What’s the Big Idea?
In her essay “Outfox Them!” in the March 8th edition of the London Review of Books, Sheila Fitzpatrick, an Australian-American historian of Soviet Russia, tells an amusing anecdote plucked from the pages of Juliane Furst’s recent book. (Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Postwar Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism is about the generation of Soviets that was too young to fight in the war but “grew up in its shadow” in the 1940s and 50s.)
“Young people’s infatuation with the West [in the Soviet Union] is often seen as a characteristic of the post-Stalin era,” writes Fitzpatrick, “but Furst — like Mark Edele before her — points out that the stiliagi, young lovers of jazz and homemade ‘American’ clothing, were already a countercultural phenomenon in the immediate postwar period, years before the Thaw.”
Stiliagi were a bit like Soviet Mods or Teddy Boys, but… their statement was aesthetic rather than political. Young men like Vasily Aksenov, future novelist and jazz aficionado, were the peacocks of the counterculture: still an adolescent in Kazan, he managed to acquire a reindeer sweater like the one in the 1941 Hollywood movie Sun Valley Serenade.
What’s the Significance?
This story is an interesting reminder of the way our clothes and appearance communicate something important we want to say about our identity. What exactly they signify varies across time and space. In the West in 2012, the Christmas sweater is the epitome of goofy and awkward dressing. It’s been used as a gag in chick flicks — Colin Firth’s character wore one in Bridget Jones’ Diary — and in slapstick films like Dumb and Dumber. Jim Carrey did an interview with David Letterman in a navy blue one embroidered with a snowman.
Last winter, holiday sweaters (or “jumpers” as they’re called in Britain) became a short-lived fashion trend, worn in the spirit with which hipsters wear oversized plastic-framed glasses. But in a certain place, at a certain time, even the Christmas sweater had its moment as a symbol of rebelliousness. The lesson? Context is everything.
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