Martial law on the back

At the textile department of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, better methods of dyeing were known than a single piece in a Frania washing machine. And word was spread among the circle of acquaintances: today the reds are flying! Then these initiates lumbered to Krakowskie Przedmieście 5 things to be flamboyant. The professor's assistant, master of ceremonial dyeing, stood by the cauldron and stirred.

The People's Republic (PRL) has a take today.

On TVP Historia, a series on everyday life in the 'happiest barracks in the socialist camp' is very popular, and on our portal, texts about those times are eagerly read. I was wondering, together with the editor Grzegorz Sieczkowski (the author of the series about PRL on TVP Historia and articles in TVP Weekly), which is the reason for this career.

We came to the conclusion that the interpersonal aura. Well, and the absurdities of the system, which at the time seemed like nightmarish impediments, but today have passed into the category of "bareisms" and only make us laugh.

This time I would like to evoke a clothing landscape.

Protective colours

There are eras that have their own distinctive colours. For example: the Middle Ages shone with pure, saturated colours; Baroque was dominated by black with a touch of white; Rococo by pastel shades of pink, blue, purple and lemon yellow.

The communist times are usually described as grey - although this is partly true.

Instead, martial law is visually associated with the colour khaki, camouflage and the moro pattern. Those who don't remember those times have been fixated by the 'period' photos, especially those depicting the TV announcers who, after 13 December 1981, were put into uniforms instead of suits. And while the imagination suggested military colours, in fact on the TV screens everything was grey.

I have to verify this vision.

Yes, those who had to obey top-down orders donned the colours of war, or rather camouflage. However, the nation, especially the young, did as much as it could against the orders. The exhibition at Wrocław's National Museum, unpretentiously entitled "The Fashion of Martial Law" (until 30 July 2023), reminds us of how.
It was a time of knitting and purling. Something that was suitable for a stitch was transformed into an original outfit. Photo: National Museum in Wrocław, Magdalena Lorek
Of course, everyone praises their own ways of resisting the red authorities. This is why the Lower Silesian capital focused (specifically, the exhibition's curators, Dr Małgorzata Możdżyńska-Nawrotka and Maria Duffek-Bartoszewska) on local costumed oppositionists (the men appear to be invisible, which is not entirely true) and on the photographs of press photojournalist Mieczysław Michalak, who documented events in the region in the 1980s.

And I was reminded of the fashion games of the time - because, after all, these were not serious, professional activities, but spontaneous amateurism.

After the nightmare year 1982 (the apogee of martial law), when one sucked one's own paw to survive, in the following years the will to live had already taken hold, especially among the young.

New groups blossomed in the arts, finding niches for themselves in establishments that were less invigilated (or less supervised) by the "reds". Each city had its own dissidents, setting the tone for artistic life. Warsaw was dominated by Gruppa (six talented students of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts); Poznań by Koło Klipsa; Wrocław by Luxus; Łódź by Kultura Zrzuty.

Funnily enough, disagreement with the 'marshall law' situation and the communist system in general was also expressed in... military clothing. However, the most popular garments were not those of the native services, but those of the overseas formations. American parkas (a type of jacket popularised in the 1940s as the outer garment of US Army soldiers), superb in their cut, workmanship and practicality, were delivered to Poland via - among other things - church charities It was something like second hand, only that it was free. The Western powers, mainly the USA, supported the Polish opposition with textile garments delivered to church relief organisations. Clothing that was no longer needed in rich countries found grateful recipients in our shop-galanter desert.

And how I benefited too. I remember an olive green (military, of course) men's jacket, much too big on me, which I wore with a cut, tied at the waist with a wide belt.

But the hit turned out to be... a military parachute made of thin cotton mixed with silk in a pattern called camouflage.

We were saved from Soviet intervention by the Chinese and the generals of the Internal Security Corps (KBW)

A quarrel within the family with a brawl at the Belvedere may have had a Hungarian ending.

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My seamstress made me a huge tunic out of it, which has gone down in history. This is thanks to the fact that Kora (the one from Maanam) posed in it on the photographs taken by Tadeusz Rolke for his 1983 calendar. I participated in this photo shoot organised in Edward Dwurnik's studio as a stylist, make-up artist and someone with unspecified duties.
In an atmosphere of great improvisation, I disguised Kora and painted her face (sometimes her hair too) not only with safe cosmetics, also with the painterly paints used by Dwurnik. Miraculously, this did not harm her complexion or cause a hair to fall out of her head!

Imitations of abundance

The Wrocław exhibition is rightly dominated by 'artistic', handmade costumes.
To the exhibits shown there I will add my commentary, or rather - memories.
These were times when individual style required ingenuity and manual dexterity. Yes, the institution of private dressmakers, to whom Polish women owed their worldwide reputation as elegant women for several difficult decades, still proved its worth.
However, in order to sew, you needed fabric, which was in short supply. And alterations, threading, shortening, ditching and any other treatment changing the form or purpose of a garment was mentally closer to the older generation. The younger one relied on their own creativity and a look that departed from the tradition of "tailoring to measure".
Martial law and the years afterwards became a time of purling, knitting, appliqué and sewing without figure-fitting.

„Ikon”, the obscure object of desire

In the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – PRL) Orthodox works of art were looted on a massive scale. At least 2500 icons from 15th to 19th centuries were stolen, so was about a dozen or so antique books and prazdniks.

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Although in the People's Republic of Poland of that militarised era it was difficult to get up-to-date fashion instruction, somehow secretly Polish women knew what was playing on the catwalks of the big world. So -en vogue was Japanese. Oversized outfits without cuts and darts, simple, yet carefully composed in colour. On point with the needs of the times rejecting convention!

