Fashion in Poland after World War II User Culture.pl's picture Culture.pl 2016/08/04
…Between Paris and Moscow, between the silhouettes of the West and the dies of the East, between dreams and poverty, war order and new systems, conformity and rebellion.
When the female citizens of Warsaw began returning to the capital in 1945, they did so in simple, patched suits, in thick woollen stockings marked with traces of home darning, they carried suitcases that held all their belongings, and wrapped their hair in turbans. Art critic Szymon Bojko noted that that great turban protected hair from the ubiquitous dust in the city. Warsaw was a city of rubble – twenty million cubic meters. The smell was also ubiquitous. There was no soap, no toilets, no drains. Magda Grzebałkowska quotes the memories of Janina Broniewska in her reportage 1945:
Ruin from all perspective. There’s nothing. There’s nothing. Here there’s death.
Festival of Poland’s Rebirth, a party for the people on the sidewalks and squares demolished during WWII, near the ruins of Jasiński’s building at the intersection of al. 3 Maja (today al. Jerozolimskie) and ul. Nowy Swiat, Warsaw, April 1947. Photo from the exhibition New Start: Warsaw 1945-1955, History Meeting House; photo: PAP/Jerzy Baranowski Festival of Poland’s Rebirth, a party for the people on the sidewalks and squares demolished during WWII, near the ruins of Jasiński’s building at the intersection of al. 3 Maja (today al. Jerozolimskie) and ul. Nowy Swiat, Warsaw, April 1947. Photo from the exhibition New Start: Warsaw 1945-1955, History Meeting House; photo: PAP/Jerzy Baranowski
Anyone who returned to Warsaw could report to an office and get a one-time allowance of 500zł. In January 1945, one pair of rayon stockings cost 800zł. It seemed that fashion would never return. Poland was in ruins and there was no place for such trivial concerns. The 14 July 1945 issue of Przekroju read:
For heaven’s sake, ladies, see to something else! No one, after all, looks nice. But really, you cannot waste too much time on it, when there are so many important things to do.
But just two months later a ‘Fashion’ section appeared in the magazine and stayed there permanently. The first text was an invitation for fashion to return and a witty manifesto.
Women should be pretty. She should not dedicate half her life to this, but about 1/10th. As much as is normal for men to spend on bridge. Then the world will return to balance and everyone will be happy.
And the world really did find balance – thanks to the needs of fashion and self-care. The capital came alive. The bazaar flourished. Among the ruined homes, in courtyards and non-existent intersections, there started to appear hastily constructed metal boxes advertising ‘Pedicure, Manicure’. Pre-war fashion houses reappeared – shoemakers, stocking makers, tailors, and dressmakers. Advertisements popped up in newspapers telling customers that a plant had survived, or had moved or been renamed. ‘Eternal perm. Guaranteed, formerly at 19 Wolska, now 4 Sewerynów’.
The city’s shopping centre stood at the junction of Al. Jerozolimski and Marszałkowska. At that time, a private boutique, ‘Feniks’, was opened by Jadwiga Grabowska at the corner of Marszałkowska and Koszykowa. Grabowska later became one of the most important figures in fashion design during the era when Poland was under communism. She explained:
I called the workshop ‘Feniks’ [trans. Phoenix], as it was reborn in this poor, ashen, burned Warsaw.
Within a few years, most boutiques were liquidated or nationalized. Feniks, however, began the story of haute couture, which survived the era in which Poland was under communism.
A few years ago, renowned photographer Andrzej Wiernicki recalled being sent to photograph the boutique for Express Wieczorny on his first fashion job. He had no concept for the shoot and had replaced a sick colleague. He heard from the editorial board that it was the first post-war fashion salon – real fashion, ‘not for communists’. He was curious. Years later, he asserted:
Without Jadwiga Grabowska there would not only be no Polish Fashion, but no post-war Polish fashion at all.
After the war, fashion began to return, not only through the boutiques, but also via fashion shows – then called ‘reviews’. They appeared as early as the spring in 1947. When Christian Dior amazed Parisians with the ‘New Look’ – a new ‘A-line’ silhouette that required a dozen meters of fabric to sew a skirt – in Poland, fashion was still coloured by crisis, austerity, and the hardened everyday of war.
Fashion looked to ‘alteration’ – or, as we would say today, ‘recycling’. As described in the press, this ‘creative processing’ aroused the greatest admiration among smart dressers. A journalist in the popular weekly Fashion and Practical Life reported on a fashion show:
The alterations were so beautiful in a harmonious combination of colours, seams, sewing, and lacing that you suspect fashionistas are ready to make new dresses like these, looking at such creative reuse.
