Levi’s 501 in the USSR – Symbol of Identity, Consumer Culture and Gender

Consumer goods are the bricks with which we build our culture and create private and public meanings for our possessions. Thus, we identify ourselves by means of goods – available market resources – establishing a certain hyperreality by Jean Baudrillard around us. Then self-doubt, as a result of cultural contradictions caused by marketing manipulations, appears in the form of reflexive modernity, making the consumer ask herself “who am I” and “who do I want to be”. Such scenario turns the consumers into both a participator and a creator of the framework, where their identity is to be determined, developed and constantly modified, giving symbolic meaning to the possessions.

Cool Soviet Guys of the 1980s. Photo credit: via https://imgarcade.com/1980-era-clothing.html

A vivid example of the identity construction process, in my eyes, would be Levi’s jeans (model 501 in particular), which bear quite a few cultural symbols in themselves. Besides being a unisex mainstay of Western fashion for both young and old during the 1980’s on the one hand, they at the same time symbolised something different behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union on the other hand.  The cultural capitalistic discourse, which was based around a certain identity of the garment brought (often smuggled) into Eastern Europe by tourists, sailors and others, having so called free passage in and out of the socialistic camp, was converted into a new social and political context by the consumers in the Soviet Union.

Within the frame of illegally created foreign-goods-market in the country, those consumers created their own brand authenticity based on their, sometimes illusionary, ideas of the western authenticity of the brand. In that new social and political context Levi’s jeans consequently received a completely new cultural meaning (identity), based on contrasting opposing values and beliefs, such as democracy vis-à-vis communism, freedom vis-à-vis ideology, individualism vis-à-vis collective consciousness. Levi’s jeans as a mass-produced fashion item all of a sudden became an exclusive and difficult-to-get garment.

Disco, 1980’s. Photo: via http://englishrussia.com/2008/02/04/life-in-soviet-russia-private-moments/9

Soviet subculture, 1980’s. Photo: via http://soviethooligans.ru/

Another important aspect of the garment is the gender perspective, which stirred up the habitual gender stereotypes concerning both male and female wardrobes. The jeans were unisexual what was not even in the vicinity of the apparel industry in the Soviet Union. The interesting fact was that the garment was equally desirable by both genders and both were more than willing to pay an engineer’s month wage for it, what also changed the established stereotype of the male consumers as rational and wise, making them more emotional and weak, while hunting the product. Even though, that was empirical studies of the socialistic “black apparel market”, it illustrates how the gender roles easily could be changed by means of marketing, creating the demand and desire in the era of total deficit. Jeans became a certain subculture in the Soviet, changing aesthetics of both male and female wardrobes and thus social frames, where men and women could continue develop their unisexual characteristics in their respective gender roles.

Soviet Female Fashion 1980’s. Photo: http://www.russmodamag.ru/7500

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