal attitudes, they would always be on the losing end.  In 1918, women were granted the right to divorce and the courts were flooded with petitions from women eager to end arranged marriages—a deluge of requests that went on for years, until the economic situation of the late 1920s forced women to remain in unhappy unions for financial reasons. By the mid-1920s Russia had the highest divorce rate in Europe and abortion was common, especially in cities. In the textile industry, the world of Popova and Stepanaova, 60% of the workers were women. But during the time the artists worked in the textile industry, women also were being laid off in massive numbers and those who were left behind were forced to compete with men. Industry and businesses preferred male workers over women who, having been given protections against nightwork and restrictions for work if they were pregnant or nursing, had become more expensive. Married women who had husbands were fired and sent home; unmarried women, the sole support of their families were also laid off. Unions, seeking to salvage employment for males, led the drive against women in the work place. Because the liberation of women was critical to the Revolution, the Party attempted to step in and protect the women, but the managers continued to discriminate against women. It is against this background of struggling women, fighting to survive, that the artists designed in a utopia for the female of the Revolution. Wedged between War Communism and Stalin’s Great Turn in 1928, the NEP, with its disruptions and inequities was a halcyon time for women, who would be reassigned to their traditional orthodox roles as wife and mother under the conservative era of Stalin. In 1922 Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes which left him paralyzed and limited to one word utterances. When he died in 1924, Lenin was immortalized and Stalin out maneuvered Trotsky in a power struggle. Trotsky was an internationalist who wanted to continue to fight the cause of communism across the world, but, given that the proletariat in other nations had shown little inclination to rise up and throw off their chain, Stalin’s nationalist position of making socialism succeed in Russia seemed preferable. However, Trotsky’s belief that being surrounded by capitalism meant eventual extinction for Communism in Russia was proved to be correct in 1989, and in the meantime, Stalin consolidated his power during the 1930s by murdering millions. The artists worked during years that seemed filled with opportunity and optimism and during these exact same years, political forces beyond their control were gathering to put an end to artistic freedom. 

“To the Working Women”

The Soviet government was the first and only government in the world to abolish completely all the old, bourgeois, infamous laws which placed women in an inferior position compared with men and which granted privileges to men, as, for instance, in the sphere of marriage laws or in the sphere of the legal attitude to children. The Soviet government was the first and only government in the world which, as a government of the toilers, abolished all the privileges connected with property, which men retained in the family laws of all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic. It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life. We want women workers to achieve equality with men workers not only in law, but in life as well. For this, it is essential that women workers take an ever increasing part in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state. By engaging in the work of administration women will learn quickly and they will catch up with the men.

Vladimir Lenin. Pravda (February 22, 1920)

Both Popova and Stepanova were involved with a Russian version of “dress reform,” which can be seen as part of the larger revolution that supposedly liberated women. But what should be the vision of the new Soviet woman? Was she subordinated to the new system or was she free to express herself? The pair wanted to create a new uniform with was democratic, that is, did not reveal class origins—now that everyone was equal—and many of these clothes were unisex and utilitarian. Their fabric designs were deliberately intended to be devoid of historical associations, in keeping with the new form of government and the unprecedented equality in society. The Constructivist philosophy stated that the artist would be of more use when participating directly in improving the existing situation, according to its needs. In keeping with the Utopian ideals of the time, acted out in Germany as well as Russia, the artists believed that their efforts—whether through architecture or fashion–would make a new society. Popova’s fabric designs tended to use smaller motifs, well suited to the female form and her ideal woman tended to be urban and chic, rather Parisian. Popova is close to Terk-Delaunay in that she imagined the New Soviet Woman as a middle-class flapper in her very delightful and charming dresses. With Popova, the garment becomes an object of fashion and style and therefore of desire, perilously close to a commodity. Her costumes for theatrical productions were more Russian and historical in their associations, particularly the characteristic cap worn by Russian males. In fact, there seems, in her designs, to be a clear contrast between the proletariat and the stylish woman in an urban center. In contrast, Stepanova envisioned another kind of woman, the athlete, the active woman who was taking advantage of her liberation by playing games and exercising her newly exposed body. There is a 1923 photograph of Stepanova posing in one of her own designs, a romper that frankly looks better as an abstract drawing than a garment worn by a real woman whose movements rumple the strict straight lines of the abstract designs. She used only a ruler and compass for her designs which had the effect of enforcing a reductive simplicity for the most efficient design. Using two colors for the circle, the triangle, and the rectangle, she inferred that the universe of diversity that was the old Russia had been universalized into a new streamlined modern society working and playing in unison and harmony. Although Stepanova was not as adept as Terk-Delaunay in making sure that the abstraction could be adjusted to the body itself and that the designs on the fabric would hold their own while living on the active body, she was daring in the shortness of the pants. In America women who wore bathing suits were being subjected to having their skirt lengths measured so as to not expose too much tight, but Stepanova seemed happily untroubled by distant prudishness as she stands legs apart hands on hips like the strong woman she was. Her striking sports clothes, characterized by bold stripes, red and black, could be worn by men and women alike who could wear these rompers playing any number of sports. When the women, who modeled these utilitarian sports outfits were photographed, the garments seem poorly cut and constructed, perhaps a function of the lack of experience in how to fit pants for women. 

