Women and Self-Fashioning in Moscow


Amanda had warned us that women in Russia tend to dress up and dress fashionably. When we first got to Moscow, I didn’t notice the difference, because I was distracted by the wide variety of fashion, ranging from elegant dresses to jeans and even shorts. I couldn’t detect any dress code. But the more I people-watched, the more I was struck by the care and attention the women devoted to fashion and grooming.

The high standards were most clear at MGIMO university where the halls and classrooms were filled with young men and women. While the young men dressed well, the women were positively stunning, many wearing what I would call party dresses. Their makeup was exquisite. Most popular was the carefully lined “cat’s eye,” with the upturned curve at the outer corner of the upper lid, extending the lashes and widening the eyes. Shoes ranged from dainty ballet flats to strapping stilettos.

Back on the streets and metro of downtown Moscow, I realized that nearly every woman I saw, no matter how casually or formally dressed, appeared to have devoted a great deal of time and attention to her clothing, make-up, and hair.

Among women, grey hair is almost non-existent. Shelley and I have both had women who weren’t much younger than we are give us their seats on the metro. Call it vanity, but I could only conclude that they thought we were much older because of our grey hair. When I told Kristi my theory, she thought I said that they gave us their seats “because we have great hair.”  The look of perplexity on her face lasted only until we both dissolved in laughter. Later, when Shelley and Kristi both scored a seat on the metro, I told them they had great hair.

But I digress… Back to the Moscow women, who have great (not grey) hair… Whether the look is catwalk, corporate, goth, or gamine, it is decidedly feminine.  Like grey hair, androgyny has no place in Moscow.

Women seem to have plenty of freedom: they walk on the streets, in the metros, and through the halls of the university. They wear high heels, low heels, and sneakers. They bare cleavage and curves, or cover up. They travel alone and in pairs, with and without men and children (but mostly without). But despite their freedom of movement and wide range of stylistic choices, I can’t help feeling like the standards of femininity are limiting.

imageThis sneaking suspicion surfaced today during our tour of the Tretyakov State Gallery of Russian art. We looked at art spanning the 12th through the 19th century. Every work our guide directed our attention to was painted by a man. When at last we entered the early 20th century wing, just as we were leaving a room, Amanda pointed out a painting that was done by a women. It was a self-portrait by Z. Serebryakova, entitled “At the Dressing Table” (1909). The painting seemed surprisingly bold and modern, yet also distinctly feminine.  Was it celebratory or ironic? Her expression is coy; the hairpins are preposterously oversized. I don’t know enough about Serebryakova (our guide didn’t mention her), or about Russian women, to come to any  conclusion.


2 Responses to “Women and Self-Fashioning in Moscow”

  1. David Boraks says:

    Hah, I think you can go almost anywhere and find people who dress better than the crowd here in Lake Norman. Perhaps it’s the “big city” effect. … But to your other point: We have a spectacular collection of grey-haired women in Davidson – and at least here it bespeaks education, sophistication and culture. (OK, maybe age, too.) Beware, I am photographing you.

  2. Scott Denham says:

    I think you’re absolutely right on both points!

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