Irena Marinanova, who earns 110 rubles a month, paid 90 rubles for the lavender silk Italian import that she wears nights on the town here. Imports are snapped up like hot bialys in this fashion-hungry land, and a sophisticated young Muscovite will happily spent her last ruble on a sexy Polish bra or kinky Italian wig.
In response to this long pent-up demand for improved consumer goods, Russia's recently announced 10th five-year plan promises quality as well as quantity, and pantyhose as well as tractors. Loyal Soviets boast that they are catching up with the West on the fashion front without conceding that they were ever far behind. "I can buy what I want now in Moscow shops," says Irene, a modelsim research fellow at the University of Moscow. "It used to be harder to get nice colors," she concedes. But pantyhose still cost 4 rubles (about $5.40).
Visitors returning to the Soviet Union note impressive changes already. "I was surprised to see smartly dressed women in even the small towns," says New Yorker Irving Hamer of the Citizen Exchange Corps who last led an American tour of Russia in 1972. "Five years ago the clothes were very drab, colorless and without style," he says.
Among those plotting the Soviet fashion revolution are young designers such as Viacheslav Zaitzev. His name, unknow five years ago, has become synonymous with Russian haute mode. No 1onger are designer labels denounced as pandering to bourgeois "cults of personalty." Paris-influenced and suave in his continental-cut suit, but Russian through and through, Zaitzev, like his capitalist counterpart Yves Saint Laurent, says he draws his ideas from Russian folk costumes: the caftan, the shawl, the corselet, the off-center tunics, the embroidered peasant bouse.
At Moscow's House of Fashion, 100 Russian women, happily innocent of cottage cheese lunches and Weight Watches clubs, squeeze onto the dainty red velvet chairs to view a showing of fall fashions by Zaitev and other young designers picked from the 15 republics of the USSR. The House of Fashion, decorated in dove gray and white with sculptured ceilings and ornate Greek columns, remind some visitors of the House of Dior in paris. This official showplace is on Kuznetski Bridge, fashion street of old Russia, where the czarist aristocrary shopped for French finery. Since the 1917 revolution, the kuznetski shops have looked about the same as dress shops in the rest of the country.
But now here they come, models wearing the new Russian styles, rather more ample and well-endowed than their concave counterparts in the decadent West. Zaitev leads off with a bold plaid coat and matching diagonal plaid dress topped with a dramatic dark brown Garbo hat. Now, another brilliant plaid coat. Then, incongruously, a plain "socialist-brown" short coat, belted in black.
"That's Russian," comments Claudine Bertolet, a Paris-born visitor from New York, in a throaty whisper. "The smart plaids are French," she insists.
But the next 44 styles plainly show the Russian influence. An embroidered print peasant sarafan worn over a striped wide-sleeve dress with matching babushka wins the first applause from the largely silent, respectful audience. Typically Russian jackets asymmetrically buttoned over accordion-pleated skirts follow tucked-front dresses with braid-trimmed jackets. A fringed shawl over a tiered red evening dress draws applause, as does a Russian sailor jacket over billowy navy pants. And - most Russian of all - a white lace-trimmed gown intricately embroidered in back gets long applause.
Anna Vasilievna Dmitrieva, director of the House of Fashion, motherly in a loose-fitting print smock, beams with national pride as she accepts congratulations on the shows's success. The collection, she says, is cut from "100 per cent Soviet fabric," and makes wide use of national sytle. "We have 100 nationalities in the Soviet Union so we have a real treasure to draw from," she says. The designers train in 36 fashion houses around the USSR and the 70 best in the land are brought to her fashion center in Moscow.
Visitors are surprised to hear, however, that everything they've been seeing will not be available in Soviet stores. Instead what will be available are paper patterns costing 29 kopecks - about 30 cents - a piece. "We are encouraged women to sew," Dmitrieva explains.
Almost all Russian women work an eight-hour day - some at hard physical labor on roadways, in factories and construction - along with taking care of home and children. But with fashionable readymades still scare on the racks of the state stores, many Soviet women do find time to make their own clothes. They clip patterns from Soviet magazines and seem to favor flowered or geometric-print fabrics.
Luba, a student at the University of Kusan, had a dressmaker sew her pale blue minidress. It cost her 30 rubles (about $40 at the official rate of exchange), 15 rubles for the fabric, 15 for the workmanship. "I could buy a dress for less, but it wouldn't fit as well," she says. Hemlines may be well below the knee in Moscow's House of Fashion, but miniskirts are still seen everywhere in the outlying cities. Styles do not change in a land where there is no competition for the consumer's ruble.
"They really don't care whether we buy or not," says a young student eyeing the shoe selection in an Odessa state department store. In a corner of the store, a woman, conducting her own free enterprise, convertly offers to sell shoes from under her overcoat.
But better days are coming with the new five-year, promises the headlines in Pravda.
"The next time you come to the Soviet Union," Anna Vasilievna Dmitriev calls to visitors departing the House of Fashion, "all these models will be available in our stores."