The Visual Language of Neo-Nationalism: Patriotic Fashion in East-Central Europe and Central Asia
by Anna Novikov
Since the last decade a revival of patriotic attire can be observed in many post-communist countries of Central Eastern Europe (for instance, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). It manifests itself in various ways: neo-folk elements, traditional embroidery, festivals and the reenactment of historical scenes, religious symbols, photographs of politicians, and many more. Combat trousers and T-shirts printed with famous historical battles as well as folk motives on dresses and skirts are now popular in Poland; during their annual patriotic assemblies, Hungarian right-wing activists wear Mongolian inspired attire; Kazakh female pop singers dress themselves up as nomadic amazons; and Russian girls wear blouses with portraits of Putin.
Dress is often used in order to emphasize a political statement of support, as for instance did the members of the patriotic youth project “Set”. They decided to support the president before next year’s election and launched a collection of shirts for women which expose cleavage through a love heart that Vladimir Putin holds in his hands. According to the designer, Ilya Sadalskikh: “A portrait of the president on a T-shirt is not surprising anymore. Many young designers working in the field of patriotic fashion are looking for their own unique angle or a fresh solution. We think we have one” .
Another example is the case of the “Putin dress” which reached headlines in October 2016: At the Forum of Arab Culture in Moscow a dress made by famous designer Mona Al Mansouri from the United Arab Emirates depicted the Russian president as an angel, surrounded by cherubs, holding a globe and wearing a judo kit. It was presented as a symbol of unification of the Arab and Russian nations.
Folkloristic attire often becomes highly fashionable, too. To give just two examples: In 2011, a new Russian fashion brand called “The House of Russian Fashion” was opened, which promotes the revival of “traditional Russian dress” under the motto that “the Russian style in the modern world is the people’s national identification”. And in 2015 the Ukrainian embroidered blouse Vyshyvanka appeared at Fashion Week in Paris.
Patriotic fashion – 19th and 21st century
My project analyzes the link between the visualization of history today and during the second half of the nineteenth century. It traces and explores the fascinating phenomenon of patriotic attire in Eastern Central Europe and Central Asia in terms of a transregional and transnational revival that has been gathering momentum during the recent decade. The connection between dress or attire and nationalist movements is far from new. What is observable in today’s patriotic or “neo-nationalist” self-visualization, is a revival of social, cultural, visual and performative patterns which had already been inherent in nineteenth-century nationalism.
In the case of Poland the tradition of visual group self-representation had already been strong during the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when the so-called Sarmatian costume (a Baroque orientalized and Turkish influenced Polish nobility costume) became the symbol of “Polishness”
In the time of the partitioned Poland (from 1772-1918) members of cultural, social and political movements inspired by Romanticism, Orientalism and nationalism attempted to visualize themselves according to their beliefs, too. The main visual emphasis was put on clothes, for instance on “peasant” and, again, the Sarmatian costumes that had been “re-invented” by artists and scholars, as well as on special military clothes that highlighted the glory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Furthermore, during the anti-Russian manifestations and uprising in 1861-1866, so-called “Black Fashion” and “Black Jewelry” became popular among Polish female patriots as a symbol of protest against the government.
Today’s Polish neo-nationalists continue to use in their clothing the same visual messages: folk dresses, symbols and thematic motives which had been in use among nineteenth-century Polish nationalists. In addition, neo-nationalist activists often depict motives on their clothes taken from Polish history: famous battles or faces of political and religious leaders. In the last two years, the online series “Polish Legends”, which transfers medieval fairy tales into current Polish reality, mixing folk, pseudo-medieval and postmodern design in attire and performance in general, was enormously successful, garnering an audience of millions.
Dress also continues to be a symbol of protest and here, too, takes up imagery that makes reference to past practices – as happened during the recent “Black Protests” in Poland in October 2016. Hundreds of thousands of women went to the streets wearing black clothes and protesting the governmental ban on abortions. The black dress reappeared as a symbol of political protest in the female Polish society.
Another example is Ukraine: In recent years, due to the political developments and the war, the embroidered blouse Vyshyvanka became a powerful symbol of Ukrainian ethnic identity, regardless of religion or language, unifying Western and Eastern, Russian and Ukrainian speaking Ukrainians.
The roots for the ideological use of Vyshyvanka, too, are in nineteenth-century Ukrainian intellectual nationalism, which had been inspired by traditional costumes (and sometimes was ironically called Chlopomania or “peasant nationalism”). The famous Ukrainian writer and nationalist activist Ivan Franko wore Vyshyvanka under his modern European suit.
In the last decade, an international “Vyshyvanka Day” was arranged, seeking to unify Ukrainian patriots around the globe, and in recent years Vyshyvanka became a political symbol and gained popularity far beyond Ukraine.
And finally, during the last decade in Hungary many neo-nationalist activists emphasized their connection to nationalist Pan-Turkist or Turanian ideologies by supporting the political movement of Turanism, which stresses the Turk/Turan (Inner Asian, Central Asian and Ural, and not European) origins of the Hungarian people and their racial unity with these ethnoses. This very diverse movement had begun to develop in the end of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century as a response to the Pan-Slavic and Pan-German movements and again has been gathering momentum in recent years. Its visual self-representation is often based on nomadic symbols, dress and accessories. Stores providing customers with T-shirts depicting nomads on horses and para-Mongolian attire (fur hats, boots, arches, long fur coats, etc) continue to multiply in the country. From 2008 onwards Kurultaj, the tribal assembly of the Hun/Turkic nations celebrating the preservation of Turk traditions, has taken place near the village of Bugac, 160 km south of Budapest. These annual assemblies have gathered hundreds of thousands of representatives from more than 27 nations (Turkish, Bashkir, Kazakh, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Yakut, Hungarian, Azerbaijani, Tatar, etc.). The event boasts a pagan character by calling the
participant nations “Turanian people”, thus referencing to ancient beliefs before Christianity and Islam and especially the shamanic tradition of “Tengriism”. Therefore, it is not surprising that during these assemblies much space is given to shamanic performances. The attire of the participants is in large part created according to their own imagination of ethnic or nomadic traditions and is not always based on precise historical reconstruction.
