Putting old things to new uses, or upcycling, has recently become a popular global trend, especially in the fashion industry—many brands are creating new collections which rework already-existing products. In Russia, the first widespread, “popular” experiments in the upcycling of clothing began in the 1990s.
This issue of Sreda online magazine publishes a text by Linor Goralik on the Russian practice of upcycling clothes. The essay was first published as part of the collection In Defense of the Mainstream (Moscow: V–A–C Press, 2021).
“In the 1990s, and before, I altered anything I could find in drawers at my relatives,” wrote Miri Tsuk, one of my survey respondents. “I was particularly proud of a denim skirt I made from my uncle’s old trousers. I even wore it to school. I still blush when I remember, it was so vulgar and clumsily done, but back then everyone wore what they had. The only complaints were from the teachers, and I lied and said that we didn’t have money for the uniform.” The whole of the article that follows could be structured around this one quote, so well does it encapsulate the key points of 1990s upcycling. It mentions “earlier” (i.e., before the 1990s), and refers to discovering things in the cupboards of relatives, to the totality of the practice in the context of one private wardrobe and of a whole society, to pride in a unique thing obtained by inventive refashioning, to subsequent grown-up shame about its quality, and to the need to lie to others about what was going on in one’s wardrobe. And these are only the surface aspects of what the respondent describes.
I posted the following question on my Facebook page and on the PostPost.Media personal stories project: “How did you alter clothes in the 1990s and what emotions did you experience when you did it?” I received about 320 responses, which I was able to supplement with about thirty offline interviews. This data was also greatly expanded by materials I collected while working on the essay “Mezza- nine of Memory: Memories of Costume in 1990,” which was published in Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye (New literary review) in 2011. One thing that the respondents’ answers clearly showed was that, for our purposes, it makes sense to talk about the “back- dated 1990s,” meaning a period that began at the end of 1986 with the start of the second stage of perestroika—the era of glasnost, which led to warmer relations with the West, the softening of censorship, “new thinking,” the first cooperatives, and the collapse of old dress codes and the old Soviet language of clothing. When discussing sartorial practices, most respondents did not distinguish the last years of the USSR from the start of the 1990s, since these practices were responses to the same set of challenges: to the acute aggravation of the goods deficit and the need to change self-modeling strat- egies in the context of a new, imperfect, and incompletely formed language of clothing, to the emergence of new images for imitation in suddenly available Western magazines, serials, and films, to the intensification and legalization of non-state retail trade, and to the need to integrate the goods it offered into wardrobes, depending on the financial capacity of the respondent and his or her family. Therefore, this essay will take the “back- dated 1990s” as its subject.
Altering items of clothing—cutting and resewing, remodeling, changing adornments—and creating garments from items that were not previously garments (we will group all such activities under the not ideally accurate, but appropriate heading of “upcycling”) in order to extend the life of previously acquired goods by giving them new practical and symbolic functions was probably the main means by which people in pre-industrial times obtained new clothes and accessories. But it would be wrong to think that indus - trialization put an end to the mass practice of upcycling: it continued to exist—not just as a modern hobby based on creative impulses and ethical attitudes, but as a widespread response to difficult times. By and large, mass upcycling (and DIY creation of clothes from scratch) has always existed in Russia and in the USSR—it has only become more or less widespread, has only required more or less “depth of technique” (i.e., the level of complexity involved in transforming the original thing into the new thing) depending on the availability and quality of source materials. “Deep” mass upcycling (reversing, changing gender application, bricolage requiring serious technical skills, substantial size alteration, making clothes out of unusual materials), characteristic of the post-revolutionary period of devastation, of the post-war period, of the depth of the post-perestroika deficit, and of the early 1990s can be contrasted with the “soft” upcycling (adding decoration, adjustment to match the body or to produce a more fashionable silhouette) of the relatively prosperous Thaw or Stagnation periods. But even during the Thaw and Stagnation years complete and complex alteration of an old thing into a new one remained normal practice for some people. The share of upcycled items in the wardrobe of a given person in a given historical period will have depended on their personal circumstances—on their material well-being, their access to raw materials for new clothes, their access to information about fashion (Western or scarce Soviet magazines, restricted screenings, the opportunity to watch foreign films), their family’s tailoring and handicraft capabilities, their creative flair, etc.
