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].
While seemingly conveying a neutral—if not positive—meaning, the term “stilyaga” was actually derogatory, placed upon these young adults by the Soviet press, who regularly and repeatedly derided and discredited these young creative types as part of a drawn-out anti-Western, pro-Soviet propaganda drive. Stilyagi were underachieving, underperforming fools who both epitomized and embraced Western—namely, bourgeois—evils, and effectively rejected their Soviet communities in favor of these immoral ways of life.
The first use of this term appeared in the satire magazine Krokodil (Crocodile) in 1949, in a statement that said, “the most important part of [stilyaga] style is not to resemble normal people. And… their efforts take them to absurd extremes.” Caricatures and satirical illustrations portrayed stilyagi as monkeys: primitive, underdeveloped, less-than-human fools who could only copy and not create. These men and women were depicted as arrogant, clown-like aberrations in garish outfits and with haughty expressions upon their faces, or as “parasites,” vagrants and beggars that took from but did not contribute to Soviet society. Stilyaga men were particularly targeted and made out to be womanizers—flighty and inconsistent in everything except their poor treatment of women. Bills and laws were proposed and enacted to counter the stilyagi’s “lazy,” “drunken” habits. Many essays even encouraged readers to attack the stilyagi in the streets by yelling obscenities and cutting their hair or trouser legs.
Their aim was twofold: to further isolate them from mainstream Soviet society, and to encourage stilyagi to amend their defects and conform. But the stilyaga rebellion was “purely stylistic.” It truly involved very little critique of the Stalinist order and the Soviet regime in general. And though the stilyagi were actually a “tiny fringe group,” in a society as “obsessed with narrow conformity” as mid-20th century Soviet Russia, the mainstream reacted with outrage—and unquestioningly followed the propagandistic narrative against stilyagi created and enforced by the press.
The true, underlying fear, demonstrated here in 1950s Soviet Russia but also by regimes across the world and throughout time lies in the fact that the “enemy” cannot always be so easily identified. Superficial means—a style of clothing, of hair, of dancing—may not accurately indicate one’s true nature. Though fashion, clothing, and dress—all externalities—certainly indicate some inner personal nature, interpretations can certainly be incorrect or even misconstrued. As demonstrated in many of the above examples, the stilyagi did not actually seek to destroy socialism with their dance moves and stylish clothing. Yet the press and its propaganda successfully linked them, in the minds of Soviet citizens, to Western and bourgeois evils.
The propaganda drive was so aggressive that eventually, people turned to violence, berating and abusing the stilyagi, or anyone simply suspected of “stilyaga ways.” In the attempt to create hostility between the USSR and Western societies, Soviet press and its propaganda actually just turned its citizens against themselves.