Fashion shows were often accompanied by charity events – for example, to collect money for orphans.
The time of war and post-war reconstruction were one of shortage, debris, substitutions, and erasures. When clothes were to be finished after years of everyday wear in a time of war and there was no prospect for anything new, one had to – as was often repeated – ‘somehow make do’. To be fashionable, one often had to look for inspiration outside of their existing wardrobe. Enterprising women sewed with curtains, tablecloths, and blankets, and adorned caps and boots with felt flowers. Every woman sewed. In New Warsaw Courier an article read;
In every house there are old, threadbare sweaters, worn-out pullovers, scarves, etc. They lie forgotten and eaten by moths. Meanwhile, with good intentions and some work, we can refresh, modernize, and make them useable again.
Men’s wardrobes also became a source of inspiration. Men – in the army, sent back from forced labour, fighting with partisans – left behind closets full of clothes. Women fighting on the home front, behind the scenes of war, used these found materials to sew new coats and dresses. After the end of occupation, black outfits were in fashion and known as ‘English’, as they were made from the suits of visiting men. Magazines noted:
In each closet there hangs, for example, an old tuxedo of the master of the house, who himself wore it to a wedding 30 years ago. It would seem to be such a useless thing, already purposeless, but that is not so. From a tailcoat, waistcoat, and trousers women can make a very nice and stylish outfit. If any women do not live in a house with an old tuxedo, no need to worry, just refashion any clothing your husband no longer wears.
Fashion can not only defend against war, but can also use the materials of war. Many elegant women recycled parachutes into blouses and dresses. They offered thin, closely woven silk, then later nylon. At the end of the war, the British began to use excess materials in wedding dresses, and after the war, surplus parachutes reached Poland.
Modest clothing resources reached Poles from the charity work of the United Nations and UNRRA (Organization of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation). These were not, however, straight from Paris runways, but more typically khaki, jackets with epaulettes, parkas, green military sweaters, and wool ties. This military style became fashionable for men. It is impossible to talk about the reconstruction of cultural masculinity after the war without mentioning Zbigniew Cybulski, who appeared in Ashes and Diamonds wearing a jacket from UNRRA, or Marek Hłasko, who wrote about how, thanks to his M-65 military jacket, he became the most handsome guy on the block.
Women had to learn how to creatively reimagine this military clothing. It became popular to carry military bags and wear military style suits and even altered military coats. Fortunately, aid packages occasionally included dresses – these were the dream: full skirts, round hips, narrow waist, and fitted sleeves. Most fashionable women in the 1940s, however, had to settle for combining: sew a dress from the donated package, or a gown? Many tried to recreate in their dressing rooms some pre-war elegance. Rylska advises diamonds, and Lucynka sense
Hence, a lot of evening dresses were reminiscent of styles of the 1930s. Even the magazine Przekrój was not sure how the new Polish woman was to dress. Initially there was a character – dubbed ‘the patron Rylska’ – who tried to restore old manners and customs, and jokingly noted that ‘a Christmas gift must come from the heart, even if it is a modest diamond ring’. Such refinement, however, only found a place in jokes.
Every day, although they fed their eyes on reprints of foreign fashion magazines, women chose practical clothing. They did, however, look forward with hope – and sewed themselves dresses with cheap viscose rayon. This material was available to everyone, and the grey streets flourished with women’s wardrobes, which influenced fashion designers and offered evidence of bourgeoning spring optimism.
Soon, it turned out, that a completely different fashion than anticipated arrived in Poland. In the late 1940s, communism claimed fashion as one of the areas of aesthetics and everyday life in which the spirit of socialist realism was to be expressed. From that point on, fashion was to be modest and asexual. Feminine silhouettes were made more masculine; blouses were buttoned to the neck, hips widened, and heads flattened by berets or caps.
Przekroj’s ‘Rylska’ had been silenced. By 1949, in her place appeared ‘Lucynka and Paulinka’, who looked to bring ‘common sense’ to ideas and fashion trends. While the flighty Paulinka always wanted to buy and delight in fashion, the practical Lucynka constantly reminded her that functionality and efficiency are what matter. The ‘fashion bourgeois’ pushed towards constant consumption, but Polish citizens were to value practicality above all else – even if the aesthetics of the ‘shock workers’ disgusted them.
Olgierd Budrewicz mocked Jadwiga Grabowska’s ideas about fashion in Bedeker Warszawski. He claimed that her version of elegance wasn’t for everyone.
