“DEALING WITH” STILYAGI
Throughout the 1950s, joyful youths strolled the streets in bright, bold, and casual clothing. Utterly obsessed with style, these young men and women dressed flamboyantly, easily identified by trademark styles of apparel a rainbow of hues.
The men wore either very short or very long hairdos—both styles, of course, carefully sculpted with wax—and had thin and elegant mustaches perched above their upper lips. They could be spotted in long checkered double-breasted coats with thickly padded shoulders; “narrow, straight-legged pants; oversized pointed-toe shoes; Hawaiian-style shirts; sunglasses; and brightly colored bandanas or wide ties around the neck.” Women donned elegant hairstyles with descriptive names such as the “Beehive.” They sometimes wore dresses “stretched” so “tightly over their figures,” they harbored on “indecency,” but at other times could be seen in flowy, feminine “New Look” day dresses, or ignored these frocks altogether and embraced more masculine work-pants. Men played billiards, drank alcohol, and smoked cigarettes. These youths danced “the Atomic,” “the Canadian,” and “the Triple Hamburg” as jazz music played in the background, and hung out at the Dynamo skating rink or on a street called “Broadway.”
The above description seems to paint a picture of crowds of American youths in mid-twentieth century New York City. Yet here, I do not describe American youths. These were, in fact, the stilyagi: the “style hunters” of Soviet Russia.
Stilyagi (Russian стиляги, singular stilyaga) were a “scandalous youth cult” considered to be, in today’s terms, the “hipsters” of Soviet Russia.
In contrast to the clean-cut, straight-and-narrow “New Soviet Man” of the 1950s, stilyagi “dressed to outrage.” Inspired by “American heroes” such as James Dean and Johnny Weissmuller, they received limited information from the West, communicated through soldiers returning home from abroad, illegal traders (fartsovshchiks), annual World Youth Summits, and later, as technology advanced, from radio programs. This fractured information led to an interesting amalgamation of contrasting shapes, styles, and colors. In addition to these striking combinations of trends, stilyagi embraced individuality in their clothing, a particularly defiant penchant to have while living under a socialist regime. They did shop at department stores and took advantage of professional tailors and repair services, but made many of their clothing items through a process called samostrok [self-sewing].