As you might have read here on Highsnobiety or numerous other publications at various points over the past year or so, something that’s called “post-Soviet” fashion is big in the world of style right now.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically a trend of dressing in Russian labels whose aesthetic is inspired by the Slavic poor; or rather a highly fashionable, very expensive appropriation of what working-class kids across the former Eastern Bloc wear.
This largely consists of ill-fitting tracksuits, ones that are usually decorated with cliched communist iconography or cyrillic lettering. It’s all the rage at the moment, and middle-class fashion victims across the West love it: it’s fresh and exotic but not in a Hawaiian shirts or backpacking-in-Nepal kind of way – it’s oh-so street and thuggish and "authentic" just like hip-hop used to be.
Being from Eastern Europe myself, born in socialist-era Yugoslavia as the Cold War reached its twilight, I take a dim view of all of this. For some, dressing like a krokodil addict from Novosibirsk might be a fun roleplay, but for me it’s a form of class tourism: moneyed Westerners fetishizing commodified poverty that they have the privilege of discarding once it’s not so cool anymore.
The visual identity of “post-Soviet” fashion was initially taken largely from Russian "gopniks" (although it has evolved with passing seasons) – aggressive, often neo-fascist, working-class louts comparable to "chavs" in Britain or "white trash" in America, both of which, incidentally, have been re-appropriated by the middle class:
A decade or so ago, "chav parties" were common place at universities in the UK. Attendees would wrap themselves in irony and fake Burberry before drunkenly parodying the British underclass. The second wave of hipsters, with their trucker caps and wife beaters and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, steeped themselves in white trash Americana.
The gopnik is an archetype that exists all across Europe: in Serbia, young men who fit the exact same profile and dress pretty much identically to their Russian counterparts are called "dizelaši." "Racailles" are the French version, and if you take a look at the clothing in 1995 hit La Haine, Vincent Cassel’s character wouldn’t look out of place in a Gosha editorial.
From Poland to the Ukraine via Bosnia and Bulgaria, this image of snarling dudes with their trackie bottoms tucked into white socks, loitering in packs in the shadow of concrete tower blocks is ubiquitous and has been for nearly 30 years now. What’s new is its commodification.
But in Eastern Europe, just like in working-class communities in the West, there’s nothing fashionable about it: it’s a thoroughly utilitarian anti-fashion statement that reflects the aggressively hyper-masculine environment that spawned it. And behind its subversive appeal sits a hopeless reality of crime, poverty and social alienation – common hallmarks of modern life across much of the former Eastern Bloc.
I can’t help but quietly groan every time I see an Instagram ~influencer~ swanning around Fashion Week doing their best impersonation of an impoverished Slav. When you have friends and family stuck in a bleak limbo of "post-Soviet" joblessness like I do, with no prospect for a better future and few routes of escape, "post-Soviet fashion" is simply distasteful – especially when my own life could have very easily looked precisely the same.
Post-Soviet fashion takes visual signifiers of misfortune, scrubs away the misery, and repackages it for the amusement of well-to-do Westerners and the profit that their purchasing power brings.
Were a provocative fashion designer to include orange down vests that resemble life jackets in their next collection as a grotesque nod to Middle Eastern refugees that risk their lives fleeing from war and extremism on the other side of the Mediterranean, it really wouldn't be any different.
But like just about all things in life, rarely is anything wholly terrible, and there is a positive side to the post-Soviet trend.
Most artistic fields, from music to film to fashion, are completely Western-centric. Just look at the big fashion weeks: New York, London, Paris, Milan. The big film festivals: Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian, Locarno, Sundance. Hollywood has made us all a little bit American.
The Japanese obsession for Western brands, particularly in the sphere of streetwear, is widely publicized. Loud, unsubtly luxurious labels like Louis Vuitton have become a common hallmark of the Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern nouveau riche. Western cultural hegemony is everywhere, and its signifiers are the unspoken gold standard that the world is implicitly compelled to adhere to.
By introducing a new and unfamiliar visual language to Western consumers, post-Soviet fashion acts as a counterweight to that hegemony as well as a window of opportunity for other unfamiliar nations’ cultural exports to make inroads in the west.
Being the first of your kind to do something is always important because it breeds familiarity which is the first step towards acceptance – this is why African-Americans were so jubilated by Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. It also helps loosen the stigma that has historically clung to Eastern Europe.
The East always been far less prosperous than the imperial West, which parasitically enriched itself at the expense of its colonies. We have always been viewed as Western Europe’s savage cousins and even now, within the EU, there is a caste system: the Polish are stereotyped as cheap manual labor; Romanians are stigmatized as gypsy pickpockets; Russians and Serbs are bigoted thugs that need to be quarantined through xenophobic visa restrictions.
Before our poverty became cool and edgy, it relegated us to second-class citizen status on the continent. Our culture is widely considered "lesser." You might buy Danish furniture, wear Italian clothes, eat Spanish food, listen to English music, or watch French movies, but those are sophisticated things that few associate with Eastern Europe. West is always best unless you need plumbers, vodka or kalashnikovs.
The arts have a way of changing the perception of entire nations. England enjoys a disproportionate level of soft power for a country of its size and might because of the strength of its popular culture. Although its empire has crumbled, the British enjoy a position in the world order far more privileged than the Dutch or Spanish, both former colonial powers themselves. This is thanks to the dominance of the English language, which makes British music, literature, media, and the rest of its cultural exports globally accessible.
The transformative power of the arts has also been felt in Romania. Over the past 12 years, the filmmakers of the Romanian New Wave have forged one of the world’s most respected cinematic movements. Now, amongst tasteful movie-goers at least, Romania is held in much higher regard than its neighbors.
It’s no longer simply a poor, formerly communist nation on the edge of the EU: it’s an unlikely cultural powerhouse. Its filmmakers – even if they’re debutants – automatically receive a level of attention that would have evaded them in eras past. Their sparse, socially realist visual language, which might have once upon a time been considered bland or boring, is now familiar and celebrated.
Post-Soviet fashion could do the same for Eastern European designers. Or maybe it’ll just end up being a fleeting fad that moneyed Western fashionistas will drop as soon as the next big thing comes along. If so, then lucky them. Unfortunately, the marginalized, underprivileged people who briefly inspired their sartorial choices will remain trapped by a hopeless status quo.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.