When I first started traveling around Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, there was a quick way to determine whether someone was a local or a Westerner: a glance at their shoes. Inevitably, the male denizen of the former communist world was attired in telltale vinyl loafers of indeterminate color. Young women were obliged to step out in footgear that might have looked OK on their grandmothers.
A year ago, when I returned to Moscow after an 11-year absence, I experienced a veritable culture shock. Supermarkets, shopping malls, luxury brands – all the things I’d never associated with Russia – had become the hallmarks of Putin’s Moscow. Today, everything has to look expensive and glitzy. Chinese rip-offs have made Dolce & Gabbana jeans affordable to every girl in the city.
Even Russian men, whose clothing choice was once limited to polyester business suits or polyester jogging suits, have become fussy dressers. Some local trends in men’s fashion have developed in mysterious directions: pointy elf shoes, for example, or the male purse, an accessory I’ve so far spotted only on the streets of Moscow and Tashkent.
Certainly, the widespread predilection for the fancy and frivolous has its roots in decades of drab socialist conformity. But rather than spawn diversity of style, Moscow’s crass materialism lays down a dress code just as strict as the one in the pre-fashion Soviet era.
On my first visit to Moscow 14 years ago, passersby whom I asked for directions assumed I was Czech – it didn’t even occur to them that I could be from America – simply because I was wearing a ski jacket. A similar thing happened last winter, on the day I decided to don my hooded army parka. Vaguely resembling a Tajik gastarbeiter, I had barely left the metro when a cop demanded to see my papers. He was surprised when I produced a U.S. passport and apologetically sent me on my way. I deemed it futile to explain to him the punk-grunge influence on post-material chic.
But even more than the cop on the beat, the young men who guard the entryways to Moscow’s nightclubs flounder woefully in their capacity as the fashion police. Once I was nearly turned away from a club – known more for its earthiness than its elitism – because a bouncer had detected “sporty elements” in my footwear. Only after paying a 100 ruble fashion fine was I admitted.
Of course, living in style is an acquired skill, from eating with chopsticks to honoring the white sock-dark suit taboo. Recently, I learned in the lifestyle section of a Russian business magazine that it is now officially cool to wear sneakers to a club. Permission to wear an army surplus jacket is still pending.