“Awful and amazing”: mixed memories of upcycling
On the one hand, people’s stories about upcycling often came with remarks like these: “Awful times that I don’t want to remember,” “The feeling of uncomfortable and badly fitting clothes and underwear is my worst memory of the 1990s,” “Even today, if a store as- sistant says ‘You could alter the hem a little,’ I immediately change into my own clothes and leave: I’ve had my fill of altering hems.” I was particularly impressed by this comment: “Back then my elder sister saw someone throw out a raincoat with polyester padding that was still good. She waited until nightfall, brought it home, washed it in the machine, and made a warm waterproof outdoor suit for her child. She says she was ashamed, that it’s a bad memory.” The theme of shame surfaced repeatedly, but so did feelings of nostalgia (“We used to alter jeans into skirts. I felt a stab of nostalgia at the things being modeled this year—they were sewn like they had been altered from jeans,” “It was outrageous. It was freedom. It was joyful. It was part clownery. It was the spirit of the times”) and of ambivalence (“What a time! I don’t want to think about it, but it was fun too,” “Wasn’t it something? Like flying off a high mountain: awful and amazing”).
Some of the respondents saw upcycling as a continuation of Soviet practices and remembered suddenly being grateful for the homemaking lessons they had had at school, which they had previously either hated and thought useless (“The work teacher taught us how to reverse a coat. I remember thinking: who needs to know that and why? The teacher showed us how the coat was frayed on the outside, but good as new on the inside. But we didn’t get it. Then in 1995 I had to reverse my mother’s coat to make a jacket for my brother. I was twenty, my brother was twelve”), or viewed as a Soviet-era hobby of no practical use (“I turned a fur muff into a classy handbag, wove macramé handles and decorations—who’d have guessed that a daft skill like macramé could be useful?”). Others almost blamed the Soviet DIY ethic for the situation we found ourselves in by the 1990s: “We had got used to the idea that people should be able to do everything themselves, so there was no need to provide them with things. ‘Want a coat? Make one yourself, and out of old tires, if necessary.’ So you had a country of DIY experts and no one gave a damn.” The strong emotional coloring of this comment is characteristic: the theme of upcycling evokes strong responses, because it is situated at the junction of several trigger narratives: personal dress habits, personal history of the backdated 1990s (a time that was challenging and full of significant events in the life of almost every Russian now past a certain age), creative ability, and (often) family and interpersonal relationships.
“Get the scissors”: upcycling as a household norm
“I don’t remember any particular emotions, everyone did it, we altered things and remade them,” said one respondent. The leitmotif of upcycling as the absolute sartorial norm of the time was omnipresent: “It was the spirit of the time,” “As soon as you got something, you reached for the scissors,” “It was how our generation dressed. It was okay to have your arms sticking out of the shoulders. People who didn’t know how to do needlework were the exception.”
By the time of post-perestroika and the 1990s, things that could be bought in Soviet stores or Soviet things lying in cupboards were so far removed from the new fashion challenges and costume language that the upcycling they required was sometimes so intense as to be radical. It wasn’t a matter of reversing things or com- bining more than one garment, but (for example) of turning an umbrella into a child’s dress or passport holders into a leather jacket. The critical situation in retail supply and household finances meant that people who had been quite happy with what was available in Soviet stores could no longer find those goods and often could not afford what was on offer from cooperatives, speculators, or clothing markets, which meant upcycling (or deeper upcycling than ever before) was the only option: “I’d never picked up a needle in my life, but there was nothing else for it and soon I was stitching like mad.” A lot of clothes that were still nearly new could no longer be worn because of their “Sovietness,” which meant they too had to be upcycled: “Some things were still wearable but I couldn’t wear them, if you see what I mean,” “There must have been a time when there wasn’t a thing my wardrobe that I hadn’t reworked or improved myself,” “It was hard to find anything in my wardrobe that was still what it had once been, everything was originally something else.”