In shop windows and showcases are a few examples of dresses and coats that cost several thousand zlotys. From time to time a normal woman runs the risk of wandering into the showroom – and almost always leaves broken and bitter. Only the wives of diplomats and the Life photojournalist Lisa Larsen leave standing tall.
This shift in fashion began with a three-year plan for the economic reconstruction of the country (1947-1949), whose slogans ‘raise the standard of living for workers’ or ‘socialization’ in practice meant simply the nationalisation and centralisation of control of all forms of private property. This mainly affected large enterprises; private craftsmen and tailors survived. They would be the ones who supplied the youth with new fashions. People often were seen peering into the tailor shop with their purchases from the state fabric market. Efforts were made to cover up what was obvious to everyone – poverty. The image of a dazzlingly beautiful socialist women and her handsome lover were nothing more than an illusion created for films such as Adventure in Mariensztat. Everyday ordinary people still wore repurposed clothes, made from what was at home, supplemented with ‘national products’ that were of poor quality and drab colour. Beatniks and kittens buy junk Tadeusz Rolke, advertisement for the Smyk Department Store, 1960; photo: Taduesz Rolke / Agencja Gazeta Tadeusz Rolke, advertisement for the Smyk Department Store, 1960; photo: Taduesz Rolke / Agencja Gazeta
With the first post-war generation, however, there developed dreams of a different story, with different colours and different ideals. From that generation – even before the International Youth Festival in 1955 – emerged the first youth countercultures in Poland under communism – beatniks (bikinarz) and kittens. This generation rushed to new markets – ‘Różycki’ in Warsaw and ‘na tandetę’ (‘for junk’) in Kazimierz in Kraków. Of the market in Warsaw, Agnieszka Osiecka wrote that it served as the ‘Great Therapist’ to the Polish soul – it let them rewrite the trauma of scarcity and deprivation. Bikiniarz - kolorowe skarpetki i krawat, fot. F.Koziński. Reprodukcja FoKa/Forum Beatniks – colourful socks and ties; photo: F. Koziński, reproduction: FoKa/Forum
The beatniks loved everything that seemed American and associated with jazz. They wore big coats, cropped narrow pants, platform shoes, flat caps, colourful ties with bold patterns, and striped socks, which became a symbol of this group – partly thanks to the famous representative of the culture, writer Leopold Tyrmand.
The female beatniks – ‘kittens’ – favoured the fashions of American teenagers. They liked hoop skirts, tight sweaters, colourfully patterned blouses, and teased their hair into ponytails or ‘elaborate chaos’. Camel cigarettes, sunglasses, and dark eye makeup in the style of Hollywood femme fatale Rita Hayworth were also quite popular.
‘Kittens’ and ‘beatniks’ had decidedly negative connotations – it was several year before these girls and their icon Brigitte Bardot appeared on the cover of Przekroju.
Many magazines continued to repeat the mantra that bourgeois fashion was uncomfortable, immoral, and wanted to rule the wearer. Socialist fashion, in contrast, was celebrated as comfortable, natural, body friendly, and above all, as catering to the needs of the user and wrinkle-free.
Poles after the war had to constantly manoeuvre between Paris and Moscow, between the silhouettes of the West and the dies of the East, between dreams and poverty, war order and new systems, conformism and rebellion. Post-war fashion in Poland continued to fight – first for its right to exist, and then over its identity.
Smoking was very widespread. When I watch old films or serials, almost every character smokes. When I first smoked at 7 (after findind a full packet near the house), my parents only laughed. I also remember that during family reunions, the house was filled with cigarette smoke. Smoking was allowed practically everywhere.
There were a lot of children in communist times - compared to other entertainment offers at the time, sex was the easiest and cheapest and most available so people made children like rabbits.
But there wasn`t much entertainment for kids either - the choice was limited. So, kids had to invent their own games. Look at the boy on the stairs - he is playing with a toy tank. Did he imagine she was like one of characters from the war adventure TV series?
A few weeks ago I saw an intoxicated man in the street. He was wearing an overalls, looked like a construction worker coming back home. Today such views are rare, but in the past - very common. People used to drink a lot in communist times, mostly vodka because it was quite cheap, compared to wine or even beer. The first time I had a hangover was at 13. People treated it just as another kind of entertainment - quick, cheap, available.
1 May was always the most important communist holiday. People went to streets and attended parades with proper slogans on banners. Staffs of various workplaces, even sport clubs, always marched together. Sometimes deficit goods were available at stalls or from trucks.