Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  May 31, 2020

Stilyagi - Fashion, Youth Counterculture and Individuality in the Communist Soviet Union

by Marella Alves dos Reis

Stilyagi was a youth counterculture movement based in the Soviet Union from the 1940s to the 1960s, with its main identification being the bright and eye-catching clothing that the Stilyagi wore. The literal translation of the word can be interpreted as ‘stylish’, or ‘style hunters’. However, the term is deemed rather derogatory, and likened to English descriptive words such as ‘dandy’. The movement was established in a time when expressions of individuality were limited and discouraged, so any deviation from the Communist ‘norm’ would have stood out. Therefore, the clothing that they donned made them easily recognisable in their society. This counterculture was shaped by the society in which it was born; when the Soviet regime viewed Western behaviours and attitudes as negative and anti-communist, the Stilyagi subculture thrived amongst the youth. However when their society became more accepting of Western cultures and influence, the counterculture gradually disappeared, as there was less of a strict regime for them to rebel against (1).

For a Stilyaga man, their clothing would have included brightly coloured zoot suits, bright checked jackets with shoulder pads (2),  tight trousers and long jackets (3), quaffed hair, thick rubber-soled shoes, brightly coloured shirts (4), and narrow ties. Although the subculture was predominantly made up of men, there were still quite a few women on the scene. They typically wore “fifties-American inspired dresses, pant suits and high hairstyles, often accompanied by bright red lips” (5). For both men and women, they would have combined their bright clothes with statement accessories (6); it is clear that making a statement was an important part of being a Stilyagi. Ultimately, they could be described as “a little bit rockabilly, a little bit preppy and a little bit English teddy boy” (7).

Moreover, these clothes would have preferably come from abroad, as Stilyagi were enamoured with Western clothing - specifically American - as well as other aspects of Western culture, such as music. This love of Western clothing contributed to a broader mindset which was widespread across the Soviet Union, called ‘Zagranitsa’. This was the fascination with an idealised Western culture that existed beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, described as an “imaginary elsewhere” (8) - a sort of utopian world that offered hope and a form of escapism. Moreover, Stilyagi met on the main streets of Leningrad and Moscow, which they nicknamed ‘Broadway’, after the Broadway of New York (9). The Stilyagi counterculture was completely entrenched within this mindset, so much so that it can be credited with popularising American culture within Soviet society (10). Moreover, the fascination with the West meant that Western culture influenced many different aspects of Soviet society, and one of the main ways for an individual to demonstrate their fascination was by dressing in the style of the West.

Due to the strict enforced uniformity and conformity of Soviet society - especially under Stalinism - and the tendency of Stilyagi to put their own spin on Western fashions by wearing bright varying colours, it displays the important part that fashion played to this counterculture - that they were not only willing, but hoping, to stand out from the crowd, in a time when expressions of individuality were repressed. Fashion enabled Stilyagi to achieve this, and was therefore central to this particular counterculture. Therefore, although Stilyagi was viewed as a counterculture, the fascination with the West - in particular with America - in Soviet society transcended the bounds of this counterculture, and these “fantastic popular notions of the land across the sea” (11) were felt across the whole of the Soviet Union.

However, it is not just members of the Stilyagi counterculture that used fashion as a means to express their affiliation with a particular group. All countercultures, from mods to rockers to punks, have utilised clothes and fashion as the primary means of self-expression. It serves as a very visible distinguishing marker, and something to clearly set you apart from the ‘normal’ culture of a particular society. Often, as in the case of Stilyagi, a counterculture is also linked to a particular type of music, however this is a less visible and obvious characteristic, and therefore less of an easily perceptible form of identification. In the case of Stilyagi, they adored American swing and jazz music, and often tried to recreate this music themselves.

Nevertheless, your choice of fashion and the clothes that you wear are a crucial way in communicating key aspects of your personality and your self to others. This is why fashion is key to countercultural movements like stilyagi, and why, today, many of us carefully craft our outfits, in the hope that we will accurately represent our inner selves with our outer appearance.

References:
(1) Inge Oosterhoff ,‘The Stylehunters of Soviet Russia’, Messy Nessy: Cabinet of Chic Curiosities, 2015. https://www.messynessychic.com/2015/05/25/the-stylehunters-of-soviet-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(2) Olga Zhidkikh, ‘Russian Broadway – Tverskaya Street’, Moscow Urban Adventures. https://www.moscowurbanadventures.com/blog/russian-broadway-tverskaya-street/ [accessed 2 April 2020]
(3) Alan M. Ball, Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-century Russia, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003) 186. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=A1SKALUTXnYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=stilyagi&f=false [accessed 28 March 2020]
(4) Zita Whalley, ‘The Subversive Style of the Stilyagi, the Original Hipsters of Russia’, Culture Trip,  2018. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/the-subversive-style-of-the-stilyagi-the-original-hipsters-of-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(5) Inge Oosterhoff ,‘The Stylehunters of Soviet Russia’, Messy Nessy: Cabinet of Chic Curiosities, 2015. https://www.messynessychic.com/2015/05/25/the-stylehunters-of-soviet-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(6) Inge Oosterhoff ,‘The Stylehunters of Soviet Russia’, Messy Nessy: Cabinet of Chic Curiosities, 2015. https://www.messynessychic.com/2015/05/25/the-stylehunters-of-soviet-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(7) Zita Whalley, ‘The Subversive Style of the Stilyagi, the Original Hipsters of Russia’, Culture Trip,  2018. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/the-subversive-style-of-the-stilyagi-the-original-hipsters-of-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(8) Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, (Princeton University Press, 2006) 159.
(9) Inge Oosterhoff ,‘The Stylehunters of Soviet Russia’, Messy Nessy: Cabinet of Chic Curiosities, 2015. https://www.messynessychic.com/2015/05/25/the-stylehunters-of-soviet-russia/ [accessed 1 April 2020]
(10) Alan M. Ball, Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-century Russia, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003) 186. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=A1SKALUTXnYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=stilyagi&f=false [accessed 28 March 2020]
(11) Alan M. Ball, Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-century Russia, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003) 18. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=A1SKALUTXnYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=stilyagi&f=false [accessed 28 March 2020]

  • Actresses from the Russian film ‘Stilyagi’, based on the counterculture of the same name © Honolulu Museum of Art
  • Modern day people dressed up in Stilyagi attire © Moscow Urban Adventures
  • A 1957 student jazz band performing in Moscow © Sovfoto/Getty
  • Members of the stilyagi counterculture © Russian Seven/Global Domain News