Posted: 23.03.2023 16:25:00

Fashionable Slutsk

In search of the lost. Fashionable Slutsk — what the inhabitants of the city wore at the beginning of the 20th century

Slutsk has become the cultural capital of 2023, having crossed the 900-year milestone not so long ago. It is known for the oldest gymnasium in the country, and for the production of belts that have no analogues in the world. Let’s look at it from a different angle — through the portraits of its inhabitants. Surprisingly, costumes will tell a lot — and Slutsk of the beginning of the 20th century will appear before us as a truly developed, moreover, fashionable cultural centre.

Peasants of the Luchniki village. Slutsk District. Early 20th century.

It is more customary to think of the Belarusian costume as a folk system — with wide skirts, shirts, aprons, which differ in colours and embroidery depending on the region. However, the outfits of a century ago were also fashionable!
Let’s take a look at the photo of two married couples from Slutsk. Having connected the imagination, we can easily move them to the snowy winter streets of the city, famous for its controversial history. We will see men with canes, in comfortable shoes and shortened, although, of course, heavy coats hurrying to work and jumping over small snowdrifts, while ladies in their long coats just want to be put in carriages, where they, with proudly straightened backs, will warm their hands in warm muffs.

Clothes do make a man

Girl from Slutsk. Early 20th century.
A coat was the most common outerwear for both men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, winter outfits were sewn on a warm wadded or woollen lining, with a collar made of beaver, mink and fur seal. The set also included hats like sheepskin hat, full-fur cap of oblong shape, cap with earlaps of various cuts.
What is hidden under the warm, obviously expensive and natural fur clothes of the Slutsk residents in the photo? First, let’s try to determine what social class group they belong to. Did these people have the opportunity to order ready-made suits with accessories that came into fashion at that time from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw or Paris... Or did they sew outfits to order from expensive imported fabrics according to patterns from fashion magazines from famous tailors at that time... Of course, such chic could only be afforded by representatives of the urban elite — nobles, high officials, bankers and merchants. The middle layers of the townspeople, and this is mainly the intelligentsia (artists, architects, doctors, teachers or clergy), also dressed in fashion, only the fabrics for dresses and trousers were much simpler, and they were made by local craftsmen. And the worker’s suit was distinguished by both the low quality of the fabric and the colours: in principle, white and light colours were absent in it. In winter, hard workers wore a variety of cut jackets with cotton wool, casings, hats with earflaps.
In the photo we are more likely to see representatives of the urban elite. Perhaps one of the men graduated from the local gymnasium, which opened in 1617. After, perhaps, he studied in Moscow or St. Petersburg or even in Europe, but returned home — and not only because ‘the smoke of the Fatherland is sweet and pleasant’. After the reform of 1861, economic life in Slutsk was greatly revived, four tanneries, the same number of breweries, three brick and three pottery factories worked. Thus, there was a place to apply the knowledge gained at universities.

Simplicity and convenience

Сhildren from Slutsk. Early 20th century.
…But back to fashion. The men’s suit is becoming more and more simplified, becoming more convenient and comfortable. The tailcoat also has a place to be, but it is used for going to the theatre, formal celebrations and holidays. As for women’s outfits, since the second half of the 19th century, serial production of clothing has been spreading.
Dresses, of course, are still sewn to order for specific clients, but their models are created in advance, patterns are printed in magazines that are published in large numbers. And thanks to the development of weaving manufactories and factories, lower prices for fabrics and the appearance of finished products, even residents of small county towns, which at that time included Slutsk, began to willingly switch to a European-style costume.

Down with corsets!

Slutsk. Married couple. Early 20th century.
For a long time, corsets were used to create a silhouette of a thin waist. Not only sitting, it was difficult to breathe without proper dexterity in these devices. Girls of the gentry class were accustomed to them from early childhood: from the age of five, tight belts were tied at the waist, and by the age of 10–12 they put on their first ‘uniform’.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the French couturier Paul Poiret gave women freedom by creating a collection of costumes without a corset. Thus, blouses with high standing collars, decorated with lace, flounces, embroidery appear in the wardrobe of fashionistas. Brooches with precious stones, strings of pearls, pendants, small watches on long chains look stylish and tasteful on them.
By the 1910s, oriental style came into fashion with tight skirts, loose tops and sleeves cut by the ‘Japanese’. In evening dresses, cutouts become obscenely deep — at first only truly brave women dared to wear them! But Slutsk women quickly mastered both open dresses and tight skirts. And for sure, it was for everyone’s happiness to consider themselves a follower of the great Anastasia, the intercessor and patroness of the city, who without hesitation entered into battle with the Tatars, defending her native Slutsk. So fashionistas of the early twentieth century boldly fought against the strict prohibitions of the past, the disapproval and prejudices of society.

Children’s photography is a special kind of art

Girl from Slutsk. Early 20th century.
At the beginning of the last century, two commercial photo studios operated in Slutsk, and they were very popular with the townspeople.
People were very responsible for shooting in the photo salon, because the memory of this event in the form of small black-and-white cards will last a lifetime! One can only imagine with what trepidation the parents prepared their daughters and sons for ‘perpetuation’ on film. And they, of course, chose the best clothes for this purpose.
How many tears and tantrums remained behind the scenes! After all, sitting and standing frozen in the little men did not always work out well, and the shooting sometimes lasted not an hour or two. Well done! The little girls in the photos that have survived to this day look like real princesses, and the obviously tired trio look like friendly sisters and brothers.
Each photo keeps its own story, which, years later, new generations try to see and unravel. Do your photo albums contain pictures of great-grandmothers in evening dresses and grandfathers with canes and top hats?

By Vladimir Likhodedov
Photos from the personal collection of Vladimir Likhodedov