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BLOC BUSTERS : The Style in Prague: Many Brightly Colored Czechs

February 23, 1990|DAVID D'ARCY | D'Arcy, who covers cultural news for National Public Radio, is a regular contributor to The Times fashion pages

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — Anyone who has been to this city since last November, when a "velvet revolution" brought an end to Communist rule, has seen how it is newly dressed up. Not that young Czechoslovaks are now running to buy the latest Italian fashions. They are unaffordable by most Czech's standards, and not even available in the shops.

Instead, young people are improvising. Many start by adding accessories: jewelry, or logo patches from Harley Davidson and other United States companies that might have been taboo at state universities just a few months ago. Large, brightly colored scarfs are also breaking the monotony of wardrobes that for decades have consisted of the neutral colored basics offered in the state shops. Red scarfs, which once identified members of the Communist youth groups, have been replaced by scarfs in other distinctive colors and prints that seem to flaunt the fact that a long period of repression is over.

Jeans, mostly blue, remain the uniform of the young in Prague, but punk styles--semi-shaved heads, heavy black boots, motorcycle jackets decorated with studs and chains--are starting to be worn on the city streets. (Police used to associate these garments with rebellion. For years, in Czechoslovakia and throughout Eastern Europe, the punk look symbolized a clear, yet unspoken protest against the dominating political order.)

Each new, fashion-related expression of liberty seems to reaffirm that residents of Prague have an innate sense of style. And indeed, elegance is nothing new to the city, where baroque architecture, richly detailed with bas-reliefs and statuary, is an everyday backdrop. For centuries, the Czechs have been known for their glasswork. Europeans have long admired Bohemian garnets set in gold and silver. The Czechs also have a long tradition of lace-making.

For the past 40 years, however, and especially during the two decades since Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to halt reforms there in 1968, political repression gave its citizens an austere look. Since foreign travel was severely restricted, buying clothes in bordering Germany or Austria was nearly impossible. The scarcity of anything worth buying in state stores gave rise to hundreds of black-market tailors and dressmakers, sewing made-to-order garments for individual clients, but the availability of quality cotton and wool kept those cottage industries small.

If a new jacket of good material did appear in someone's wardrobe, but did not appear to fit, it probably had been brought in from outside, perhaps by a well-intentioned relative or friend who hadn't verified the size before buying it. If a Western-looking garment fit the person wearing it, it was either a souvenir from a rare trip to the West, or a stroke of good fortune from the underground clothes market. (European and American-made cosmetics have been a powerful unit of currency in that trade, throughout the East Bloc.)

Now, with open borders between Czechoslovakia and the West, Monday morning at work brings talk of purchases made on a weekend drive to nearby Austria. Those discussions are sure to become regular events as Czechoslovaks continue to expand their fashion borders, along with their political horizon.

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