The revival of visual and performative forms of Pan-Turkism/Turanism is currently also popular in Central Asian countries. Here, in addition to both regional and nomadic “all-Turk/Turan” sartorial and performative elements (dances, shamanic rituals, use of symbolic animals like horses and wolfs, music, texts), the fascinating figure of the “amazon” comes into play: Girl bands or mixed ensembles, singers and actors have started to revive the myths of the “fighting maiden”. In this, young women often present themselves with armor, weapons and male clothing, creating an imaginary link to their nomadic female ancestors who according to these myths had been fighting together with the men.
The social function of patriotic fashion
The question is why these dress practices are gathering momentum again? The new forms of nationalism which I call neo-nationalism strive to classify people into unique groups according to their imagined ethnic origins, which are believed to cut across linguistic, religious, political or geographic borders. Similar to nineteenth-century nationalism, this movement depends on imagination and emotions. The emotional side of nineteenth-century nationalist ideology stressed experiences of atomization and loneliness of people who were seen as too detached from rural life after having moved into large cities; it highlighted the importance of their unification in reaction to the massive transformation of the social structure. Similarly, neo-nationalism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the rise of patriotic/folkloristic attire more generally developed after the collapse of the communist regime. Is this a process of a new, post-communist and post-imperial self-reinvention? Did these social and political changes create an emotional desire of belonging to certain tribes or ethnic groups?
Focusing on neo-nationalist dress, i.e. its visual, gender, performative and emotional appeal as well as its links to nineteenth-century nationalist practices enables me to analyze not only the processes of reinvention of a neo-national historiography, but also its function and the role dress plays in it. Neo-nationalist historiographies strive to present an alternative to academic historiography and in this way aim to strengthen the shared identity of a certain population group by re-inventing its glorious past. They are based on the reconstruction of regional ethnic or pan-ethnic “ancient” and especially “medieval” myths and folklore, which had already been popular among nationalists in the nineteenth century. The group’s self-visualization is an essential tool in this process. Thus patriotic dress that parades these myths and symbols visualizes the neo-nationalist historical narratives and with this seeks to strengthen a group’s common ideology and to unify its members.
Contemporary aspects of patriotic fashion
At the same time, when looking at the practice of patriotic dress it becomes clear that it does not simply mimick or reproduce past ones. The enormous progress of mass media in recent decades and a new tendency of self-visualization have significantly strengthened the performative aspect of neo-nationalist ideologies in the above-mentioned post-communist regions. Thus, it is necessary to analyze not only the parallels between visualization and dress in the second half of the nineteenth century and nowadays’ sartorial visualization of history, but also differences in these social practices. Both everyday and festive clothing and accessories (headgear, shoes, jewelry, bags and weapons) as well as their performative usage in media and politics take part in the current development of patriotic fashion. I focus on the political, social and cultural reasons for the appearance of this phenomenon and its popularity. My special attention is on the practices performed with these patriotic clothing items, i.e. on festivals, photo sessions, meetings, video clips, dances, concerts, master classes, assemblies, etc. I am especially interested in the dynamics of reinvention and visual reconstruction of the past and the function of their performative representation in dress and attire.
There are several types of neo-nationalisms which co-exist within each state and which I define as Uber-Nationalism (of Pan-Slavists or Pan-Turkists/Turanists), Pop-Nationalism (promoted through mass media), Ethno-Nationalism (which focuses on a certain ethnic group), and Intra-Nationalism (based on the same religious and social values of a group). Visual aesthetical forms of the performative aspect of neo-nationalist ideologies often feed on globally popular pseudo-medieval fantasy movies (such as “The Hobbit”, “Warcraft”, or the upcoming “King Arthur”, “Thor: Ragnarok” and “The Witcher”), comics, video-games, together with pop culture, and they create a visual fusion with the regional revival of pseudo-medieval and folk traditions. I trace the way in which the visual reconstruction of ancient and medieval mythology mixes with postmodern performative ways of neo-patriotic ideological self-representation through attire. My project then analyzes how these new visual forms (neo-folk, neo-medievalism, neo-amazons, etc.) and their performative and media distribution are used for ideological and patriotic aims, as tools of political support or protest.
Anna Novikov focuses on the social, cultural and visual transnational modern and contemporary East-Central European/Eurasian and Jewish history. Her research focuses on various aspects of social, cultural and material history and visual studies, especially on the analysis of performance and clothing appearance, political clothing and on the dynamics of identity.
She received her doctoral degree in History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2013. During her PhD studies she was a Junior Visiting and Research Fellow at the Oxford University and at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture in Leipzig. In 2013-2015 she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute, Warsaw. Her book Shades of a Nation: The Dynamics of Belonging among the Silesian and Jewish Populations in Eastern Upper Silesia (1922-1934), Fibre Verlag: Osnabrück, was published in 2015. She was also a co-editor of an additional monograph From Premodern to Postmodern Central Europe. Upper Silesia in the Age of Nationalisms, which was published in Routledge in 2016. During the summer term of 2016 she was a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Principles of Cultural Dynamics program in the Dahlem Humanities Center at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Currently, Anna Novikov is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Cologne-Bonn Centre for Central and Eastern Europe.
Citation: Anna Novikov, The Visual Language of Neo-Nationalism: Patriotic Fashion in East-Central Europe and Central Asia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.07.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7082.