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Fashion Soviet-style: looks are the least of it

As the music began, tall, sleek girls with modish haircuts flitted onto the platform and wheeled around in billowy silk dresses drawn from peasant themes. The colors were bright, the material rich but not heavy. Accents included satin sashes, velvet bolero jackets, and, toward the end, luxurious sable coats.

It was haute couture, Soviet-style - Moscow's collection for an international fashion exhibition in Mexico. Designed not for Soviet women but for imagemaking abroad, it was a slick presentation carefully screened away from the nation's own public. The invited guests at Dom Modeli, one of Moscow's five fashion houses, were a small audience of foreigners, most of them design students from East Europe.

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Downstairs, at street level, was another show - for the domestic public. Here , swathes of double-knit and Soviet-manufactured nylon were draped in styles reminiscent of the 1920s, but with hints of the straight skirts popular in the early 1960s. Bows and flounces abounded, as did almost every other garnish imaginable.

But even these more pedestrian dresses were not for sale. Soviet fashion shows, which occur three or four times a week at every major Moscow department store, are geared not for promotion but for inspiration. Patterns for a few of the styles might be available. Generally, viewers bring notepads and sketch whatever catches their fancy.

Fashion has come slowly to the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, when American women were balancing precariously on spiked heels, the favored winter footwear in Russia was still valenki, heavy village-made felt boots with rubber soles. The predominant color in clothing was gray. Women covered their heads with woolen scarves. And anyone so rash as to wear trousers risked having her pant legs cut off by an irate policeman defending Soviet socialist purity.

Today, fashion consciousness has elevated trousers, especially jeans and corduroys, to the height of chic. Scarves have given way to fluffy fur hats. Valenki are seen only on the elderly.

The more with-it Russians sport leather boots, some with platform soles. Many are imported from Yugoslavia or Finland. Fabric colors have ventured into cobalt blue, rust, mustard yellow, and, in the summer, lively patterns with flowers and animals.

Clothing styles, although generally trailing Europe and the United States a few seasons, are increasingly up-to-date.

As the fashion show for Mexico demonstrated, there are even a few Soviet designers who are competitive with such international fashion trend-setters as Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent.

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The most widely recognized is Vyacheslav Zaytzev, many of whose designs have been sold in the US. Mr. Zaytzev took the unusual step of leaving his job at Dom Modeli not long ago to set up his own house of fashion. He says he wants to cater more to the Soviet market than to international jet-setters.

Most of the creations of the country's top designers never reach the general population, however. They must make do with the bland colors and uninspiring materials typically sold in the Soviet stores.

But Western clothes of all shapes and styles are the most popular here. The more extreme, in fact, the better. At a party, anything Western, no matter how passe it might seem to American eyes, draws compliments.

The nation's guardians of ideological rectitude have not taken kindly to the rage for Western fashion. Begrudging the popularity of imported clothes, commentaries in the press point out how unpatri-otic it is to wear them, how out of keeping with communist ideals. Such articles often condemn not so much the influence of Western styles as the preference for any clothing with a foreign label.

Imported jeans remain a particular bugbear. A recent article in Sovietskaya Kultura, the party newspaper on culture, decried the habit among some parents of promising to buy jeans for their teen-ager if only they would bring home good grades from school.

Still, dressing more stylishly - and often, more Westernly - is a preoccupation. Like youth everywhere, young Russians pass quick and critical judgment on the clothes of their peers. In this country of chronic shortages, what one wears is a salient symbol of one's status.

Russians often seem more interested in showing off what they have been able to acquire than in dressing with flair or originality. Generally it is irrelevant whether a large fur hat looks good atop a small face. What is important is owning and flaunting the fur hat, for that is what earns a compliment for being well dressed.

Yet even well-connected Russians, such as those with relatives who travel abroad, have limited wardrobes. The few Western pieces they have are highly prized.

Obtaining well-made, ready-to-wear clothing at reasonable prices is a major challenge. Dress stores rarely have a wide selection of sizes. Racks are full of medium sizes cut for shortish people of rotund proportions. Often there is nothing for the tall, petite, or extra large.

When size is right, color and style often become a problem. A shopper going through TSUM, an elegant Moscow department store, is apt to find a whole room bursting with lime-green blouses, for example, and not a single pink or yellow or blue one in the store.

Outfits for special occasions - wedding dresses, tuxedos, or even school uniforms - present their own problems. On reserving a wedding date at the Palace of Marriages, a bride-to-be is eligible to buy coupons from the clerk so she can get a gown at a special bridal shop. Without the coupons, she is wasting her time.

There are few ready-made maternity clothes here, but a special tailor shop in Moscow has patterns for maternity outfits.

Particularly sought-after fashion items, and anything imported, are in chronically short supply and often distributed erratically. Their delivery at a shop is quickly advertised by word of mouth, invariably sparking a line and a two- or three-hour wait. Those who happen to pass by take time to stand in line and buy for their friends, too.

Further exacerbating the problem, salesclerks have a reputation for hoarding hot items for special customers, from whom they can realize some personal profit. Merchandise often runs out before the line of shoppers does.

There is also an active black market in fashion. Such popular items as imported stockings and wool turtlenecks are sold at exorbitant prices. This clothing is generally state-procured but diverted from the intended market either at the warehouse or the store level.

Authorities are increasingly sensitive about the corruption engendered by black marketeering and less extreme under-the-counter dealings - and have taken a tougher public tone on the issue since Yuri Andropov came to power.

Even at state-controlled prices, store-bought clothes are no bargain, at least not by Western standards. An unlined tweed skirt costs 60 rubles ($85). A double-breasted man's suit of corduroy with plastic buttons and a cheap lining may be 150 rubles, about equal to the average monthly Soviet salary.

Thus many Soviet women sew their own clothes, but fabric is expensive. Wool and cotton range from 15 to 30 rubles a yard.

Tailors, though no bargain, are much frequented. Shortages of buttons and colored thread, not to mention sewing machines, make turning out one's own clothes a real chore. Tailors take a long time to complete orders, but they can add the frills that are not otherwise available. Customers usually provide their own material.

Only a small, privileged Soviet minority has access to fashionable good clothes. In special coupon shops, this elite can buy a greater variety of imported and good-quality local fashions. But these privileged few obey an unwritten law to look and behave unobtrusively in public. Unlike most Soviets, their best outfits are not for flaunting.

Fashion magazines, available only by subscription, are in strong demand at all levels of society. Styles are presented primarily in drawings rather than color photographs. Sears-style, mail-order catalogs brought in by travelers from Austria and West Germany provide glimpses of what is being worn elsewhere in the world.

The single greatest impact on Soviet dress comes from the German magazine Burda, a glossy publication similar to Vogue. Burda is prized because it includes page-size patterns that can be cut out and enlarged. One woman says work in her office grinds to a halt whenever such a magazine appears, even if it is a year or two old.

Austrian and German styles are favored over French or Italian for their practicality. Even Russians with an eye on fashion place warmth and durability over other features when choosing clothes.

Nonetheless, fads sweep the cities from time to time. Icelandic scarves were all the rage last year. This winter it is hand-knit caps, coquettishly rolled up around the rim. The '40s look is catching on.

Despite the traditional near-imperviousness of Soviet planners to popular preference, consumer tastes are beginning to make themselves felt on the production line. Only this past summer, a factory with an Adidas franchise started turning out green and turquoise jogging shoes, which were so popular that a youth newspaper accused brides of wearing them under their wedding dresses.

The fashion-conscious are not expecting overnight change, however. For more than two decades, the five-year plans have called for greater emphasis on consumer needs, with very little visible effect.

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