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2 February, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

The Western Brand

The socio-cultural revolution of soviet mods against boring clothes, music and behaviour in the USSR

At the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, a new phenomenon wowed soviet totalitarian society, penetrating the USSR from Western Europe and the USA after the end of WWII. It is connected to the emergence of a youth subculture in the USSR, known as stiliagi or mods, fashionistas, dandies – however you want to call them. Stiliagi, the term to describe soviet mods who followed and copied the lifestyle of young people in the West was coined by soviet jazz musicians and became particularly popular after a sarcastic comment by soviet music critic, Dmitri Beliaev.  

THE JAZZ STAGE

Historians and sociologists associate the emergence of the phenomenon of this subculture with the birth and the growing popularity of rock’n’roll as a style of music and dance. Some see individual expressions of it among the youth communities in inter-war Western Europe and North America that evolved alongside jazz.

Jazz emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the US as a fusion of African and European music. Having become extremely popular during the inter-war period, jazz became the central cultural arena that generated youth protests against traditional behavior and the dominating etiquette. Improvisation, polyrhythm and the jazz pulse created a favorable environment for young people to search for alternative means for the development of culture and lifestyle.    

During an era of prosperity and the establishment of a consumer society in American counterculture, the “flaming youth” was fascinated by jazz and cars which, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, became an integral attribute of the everyday life of inter-war America. Teenagers were known for their passion for alcohol as a reaction to the prohibition instituted by the federal government. After the repeal of prohibition in late 1920s the jazz, alcohol and car subculture did not disappear, but transformed into other forms. During the height of the Great Depression which fueled unemployment and poverty, teenagers united into local groups, tellingly known as the “dead end kids”, whose activities were often reflected in movies and comic books.

Different forms of lifestyles were seen among the youth in Western Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. The specific conditions of the Nazi regime in Germany brought forth the “swingjugend” or swing kids. These were youthful fans of jazz and swing that were officially banned in the Third Reich. They evolved into the Edelweiss Pirates during WWII, as a protest against the strictly regulated life of German teenagers.

Zazous was a bright subculture in Hitler-occupied France, which became a specific form of escape from the dominating spirit of servitude and collaboration.  

PROTESTING AGAINST POVERTY

Soviet mods were part of the global youth movement that emerged on the basis of the post-war street subculture. On the one hand, the factors leading to this phenomenon that stood out so brightly in soviet society included the expansion of the USSR’s international contacts during and after WWII and the influx of trophy items and clothes brought by soviet soldiers from Central and Eastern Europe as they returned home from war. On the other hand – the psychological discomfort of the post-war soviet youth, which felt the acute disharmony between the miserable and monotonous life in the USSR and the “luxurious” lifestyle in the West.  

Raised in the communist environment, young people had very little room to express their uniqueness and individual lifestyle. Since their early years, the party and related organizations would unswervingly watch over them, using the Komsomol (the Young Communist League), to dictate an officially determined code of conduct, as well as the moral and aesthetic values of a soviet person, that left no room for individual manifestation.      

Despite the Cold War and ideological conflict with the West, during the Khrushchev thaw, soviet youth became evermore influenced by the new trends of the bourgeois world, a trend that the Iron Curtain between the two hostile camps could no longer stop. International cultural contacts that expanded in the late 1950s, imported both new ideas and goods, especially clothes, from Western markets to the USSR.

Global fashion trends penetrated the USSR as a result of steep technological progress in the West, albeit much later and strictly supervised by the central party. In the late 1950s, fashion shows took place on a regular basis in the palaces of culture, but the collections were mostly limited to clothes for dairymaids, kolkhoz and poultry farm workers, tractor operators, builders etc. The government cultivated the image of a working woman for whom bourgeois interest in “rags” was alien.     

The Moscow youth and student festival in 1957 changed this somewhat, directly influencing the introduction of new elements of modern culture including fashion trends into the USSR. The ban on jazz was lifted that same year.

YOUTH REVOLT

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the USSR faced a revolt on several levels among its youth, as the manifestation of the traditional conflict between generations and a form of protest against soviet monotony.   

Western cinematography, particularly films that entered the USSR as war trophies, contributed to this. As young people watched Western films, they started to emulate the walk, dancing,  hairstyles and clothes of the actors, drawing on the lifestyle of a totally different world.  

The first fashionistas emerged in the USSR in the late 1940s, peaking during the Khrushchev thaw. The mods were characterized as being demonstratively apolitical, negative or indifferent towards individual standards of the soviet code of ethics, emphatically non-conformist, spontaneously protesting against accepted model soviet behavior, way of thinking and the monotonous clothes, music, lifestyle and entertainment.  