Other major reasons for the emergence of an “upcycling society” in the post-perestroika, post-Soviet period were the openness of society to fundamentally new visual codes, changes in sartorial preferences, and the appearance in the visual field of things that did not correspond to a single, generally accepted norm. The clearly home-made, often technically imperfect, sometimes extravagant result of upcycling was no longer seen as an affront to public taste but rather as matching the overall picture of an emerging individualistic society, where fashion was no longer dictated from above but created by individuals (explicitly, and not in a veiled manner, as had often happened in Soviet times) by virtue of their talents, creative ambitions, and personal understanding of trends. This explains why memories of upcycling so often mention garments that were technically unsuccessful and “unprofessional,” but were nevertheless fashionable, that “made a splash” and were worn with pride and pleasure. It was a time when the rigid demand for things to be neat and technically perfect was set aside, and when individuality, fashion, and shock value came to be valued much more highly because they were more in tune with the “spirit of the times”: “One evening I used a badly oiled and unregulated manual sewing machine to stitch the two pieces of a pair of leggings into one, put a sort of loop around the neck and called it a party dress. It was a wow at the wedding,” “Nowadays if one thread is sticking out, it’s unwearable crap, but then I could wear something with the seams coming apart and it didn’t matter — I was dressed the coolest and I knew it.”
Cat-fur creations: upcycling as economic necessity and creative need
One respondent to my Facebook post about 1990s upcycling was puzzled by the dating. She asked: “Why in the 1990s? I still do this sometimes.” I wrote back that in the 1990s upcycling was done not out of love but out of a need for something to wear. In fact, though, deep analysis of Soviet DIY practices (not just those related to clothing) has shown again and again that it is fundamentally wrong to explain the attraction of upcycling practices solely by the scarcity of goods in the USSR. Though this was certainly a major factor, creativity, the desire to make, model, and transform things, to be involved in a creative process, and to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor were also motives, and they encouraged upcyclers to transform many more things and to embark on much deeper upcycling than would have been necessary to solve practical problems alone. “I loved doing it and it inspired me, as if my mood and everything around me changed with every new thing I made,” one respondent said. “We were altering things all the time and I don’t think it was just out of poverty,” wrote another, hinting at the varied meanings of the word “poverty,” which could mean lacking the money to buy a warm onesie for a baby, just as it could mean finding it difficult to dress fashionably and differently every day for work (“I wore two pairs of trousers until I sewed myself two more out of my father’s old ones, and I felt like a beggar”). Many respondents made the qualification “not just from poverty” and then went on to provide a range of oth- er motives to explain what had prompted them to large-scale and regular upcycling in the 1990s, suggesting that the lack of funds and available goods was just one among many reasons for creating and wearing upcycled things, even if they were not of “professional” quality: “Apart from my family’s lack of funds, I was also motivat- ed (back then and later, when I was a student) by the desire not to dress like everyone else, to be different from others,” “I remember how it felt—the excitement and satisfaction with the result,” “I loved doing it. Things always turned out special, interesting, sometimes beautiful. Plus, the feeling that nothing was going to waste,” “I liked these ‘experiments,’ being able to make something new from some - thing old or useless, and not having to go around in things that had been darned, mended, or were obviously hand-me-downs.”
Many respondents described something like a creative passion coming over them once they realized that their skills and abilities were sufficient for quite daring experiments and (as discussed above) that society was ready to accept their sartorial tastes: “I fantasized about alterations, I was always looking for something else to start work on,” “I had more ideas than things to try them on, my hands would itch for the next thing, I hardly ever wore anything twice,” “I remember how the ideas just kept coming,” “We sewed some incredibly bold and beautiful things before the second-hand market appeared.”
