Underwear reveals history of Soviet culture

By Noah Lenstra

Dr. Olga Gurova found a new lens through which to view Russian history, in underwear. By looking at documents and testimonies related to the use of under-garments during the Soviet period, Gurova’s work “represents an important original direction in studies of Russia,” said Professor Mark Steinberg of the University’s History Department.

Gurova came to the University after meeting Steinberg in St. Petersburg. A Fulbright Research Scholar, she is preparing a book that looks at all the different things we can learn about Soviet culture from their underwear.

On Tuesday, Gurova gave a speech in part of a Russian, East European and Eurasian lecture series to a packed room on the first-floor of the Foreign Languages Building about the first chapter of the developing book.

“Underwear can be a device … to civilize everyday behavior,” said Gurova.

Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, there wasn’t any mass produced underwear in Russia. The rich classes used frilly, decorative undergarments while the poor used spartan garments.

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All that changed after the Revolution when “through the body the new authorities shaped a new personality of Soviet man,” said Gurova.

During the 1920s, the main role of underwear was hygienic. Migrants from rural areas with little cultural understanding living in poor conditions were put in a “regime of cleanliness.” They were told to shower once a week and to own at least two pieces of underwear “so that when one is in the wash they can use the other,” said Gurova.

All underwear was white so that any dirt could be instantly recognized.

There were “no sexual connotations of underwear,” said Gurova, in this time period of unisex undergarments.

This changed during the 1930s when the culture of underwear took on new importance.

“Underwear had shifted to a look of female femininity,” said Gurova.

Meanwhile, men’s undergarments remained conservative. The palette of colors expanded into dark colors, such as blue and black because “dark colors become dirty slower,” said Gurova.

With the Soviet thaw in the 1950s, a further gender differentiation of clothing occurred as female clothing became “more beautiful, less practical” according to Gurova.

As Soviets moved from a collectivist to a privatist culture, the underwear that reflected this transition was a type of shorts called simply, “family shorts,” a very spacious undergarment which one of Gurova’s sources jokingly said “all the family can use at the same time.”

An American influence was also felt in Soviet undergarments. Frustrated by the lack of options in Soviet clothing, “they tried to buy [American underwear] on the black market,” said Gurova.

By the 1970s, the transition from utilitarian to aesthetic underwear ended as women’s underwear strove to create the “perfect shape … to correct the body in a mechanism of discipline,” said Gurova.

A growing discontent with the meager options of Soviet underwear also propelled citizens to manipulate their underwear into new forms and shapes.

Gurova believes her project helps show the “everyday life of ordinary people in Soviet Russia.”

“I find the topic fascinating because she has selected something seemingly so mundane and private as underwear to talk about Soviet politics, concepts of the body, and personhood,” said Lynda Park, assistant director of Russian East European and Eurasian Studies.

According to Karin Steinbrueck, a graduate student, “if you’re looking for something about the culture, you’ll probably find it here.”

The University library has a very large Russian collection and studies which stretch from Turkey to Kamchatka.

On Thursday at 4 p.m. in room 101 of the International Studies Building Professor Emeritus of Monmouth University, Tadeusz Swietochowski, will present a lecture on Azerbaijan free and open to the public.