Abstract: Invisible Business: Private Dressmaking in Soviet Russia

Olga Vainshtein


The paper is focused around the economic and cultural peculiarities of Soviet domestic dressmaking. While much has been written about the tradition of domestic sewing in Europe, little is known about dressmaking as a fashion business in Soviet Russia. This is partly explained by the economic and political "invisibility" of domestic sewing, as this kind of housework was never officially regulated. Dressmakers could run their private business without the obtrusive attention of the Soviet authorities, and they could ensure the privacy of their clients. The traditionally low prices attracted customers, who could afford to pay private dressmakers, whereas they could often not afford to buy clothes in the state shops. The argument aims at explaining why this paradoxical situation continued through all the years of the Soviet regime, transforming private dressmaking into a unique sphere for free creativity and indirect political subversion. Relative freedom from surveillance, low prices, and expressly feminine overtones turned the private business of dressmaking into a privileged gender-marked space of women's self-fashioning: in fact, the home salons of private dressmakers functioned as unofficial women's clubs.