Japanese designers inspired me, but one could only dream of their creations.
An erzatz had to be found.

I have found a source that is reasonably cheap and also exclusive: Milanowek. Milanówek silks. In gorgeous, pure colours, unobtainable in tetra (nappy cotton), home-dyed in the washing machine Frania. I used to buy silk passionately in the company's shop on Rutkowskiego Street (now Chmielna). What was considered a luxury in the West was cheaper than cotton in Poland.

My seamstress understood that she was only to sew the skirt together at the sides and make a belt to hitch up the waist. And that the top was to have no bust darts, just kimono sleeves. And in general it is supposed to hang on me, not lie down.

These silk creations of mine had a jaw-dropping effect on friends in the West, who could not imagine that such an expensive material was available in our country for the wallets of casual wage-earning artists.

I had another trick: God forbid I ironed the silk cloths. They were to be wrinkled and a bit sloppy, that is - loose.

With a needle for a fight

As I mentioned, martial law proved to be a renaissance of textile techniques, transferred from utilitarian objects to clothing. Known since at least the 19th century (also earlier, but never mind), patchwork - a product of poverty, which did not allow a scrap of material to go to waste - sparkled again in the reality of martial law in Poland.

The painstaking textile collages, cut and stitched from worn-out children's clothes, ball gowns or other cast-off creations made by stingy housewives in America and Victorian England, inspired the home's non-rich maids and married women.

In the deft hands of a woman, something suitable for a cloth was transformed into an original outfit.

I caught the patchworks on my fishing rod. First, I cut up and reshuffled my own wardrobe, taken out of circulation for various reasons. It appealed. Soon, friends were bearing with me worn-out T-shirts, jumpers, knitwear. I cut them, arranged them on geometric paper (my own adaptation of Japanese) into something resembling an abstract painting, stitched them and took them to the irreplaceable seamstress Helena (a tribute to her skills and a tribute to this wonderful woman). She would stitch. Then I added the finishing touches with embroidery and appliqués.

When I look at myself in pictures from those years, I generally hold a rag and needle in my hands. I'm patchworking.

This is how I earned my money through the worst 'red' period, when exhibiting in official galleries or publishing in the public media I considered a collaboration.

Eyelet decoration

But more about that knitting.

I never learned to knit. As well as sewing on a machine. Instead, I had visions of what to make and how to make it, to remake it, to flavour it. Poverty (and any other shortcomings) stimulated creativity..

I had familiar 'jumper girls'. And jumpers - that was the basic outfit of the 1980s, for both sexes anyway. The girls knew how to flick knit at an accelerated pace. They too - in the photos from those years - have their hands busy. New yarns were hard to come by, so ripping out old pullovers and re-dyeing the recovered material was our (clothing) bread and butter.
The girls knew how to flash their wires at an accelerated pace. ot. National Museum in Wrocław, Magdalena Lorek
I had friends in the textile department of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. There, they knew better methods of dyeing than a single piece in the aforementioned washing machine Frania.

And word was spread among the circle of acquaintances: today the reds are flying! Then these insiders lumbered to Krakowskie Przedmieście 5 things to be flamboyant. Or softly pink. Professor Wojciech Sadley's assistant, Zygmunt Łukaszewicz, master of the dyeing ceremony, stood by the cauldron and stirred, keeping an eye on the timing of the procedure.

Once dry, I set to work. There wasn't a jumper I couldn't make more attractive. It shrunk, shrunk and felted - that's for patchwork. If a sweater was infested with moths, I'd cut out the holes to make them even bigger, lay another fabric underneath and then embroider - as if that was the way it was supposed to be. If a fabric looked a bit shabby, I sewed on some tatters and turned it into a quasi-fur. And dozens of other tricks, none of which would probably have a chance of "selling" in public today.

Clothes with an idea

In the difficult decade of the 1980s, someone who donned the camouflage for contesting reasons had it uphill. I had it too.

To survive, I dabbled in fashion in various ways. I exhibited my patchworks in niche, informal galleries. I drew fashion and advised young people who read the weekly magazine 'Płomyk'. I dressed models and various artists for photo shoots, usually using the resources of my own wardrobe and my imagination. The former, modestly; the latter, as needed.

At that time, I published three clothing guides in the Watra publishing house (no longer in existence, it went bankrupt in the early 1990s). All with my text, drawings and typographical layout.
Their titles eloquently testify to what the times were like, what the volumes were about and the speed at which the printing process took place. Clothes with an Idea (typescript sent for typesetting 1983 - signed for printing 1986, printing completed 1987); Fashion... Fashion? Fashion! (typescript sent to typesetting 1985 - signed for printing and printing completed 1986); Patches, scraps, pieces (typescript sent 1987 - printing completed 1988).

That's where my fashion games ended.

Ideas of dress and image - not only mine, also those of most of my compatriots - ceased to be amateurish over the years as Poland sought to catch up with other Western countries.

It is good that there are memorial exhibitions like the one in Wrocław - because who among the young would believe that the holes in a jumper were made by moths or - wear and tear?

– Monika Małkowska
– Tranlated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Exhibition "Martial Law Fashion" at the National Museum in Wrocław, pl. Powstańców Warszawy 5, open until 30 July 2023.
Curators of the exhibition: Dr Małgorzata Możdżyńska-Nawotka (MNWr), Maria Duffek-Bartoszewska.
Main photo: Martial law and the years after it were a time of ripping, knitting and sewing without a figure-fit. Photo: Poland's first exhibition devoted to the fashion of the time, National Museum in Wrocław. Photo: PAP/Maciej Kulczyński
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