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Flowers in the Dustbin: Society and Fashion in Czechoslovakia in the 70s

Start Date 07 December 2007
End Date 17 February 2008
Venue Museum of Decorative Arts
Location Prague, Czech Republic
Curator Konstantina Hlavackova

Faded jeans, platform shoes, pointed collars and lapels, striking colours and prints: that’s what you recall when you think of 1970s fashion. Now, you can see some of its finest – or at least most garish – examples on display at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. The exhibition entitled Kytky v popelnici or Flowers in the Dustbin is part of a long-term cycle which aims to present fashion in the course of history. The show is also part of a larger project that has presented 1970s lifestyle in photography, living and now, in fashion.

Coming up with a title that would be fitting and attract visitors at the same time wasn’t easy, says the exhibition’s curator Konstantina Hlavackova. Somewhat surprisingly, she finally found inspiration in a song called God Save the Queen by the punk band the Sex Pistols:

“The song is from 1976. It is about the disillusionment of young people with social development, and their anger with the generation of their parents. I thought this could apply to the situation in Czechoslovakia as well. Here people were disillusioned, too. I though it was interesting to draw a parallel between flowers in the dustbin and thoughts of people – be it hippies or Czechs who lived here at the end of the 1960s.”

For those who may find this comparison slightly far-fetched or academic, Mrs Hlavackova has another, more personal explanation:

“My memories of the 1970s are mostly grey. The times were very unpleasant. On the other hand, I was always dressed nicely, because I was young and I would do anything to have nice clothing. And they were always very colourful. But the dominant feeling I have of those time is that of greyness and unpleasantness. When I started to prepare this exhibition I had to remind myself that although the times were grey, we used to wear clothes that were very colourful.”

Indeed, the prevailing tone in the exhibition hall is that of grey. In one corner the authors have installed a 1970s designed living room. Visitors can sit down on a sofa and flip through old fashion magazines. There is also an old black and white TV showing a 1970s fashion programme. In contrast to the pervading greyness you can’t fail to notice the bright balls of synthetic wool right at the entrance to the gallery:

“The 1970s are connected with a material called Chemlon, which was made here in Czechoslovakia. It was synthetic and very uncomfortable. It was used for various things. People who lived in that era will definitely remember slippers, blankets or pillows. We decided to knit an endless Chemlon scarf. Visitors who know the technique can sit down and add a few rows.”

The main part of the exhibition, however, consists of some 60 mannequins dressed in the most typical examples of 1970s fashion. Most of the outfits on display come from Czechoslovakia, but you can also admire some finer pieces produced in Western Europe. You will find clothes that still bear the imprint of the hippie legacy – frayed jeans, tie die T-shirts, tunics and Indian fabrics – as well as things that had just come into fashion, such as broad and colourful ties or pointed collars and lapels. But most of all you can see denim, the leitmotif of the decade, in various forms.

Overall, you get the impression that the 1970s was quite an eclectic mixture of styles, from 1960s hippies to late 1970s punks. According to Pavel Ivancic, a young and up-and-coming fashion designer from Prague, mixing various styles is indeed the most important element of 1970s fashion.

“I think that in the 1970s there was no strong stream that would bring something new. But there was a special kind of attitude. It started mixing different aspects together. It became the modern or post-modern way of working; a conceptual way of working with fashion and clothing. I think in 1970s that was the very first time, building eclectic style.”

And how was this trend reflected in Czechoslovak fashion production?

“In the Czech Republic we had a kind of weird version of this. It was not about styling and choices. It was about what you could get together. I thing that quite an important aspect of 1970s Czechoslovakia was that lot of people made clothes themselves. They made really funny copies of what they saw abroad and what they would like to have.”

Despite the shortcomings of Czechoslovak fashion market, Mrs Hlavackova says Czechs could stand a comparison with their western neighbours. However, it did require more effort on their part.

“There were many interesting things made at that time, for example by the Institute of Clothing and Home Culture. They designed high-quality clothes that were to be produced as ready-made clothes. This usually didn’t happen because of the slow reaction of our market. It wasn’t the immediate reaction of a capitalist market. So, the good things often didn’t reach people. But I think many could be compared to western market. Common people had to struggle to get these clothes. They spent hours in queues or made them themselves. So I would say people who wanted to dress nicely could, but it was hard work. I think young people nowadays can’t even imagine what it was like.”

On Sunday evening, the small gallery at the Museum of Decorative Arts was full of visitors. Most of them came to remind themselves of the old days but there were some young people as well, keen to discover what their parents used to wear at their age. Here is what two of the visitors had to say about the exhibition:

Visitor:“I like it. I think it’s very interesting to see the times and the materials. Nowadays they are much better and more comfortable.“

You didn’t live in the 1970s you are too young is that right? So what do you thing about this fashion. Is there anything that you would actually wear?

“Yes. Some of the cuts are OK but I wouldn’t wear the materials.“

So are you happy that you actually didn’t live in the 1970s?

“Very happy.“

Visitor 2:“It brings my youth back.

We came with a friend to have a look to see if we would be reminded of some of the things we obviously wore ourselves; not so long ago what we thought. I find it quite interesting and fascinating. But I haven’t discovered anything I have in my wardrobe yet.”

But have you discovered something that you used to wear when you were younger?

“Well we just started so we haven’t finished yet. Not quite but some reminiscences. Definitely.”

There is a section called “What we longed for”. Was there something you really wished to have but couldn’t get?

“Well I remember jeans. That was one thing everybody wanted from abroad. I think in those days we were always keen to get clothes from abroad if we could. I actually left Prague in mid 1970s but what I remember certainly of growing up when I was in my late teens and early twenties is that we were we were always interested in clothes abroad. We always thought that the Czech clothes were very much below par of the fashion abroad. I think now of course there is absolutely no difference at all. You find in Prague everything you find abroad and sometimes more. That’s what I am always looking for nowadays: something Czech and local.”

If you want to see what was in fashion thirty years ago, go and see the exhibition Flowers in the Dustbin. It is on display at the Museum of Decorative Arts until the end of June 2008.