The ease or unease with which a respondent wore upcycled clothes often depended on the social group they mixed with. A former student of the Moscow Architectural Institute recalled that “the only things we bought were shoes, handbags, and gloves. Everything else was sewn or knitted using patterns from Burda magazine. The girls at the Architectural Institute were good with their hands, so it was no problem. We painted shoes too and baked clay jewelry in the oven.” So upcycling was clearly accepted and even encouraged as a manifestation of creativity in that particular student environment. Other survey participants, however, described social environments much less tolerant of home - made clothes: “I started thinking people could see that I wasn’t wearing this out of choice, and I was always afraid of being found out,” “My most ambitious project, before I got married, was reversing my mother’s overcoat. I changed the cut too. I couldn’t bring myself to wear it for a long time—my cousin said: ‘You look like a beggar in it,’ so I thought, okay, I’ll go buy one of those awful Chinese jackets with polyester padding, like everyone else,” “We kept quiet about where things came from—it was considered a sign of poverty in our circle.”
Upcycling sometimes helped respondents to feel they were helping their families: although making their own warm winter clothes would not save them and their families from extreme poverty, making new items for themselves instead of spending family cash meant they were contributing to the effort: “A coat for my daughter from my father’s overcoat in the attic, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived the winter,” “I was proud of remaking everything from old clothes or making new ones, I don’t think I bought anything using family money.” Upcycling skills could be effectively monetized or used for barter: “Friends asked where we got them. And when we told them they started bringing us (me and my husband) their old jeans and raincoats, and we sewed jackets for their children. They paid us with potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and lard from the village.”
“It looks like God knows what, but I love it anyways”: the aftermath of 1990s upcycling
“I didn’t sew anything for ten years afterwards, because I associated it so strongly with being poor. But when I think about it, it was so amazing—flights of fancy and imaginative design, making amazing things out of nothing,” wrote one respondent. Another admitted that “it was very hard to get rid of the habit of remaking and altering, I still find it hard to force myself to throw out old clothes, because I could make so many great things out of them.” Some people still have things they made back then: “I sometimes wear this coat. It looks like God knows what, but I love it anyways,” “I still wear things I remade in the 1990s: a top made from jeans and bottom from a skirt where the elastic had disintegrated. I sewed a line of lace along the hem and it came out cowboy style,” “I made a ‘night-watchman’ tank top decorated with a bat, with rose braiding round the buttons. My twenty-four-year-old eldest son wears it now when he goes to the forest to play games or just to hang out. He loves it, especially the buttonhole-stitch bat.”
Some people no longer have the things they made then, but they still have a knack for upcycling: “Altering clothes is still my favorite pastime, I can’t give things away or throw them out when I know what else I could do with them!” Others have curious “psy- chological scars” from their upcycling experiences: “I found it really hard afterwards to cut new fabric—before I used to give new life to a thing, and now I have to spoil it.” The period of “total upcycling” has marked us all: as remembered horror at the threat of poverty and the urgency of a DIY solution, as pride in our skills and creative abil - ities, as a habit of frugality and transformation of whatever comes to hand, and as knowledge that almost anything can be made into a unique item of clothing that expresses our individuality—some- thing that mass-produced clothing can never do. How exactly this experience affects our current sartorial practices deserves separate study.
Translated, from the Russian, by Ben Hooson.
1. This article is based on the materials of the following survey and includes the comments of its participants: https://www.facebook.com/snorapp/posts/10158820169358769
2. Linor Goralik, “Antresoli pamyati: vospominaniya o kostyume 1990-go goda” [Mezzanine of memory: memories of costume in 1990], Novoye literaturnoye obo zreniye, no. 84 (2007): 581–620.
3. See Galina Orlova, “Apologiya strannoy veshchi: ‘malenkiye khitrosti’ sovetskogo cheloveka” [The apology of a strange thing: “little tricks” of the Soviet citizen], Neprikosnovenniy zapas, no. 2 (2004): 84–90; Olga Gurova, “Prodolzhitelnost zhizni veshchey v sovetskom obshchestve: zametki po sotsiologii nizhnego belya” [Life expectancy of things in Soviet society: notes on the sociology of underwear], Neprikosnoven niy zapas, no. 2 (2004): 78–84; Alexey Golubev and Olga Smolyak, “Making selves through making things: Soviet do-it-yourself culture and practices of late Soviet subjectivation,” Cahiers du monde russe 54, no. 3–4 (2013): 517–541.