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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November, 2003, 11:58 GMT
Prague remembers the way things were
by Diana Kosslerova
BBC Monitoring

A stroll through central Prague on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution reveals a city that has embraced capitalism with gusto.

Woman models farm worker's clothing
Clothes advertising promoted communist work ideals

Passers-by pause to contemplate the latest must-haves in the brightly decorated shop windows and billboards loom over Wenceslas Square, once the centre of the mass student protests.

It all seems a far cry from the city's pre-1989 days, when high fashion items remained largely the preserve of the elite.

Now, in an attempt to recapture a feel for life in communist Czechoslovakia, one of the city's museums has put together an extensive collection of clothing from before the revolution.

The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague recently purchased some 3,000 items as diverse as dresses, boots and underwear.

Mirror of the times

The collection harks back to everyday life under the communist regime when fashion-conscious ordinary people tended to rely on making clothes themselves.

More designs on display at the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts

It was also possible, however, to order garments unofficially from retired seamstresses. Alternatively, people occasionally managed to buy sought-after items on rare trips to the West.

"Fashion is a true mirror of the times," says Konstantina Hlavackova of the museum's textile department.

She notes that in the space of half a century, Czechoslovakia experienced not one, but two totalitarian regimes, in the form of the war-time Nazi Protectorate and, after 1948, communist rule.

"And dictatorships strive to determine everything - even the way people dress," says Ms Hlavackova - whose book accompanied a recent exhibition of 1940s-1970s fashion.

With communist ideals expressed through fashion too, enthusiastic party members were even known to come up with their own dress designs.

"Bourgeois excess"

The first Czechoslovak communist president, Klement Gottwald, made a point of attending fashion shows so as to ensure that they did not diverge from party guidelines.

Red cocktail dress
The communist elite liked to look good

Their privileged position, however, also afforded communist officials access to some of Prague's best salons.

Though nationalised and officially condemned as "bourgeois excess", the fashion rooms nevertheless continued to clothe the new elite in style.

Top officials and their wives were frequently to be seen in Prague's famous pre-war salons, the Rosenbaum and the Podolska - renamed the Styl and Eva salons by the communists.

For the average citizen, the problem was not so much the design, but the often poor quality of material used for mass-produced clothing.

Shortages too were a feature of post-war Europe, though in Czechoslovakia and across eastern Europe, the problem persisted throughout the communist era.

Nevertheless, with a certain amount of ingenuity, people were often able to add a spark of originality to their off-the-peg clothes.

It soon became all too clear that even communism would not succeed in quelling the human desire for self-expression and differentiation.



Pictures reproduced with kind permission of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and photographers Filip Habart and Dana Uldrichova

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.




SEE ALSO:
Timeline: Czechoslovakia
17 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Czechs laugh off communism
21 Nov 99  |  Europe
Prague marks Velvet Revolution
18 Nov 99  |  Europe
Czechs say Yes to EU entry
14 Jun 03  |  Europe


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