Sots-art in fashion, collage by Myroslav Melnyk

Melnyk Myroslav, PhD in Art Theory and History,

Orcid ID: 0000-0002-0494-9403

Since Sots Art was built on irony over the values and symbols of the USSR, it would be logical that after the collapse of the empire this art direction lost its relevance. But after 1991 the ideas and aesthetics of Sots Art came into fashion several times: costume exhibitions have been held in art museums, fashion collections have appeared on catwalks and in media. A new generation of designers and recipients of their creativity has updated in a new way USSR signs and symbols.  From the 1920s to the 1980s these symbols were an ideological weapon, an instrument of social and aesthetic pressure, designed to further strengthen the Soviet system, and since the late 1980s have turned into kitsch – ridiculing outdated ideological myth, irony over false reality, history, and culture of lies.

Sergey Borisov’s photo, 1987

The first wave of Sots Art came into fashion during the “Perestroika” period (1985 – 1991).  Then, in the wake of the debunking of dogmas and cults, Sots Art expressed a desire to change the country for the better, freeing it from the ubiquitous false ideology, debunking the “sanctity” of its symbols. The desecration of everything Soviet – something that should have been treated with piety – was a sign of dismissal, a demonstration of long-awaited freedom. Avant-garde artists laughed, sewing clothes from the red flags and banners, drawing and embroidering hackneyed slogans and quotes, using the iconic attributes of Soviet life as accessories.  Since already in 1988 laws gave the right to engage in entrepreneurship, numerous new cooperatives carried these ideas to the masses: T-shirts with inscriptions and images in the Sots Art stylistic were replicated.

Hungarian designet Tamás Király with model, 1986

With the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of independence by its former republics, everything “Soviet” had negative connotations. The fashion of the 1990s celebrated crises and the fashion of the 2000s – glamour.

The first designer who, working in line with Sots Art, become popular in Russia, and achieved international success was Denis Simachev. The designer decorated his creations with Soviet coats of arms, folk ornaments, matryoshka dolls, and prints made of Soviet money. He mixed the former Soviet and modern Russian, ridiculed symbols and stereotypes that Russians are not proud of, made fun of the recent past, which was hated, and thanks to irony, made it “cool”. It is interesting that such creativity based on stereotypes resonated with Russian and foreign mass consumers, and Simachev’s works were forged and replicated actively.

Sots Art by Denis Simachev

In the 2010s, public sentiment in post-Soviet countries changed and, against the background of disappointments from instability and economic problems of the first years of independence, nostalgia for the USSR emerged. This nostalgia was strongly stimulated by Russian propaganda with its numerous retranslations of iconic Soviet films, products “from the childhood” advertisements, TV series about former heroes, etc. The older generation was nostalgic for the times “when we were young”, young people romantically perceived the culture, the negative aspects of which they did not feel on themselves.

In the 2010s, thanks to a new look at the aesthetics of Sots Art, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia, Yulia Efimchuk, and other designers from the post-Soviet space received worldwide recognition. With their works, they reinterpreted the codes, as nostalgic and at the same time warning against the return of utopian ideas, pointing to current socio-cultural problems.

Gosha Rubchinsky

In 2008, Gosha Rubchinsky made his debut with the collection  “Empire of evil”, which included T-shirts with two-headed eagles, as well as bears with weapons and other symbols associated with aggressive Russian international politics. The next designer’s shows also played with the aesthetics of late Soviet fashion and the symbols of the USSR. Oddly enough, this approach has been very successful at the international level. Rubchinsky launched the trend and other young designers wanted to repeat his success story.

Yulia Efimchuk started her career with competitions for young designers, and since 2012, the shows of the brand “Yulia Yefimtchuk+” have been held at the famous Kyiv Fashion Days. Yefimchuk’s collections have always been dominated by pure shapes and unambiguous colors like white, black, and a rich shade of red. Sots Art in her collections is added with the inscriptions on the clothes that resemble posters about labor exploits: “Labor”, “Peace to the world” and “Every day it becomes more joyful to live”. Despite the decommunization policy in Ukraine, in her spring-summer 2017 collection designer even used the words “Communism” and “Socialism”.  That, as well as the cut and colors (white, scarlet, dark blue), refer to the images of Soviet posters, to which the designer appealed.

Yulia Yefimtchuk+

Demna Gvasalia created the Parisian brand Vetements in 2014. Elements of Sots Art in his work indicated his origin from the Georgian Soviet republic, which added a certain exoticism in the eyes of European consumers. Thanks to Gvasalia’s worldwide success, international fashion columnists have drawn attention to the phenomenon of “Georgian fashion”. 

The listed designers are called “the new generation in the New East”, and their fashion collections are considered as the most earnest and most relevant way to speak about the past.

“Komar & Melamid” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art
“Komar & Melamid” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art

But fashion is only part of a larger cultural trend. 2019 was the peak year for the actualization of the Sots Art in the Post-Soviet space. The exhibition “Komar & Melamid”, dedicated to the founders of Sots Art, was held at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. The project was their first retrospective in Russia and included works created by the artists after their association in a creative duo. The exhibition in its genre resembled a collection of quotations-works and documents extracted from the key and most famous projects of artists. The character of Komar & Melamid appeared in the art to destroy the monopoly of socialist realism in the USSR, to discredit modernism in the Western world, and to outline the contours of a new international style, the distinctive feature of which would be aesthetic and philosophical eclecticism, on the ruins of both branches of the art of the twentieth century. The demonstration of this program became the core of the exhibition concept.

The Estonian Museum of Modern Art KUMU hosted the exhibition “Sots Art and Fashion” in 2019. Yulia Efimchuk from Ukraine, Marit Ilison from Estonia, Sonja Litichevskaya from Germany, Nina Neretina, and Donis Pouppis from Russia have presented fashion collections in which the socialist past of their countries has been turned into a source of inspiration and demonstrates the coping of the Eastern European culture with its  Soviet past.

“Sots Art and Fashion” in KUMU

In the Odessa museum of modern art, the avant-garde fashion of the 1990s “Perekroika” exhibition was held in 2019. The exhibition included samples of clothes and accessories from 1988 – 1998, created by designers from Odessa.  There were dresses made from Soviet tapestries, flags, and other artifacts in the style of Sots Art.

Studying and understanding of Sots Art objects, stunning of its specifics and its perception, defining its new connotations is particularly relevant and interesting in the light of decommunization, understanding the “undesirable past” and searching for options of positioning Ukrainian culture in the global world.

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