Art Around the World

Communist Underwear is the Latest Art Hit!

By Tom Gross, July 31, 2001

Communist underwear however drab and unattractive is now being celebrated as art. Soviet-style lines have been forming outside a Moscow museum as crowds have flocked there eager to study Communist panties, bras, corsets and pantyhose in intimate detail.

The “Memory of the Body Exhibition of Under-Fashions in the Communist Era” proved so popular when it was shown earlier this year at the National History Museum in St Petersburg, that it has now moved to Moscow’s Central House of Artists.

Demand to see the exhibition which, along with actual garments, comprises hundreds of designs, pictures and photos from the Russian revolution in 1917 to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, is proving equally strong in Moscow.

“We are fascinated by what our fellow citizens wore under their outer clothes,” said one 35-year-old woman who waited two hours to get in. “Although it is only 10 years since Communism ended, we have forgotten just how awful it was.”

Until now, Russians had surprisingly little idea what their neighbors were wearing during the communist era, when the regime outlawed all advertising of underwear, and strict censors ensured that actors and models always appeared fully dressed.

The curators insist this is a serious and scholarly exhibition providing important insights into life and design under Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev. The exhibition, which took three years of meticulous research and discreet inquiries to put together, shows the full horrors of state-designed lingerie. Hundreds of uncomfortable and unflattering exhibits are displayed in glass cases, accompanied by photographs from family albums and written testimony from those who were forced to wear the garments. One woman writes that the corset she was forced to wear was so thick it would have been of more use to the Red Army as a bulletproof vest.

Unsurprisingly, very few examples of erotica were produced under Stalin’s Five Year Plans. Indeed, during the first years of the Soviet Union, the authorities forced both men and women to wear the standardized military underpants designed for Russian soldiers during World War One. Later, following mass industrialization, Soviet production lines produced millions of identical dowdy garments. In only a few limited cases were pastel colors added.

Testimony displayed as part of the exhibition reveals that Communist economics led to such poverty in the self-proclaimed “workers paradise” that many Soviet families had to make do with the same pairs of Government Issue underpants for decades. One room of the exhibition shows photographs of female bodies scarred by the effects of rough and ill-fitting bras and corsets.

Yet the display also makes clear how at least some humans have an irresistible urge to make the unbearably drab just a little more beautiful, and that even the Communist Party could not completely eradicate individuality and a craving for glamour. The exhibit also details how private citizens established a thriving black market of homemade designs using patterns copied from Western fashion magazines that managed to find their way into Russia.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.