Like Terk-Delaunay, who envisioned mass produced fashion that would eliminate the class division between prêt-à-porter and haute couture, Popova and Stepanova tried to design clothes that were a variation of Terk-Delaunay’s use of the tissu-patron which delivered the fabric and the dress design to the customer as an integrated product. Like architects in Europe who thought in term “typification” or standardization, Popova and Stepanova worked with templates which could be varied by fabric design not necessarily by changing the cut of the garment.  In other words, a simple easy to make garment enlivened by bright bold designs could be mass manufactured by machines. The workers in the textile industry would be gainfully employed—and most of the were women—and the Soviet economy could be moved forward—thanks to art and artists. However, both Popova and Stepanova designed for a fantasy client and for an imaginary world that never came about in their lifetimes. The targeted clients were put off by the Suprematist motifs. Not quite understanding the origin of the designs, the average woman had been trained to prefer traditional floral designs and was not inclined to be avant-garde, nor did she seem to want to put on new clothes that would change her life, meaning her attitude. Adding to the difficulties of re-dressing a society, the Soviet authorities who visited the 1925 world’s fair in Paris, the exhibition that inspired the name Art Deco, saw the disturbing similarities between Cubism and Soviet revolutionary designs in art, design and architecture. Of course, there were common roots, and this morphological affinity disturbed the ideologically pure Revolutionaries, who were dismayed by the decadent uses of decorative art in French culture, indicating the un-Russian roots of the ghosts of avant-garde art. Over the next ten years, government opinion would turn decisively against the avant-garde. Popova did not live long enough to be repressed by the Stalinist regime, she died of scarlet fever in 1928. Stepanova and Rodchenko found that Stalin was uninterested in their productions and receded into a safe background, living out their lives quietly in a Russia where the avant-garde was no longer welcome. Rodchenko devoted himself to photography and returned to painting and other less politically loaded pursuits. The erasure of the avant-garde past was a Stalinist act and was a visible assertion of or an announcement of a new power overtaking an old power—Soviet socialist realism replacing the impossible dreams of the avant-garde with a regressive return to the idea that it was the ruler, not the artists, who would construct this new utopian dream. It has been pointed out that, at the official level—that is art above the folk art or peasant culture—Russia had no modern culture of its own. Since Peter the Great everything had been borrowed from the West. The ruling class thought only to modernize and to upgrade that which was primitive and backwards to bring Russia into contemporary society. The Constructivism which characterized the early twentieth century in the Russian avant-garde was based upon European inspirations and was part of an international dialogue on modernity. Certainly, there were uniquely Russian versions of modernism, reconfigured for the needs of the Revolution, but there was nothing inherently or uniquely Russian about the avant-garde before or after the Revolution. Stalin had no hesitation in wiping out recent history and producing his own vision of Communism. While it is customary to retell the myth of the avant-garde as victim—and there is a great deal of truth in that interpretation—Soviet Socialism under Stalin was equally powered by the intelligentsia, who were fueled by a practical need to communicate. Avant-garde art, expressed most widely through posters and mass media, was, to be sure, difficult for the lower classes to connect with, but with the proper government intervention, this new language could have become the new visual vocabulary of the Stalinist stage of the Revolution, but Stalin needed his own style, his own message delivered in his own vocabulary. However, history is nothing if not ironical. Today, the aesthetic of Stalin has also been swept into the discard pile along with the naïve fantasies of the avant-garde. Russia continues its identity struggle, seemingly reaching back beyond the avant-garde of the twenties and the Stalinist era from the thirties, to find inspiration in the empires of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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