Head held high, the arrogant looking down the nose at others and a particular gait, were supposed to signal a soviet dandy’s bohemian lifestyle. In their early years, soviet mods looked more like caricatures, wearing wide colorful pants, baggy jackets, wide-brimmed hats, brightly colored socks and infamous “jungle-fire” ties. Their dress code later underwent a dramatic evolution from shocking outfits to glamorous and elegant skinny pants, backcombed quiffs, elegant wide-shouldered jackets, thin ties and cane umbrellas. Reindeer sweaters borrowed from the Sun Valley Serenade and The Girl of my Dreams films were a must for mods. Pointed shoes with platform crepe soles were their favorite footwear.  Popular summer wear included bright Hawaii shirts with colorful floral prints and the like.

For a mod girl, it was sufficient to wear colorful makeup and a hairdo known as the “peace wreath”. Tight skirts, moulded to the hips were considered to be very chic. Copying models in Western fashion magazines, girls wore pants, silk floral print blouses and winkle-pickers.  

Jazz and rock’n’roll was the favorite music of soviet mods. Their favorites were Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. The deficit of vinyl records made young music lovers record music on X-ray pictures, known as “rock on the bones”. They were popular until tape recorders emerged on the market. Favorite dances included boogie-woogie, rock’n’roll and the twist. In addition to clothes, music, dances and manners, mods stood out for their slang which was partly borrowed from jazz musicians.

Leningrad and Moscow were the biggest mod centers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many foreign tourists visiting the cities left behind a visible mark of Western culture.  In the mid-50s it spread to the periphery, embracing soviet teenagers in Kazan, Nizhniy Novgorod, Perm, Baku, Tashkent, Alma-Ata and Kyiv, the capital of soviet Ukraine.

One group called the Submarine was started by a group of students promoting Western culture and lifestyle at 14, Saksahanskoho St., in 1957. The mods hung out at writer Vasyl Mynka’s place and the Writers’ Club. Some other mod communities set up in 1958–1959 had expressive names, such as “Cinema” and “Bar Office”.

ELIMINATING WESTERN STYLES

In the late 40s, the Stalin regime launched a campaign against “ rootless cosmopolitanism” to eliminate the Western effect on life in the USSR. The purpose of numerous satirical articles, caricatures and critical articles was to mock and reveal the “low, immoral essence” of soviet teenagers portraying them as potential enemies of the soviet government. During the Khrushchev thaw, the communist regime mobilized all party and Komsomol efforts and law enforcement agencies for a comprehensive campaign to eliminate the mod subculture.  

All sorts of measures, including the criticism of young people living immoral lives at Komsomol and student meetings, talking to parents, street raids by volunteer squads, preventive measures by the KGB and expulsion from colleges and the Komsomol, were supposed to save the young soviet generation from free-thinking and the following of bourgeois cultural standards, which the soviet authorities considered to be dangerous. As repression unfolded and the first generation of soviet mods matured, by the 1960s, the first wave of youth subculture in the USSR was gradually replaced by the motley, widespread fashion of Brezhnev-era prosperity.          

COMPARISON

Youth subcultures in Europe and the USA in the 1930s–1950s

Swingjugend were informal movements in the Hitler Germany of the 1930s, that involved jazz and swing fans aged 14-18. They followed English and American lifestyles and were ideologically opposed to National Socialism, especially the Hitlerjugend. Swingjugend ceased to exist after a raid on 300 young people by the Nazis on August 18, 1941.

Edelweißpiraten were free movements in Nazi Germany that emerged in West Germany in the late 1930s as a response to the strictly regulated life of its youth. These groups included pre-conscription boys, aged 14-18. The distinction of the “pirates” was the edelweiss, special clothes, unique style and anti-Hitler songs. They participated in the Resistance movement and were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Zazous was a subculture in France during WWII. The Zazous expressed their individuality with the aid of loose and colorful clothes, vegetarian food, and wild swing and jazz dances, which they interpreted as the resistance and non-conformity of the French youth to German occupation. It brought together young people aged 17-20 of both sexes, from all social classes and races; they were persecuted by the Vichy Regime.

Bikiniarze was a 1950s youth subculture in communist Poland. Its representatives admired jazz music, the American culture and wore eccentric clothes. The Polish communist government launched an intense campaign against the movement, considering it to be a manifestation of cosmopolitanism and love of the “bourgeois” American culture. 

Teddy-boys were a youth subculture of the London suburbs in the 1950s, who dressed in the style worn under English King Edward VII in 1901-1910, giving preference to the blues, country and swing music, later replaced by rock’n’roll and skiffle. A girls’ culture developed at the same time - teddy-girls, who were also known as Judies.

Raggare was a youth subculture spread across Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, West Germany and Austria in the 1950s. Its trademark was the love of American pop-culture and cars. US-made big, fast cars, were an integral element of the culture. Raggare members drank a lot of alcohol, led a depraved way of life and constantly got into fights.

Greasers was a subculture popular among young Americans in the 1950s, which subsequently became a role model for European teenagers. Greasers used hair gel or wax, hence the name. They loved cars, wore white and black shirts with tied sleeves, leather jackets, Levi’s, army boots, bandanas and caps, wallets on chains, as well as pompadour and ducktail haircuts. 


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