Two sides of a woman

Two sides of a woman

The socialist system that was imposed upon Poles dictated its own trends – in line with its political priorities. Socialism has always touted a clear vision for what men and women should look like. And there was little room for frills and fancy. Clothing was supposed to be functional, serving the needs of its wearer – a person devoted to hard work. This is the image that was promoted in the regime’s lifestyle brochures and posters. Still, Poles weren’t keen on falling in line with its dismal propaganda.

The three-year plan for rebuilding the economy (1947-1949) called for the ‘standard of living for the working classes of people to be raised’, ‘socialization’ and the ‘battle against all aspects of capitalism’. This would lead to the nationalization of all private assets and putting them under a single pillar of control. In the early years, some small-scale tailors and shoemakers could survive, but eventually all private enterprise would be abolished.

The paragon of socialist femininity

What was the ideal woman according to the authorities? Dignified, modestly dressed and wearing no make-up. In short, the ideal woman was supposed to look like a Soviet monument. There was absolutely no point in looking pretty when there was work to be done for the nation, children to raise and houses to keep. The only rouge on women’s cheeks was going to be the flush of a hard day’s work. 

In exchange for their efforts, women were afforded the ‘gift’ of a holiday. Women’s Day falls on March 8th and remains on the calendar to this day. The only difference being that today’s woman can (hopefully) expect to get more than a red carnation and a pair of stockings. 

Intricately patterned two-piece swimsuits for all body types was the go-to look for this boat race in 1951.

Girls in swimsuits, 1951, photo: Roman Wionczek/East News

What women really wanted

Unsurprisingly, most women weren’t falling for it. Luckily, the press eventually afforded them a different model to inspire them. Women’s magazines like Moda i Życie Praktyczne (Fashion & Practical Living magazine) and Przyjaciółka (Friend) were among the most popular titles, offering a treasure trove of advice and news on how to achieve the latest trends on a budget. Still, the preferred look of the time was rather reserved, with modest, covered-up styles, mock necks, collared blouses and tailored blazers paired with midi skirts that were straight or flared. Accessories added a touch of individuality, such as a string of pearls or a silk scarf. Seamed stockings were a must-have, but still hard to come by in the post-war years.

The contrast between the two visions for an ideal woman is most aptly depicted in a painting by one of the most accomplished artists of the time, Wojciech Fangor. His Postaci (Figures, 1950, in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź) captured the Polish social realist style perfectly. The dainty figure of the fashionista in shades is the antihero of the image, standing in opposition to the ‘working woman’s broad form in a boiler suit’. Which version of womanhood was the more sought-after ideal? Well, it depended on the woman.

The spectrum of New Look styles from the late fifties ranged from sweet to saucy.

Still from Moonwalkers, directed by Bohdan Poręba, 1959, photo: Polfilm/ East News