Russian Social Science Review, vol. 50, no. 4, July–August 2009, pp. 49–60.

© 2009 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1061-1428/2009 $9.50 + 0.00.

Ol’ga Gurova

The Life Span of Things in
Soviet Society
Notes on the Sociology of Underwear
Critically adopting concepts drawn from Anglophone consumption and
material culture studies, including the “cultural biography of things,”
the article addresses the history of Soviet things in the last three decades
of the USSR in terms of a sociology of everyday practices.

The Concept of a “Cultural Biography” of Things
The history of things has until recently been analyzed in the context
of the sociology of social processes and associated with the idea of
social modernization, an approach that was warranted inasmuch
as the history of things essentially constitutes a social process. I,
suggest, however, that we instead look at objects from a different
perspective—that of the sociology of everyday practices.
The idea of a cultural biography of things was first formulated in
the works of the sociologists Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff.1
The theoretical core of their concept is that things are not only
English translation © 2009 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text © 2004
“Neprikosnovennyi zapas.” “Prodolzhitel’nost’ zhizni veshchei v sovetskom
obshchestve: zametki po sotsiologii nizhnego bel’ia,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas,
2004, no. 2, Translated by Liv
Bliss. Translation reprinted from Russian Studies in History, vol. 48, no. 1.
Ol’ga Iur’evna Gurova is a sociologist pursuing graduate studies at the
European University in St. Petersburg.

50  russian social science review goods or an economic reality but also a reality inherent in the cultural order. The analysis of a thing’s life span is associated with the establishment of its usage duration. In the sociological sense. a phenomenon involving the commercial displacement of an everyday object from one culture to another. styles. functioning. Thus. The following questions may be asked with regard to the life of things: Where did the object come from and who brought it into the world? What has its life been like. in turn. Appearance addresses how the object came onto the market and thence into the consumer’s hands. The analysis of an object’s functioning implies study of the practices that reflect how the person and items of material culture interact and of the sociocultural contexts in which those items function. live in a social organism. Particular attention is accorded to the displacement of things from one cultural context to another. accumulate and ultimately change the history. ideologies. while the biographies. the concept of cultural biography offers a theoretical . and as a result the social meaning of the object itself also changes. since the social history is made up of thumbnail biographies. and disappearance. Then there is the “social history” of a class or object. based on whether the replacement tempo is fast or slow. and everyday practices from one cultural context to another. functions. Things. Appadurai and Kopytoff argue that a “cultural biography” is a brief life story of an individual object of material culture. importation is the displacement of things and of the accompanying codes (names). like people. As a result. The arrival of a given object changes the cultural context. Yet the cultural biography and social history of a thing are linked. which reveals longterm historical shifts and dynamic transformations. the social life of things may be studied in the same way as a person’s biography—as an aggregate of life experiences laid out in chronological order. and what kind of life do people hold to be ideal for it? What is its normal life span? What cultural markers exist for it? How does the value of things change over the years? And what will happen to the item when it has exhausted its usefulness?2 Three basic periods may be identified in the biography of things: appearance. an example of which would be importation.

and what causes their social demise. and. Here we propose to dwell on one aspect of the cultural biography of things—the life span of outerwear and underwear in Soviet society. things are replaced in contemporary culture at breakneck speed. by mass production. whether in the utilitarian or the symbolic sense. by competition among producers. which has brought into being a vast quantity of things. The issue then becomes how long items can function. A dated dress is also apt to lose its social value. The Life Span of Things in Soviet Society: A Sociological Analysis of Everyday Practices Let us now examine the life span of things in the context of our chosen theoretical paradigm. footwear. In both cases. Baudrillard’s statements may be relevant to “Western culture” from the late 1960s on—to the time. structures a person’s life. a shawl that is moth-eaten and therefore fails in its basic function (to keep a person warm) loses its practical utility. first. So.russian social science review  51 framework allowing the analysis of the life span of everyday things on the microlevel. but the point in this case is the loss of its symbolic function of denoting modishness. and is of benefit. It operates as an item with defined functions. varies according to sociocultural context. and its ability to be of benefit. The biography of things. by fashion. its social value. however. satisfies his/her requirements. third. how soon they end up on a trash heap. routine interaction of person and thing in society is reflected. clothing.3 Goods. that is. second. on which the relative accessibility of things is predicated. when . The responsibility for the rapid demise of things is borne. the loss of the item’s social value may result in it being junked and ending its life in the graveyard of objects (a trash can or a trash heap). According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. An object appears on the market and then in everyday life. which changes every season. on the level of daily practices where the things subsist and in which the mundane. and household utensils function within the concept of novelty. An item’s “demise” occurs when it loses its functional significance.

A different value was placed on things. a different value was placed on things because there were fewer of them. objects had to be preserved.6 The insufficient accessibility of things was partially offset by the production of things at home. The materials I collected in the course of my research indicate that in Soviet culture things functioned in a state of constant. Indeed. Immortality and constancy are the existence mode of the Soviet thing. making objects rare and insufficiently accessible. “every family probably had a Singer sewing machine and .” In Soviet culture. there were fewer things. the consumption of things in Soviet culture was accompanied by the endless return of those goods to life. wherein consumption is associated with destruction of the thing and the most rapid completion possible of its functional cycle. in the never-ending renewal of an item’s functions. whose essence resides in the permanence and irreplaceability. Preservation was important because relatively few items were available for consumption. this specification of the thing may be designated as key to the material milieu of Soviet society. uninterrupted consumption. Two of the most characteristic answers to the question of how long things would be kept were “Things weren’t thrown out.52  russian social science review he was writing his classic works The System of Objects and Symbolic Exchange and Death. The shortages that were to some degree inherent in the consumer market throughout Soviet history kept the quantity of things in Soviet culture lower than it needed to be. That gap was expressed in the divergence between the quantity and quality of goods produced and the needs. The small quantity of things was contingent on the level of economic development. But we should ask whether Baudrillard’s inferences are relevant to another context and another time. and tastes of Soviet people. As one respondent told us. Some use was found for them all the time”4 and “It was a different age. The domestic production of clothing was aided by the sewing machine. The economy of the Soviet Union was inherently marked by a rift between the field occupied by the producers of items and that occupied by the consumers of items. In counterweight to a consumer culture.”5 These excerpts underscore how the life span of things differs in different “ages. preferences.

needlework was introduced into the compulsory school curriculum for girls. never met a person who might be wearing.russian social science review  53 used it to sew everything. There were several reasons for the popularity of manipulating things. sew a dress or housecoat. “The received wisdom was that men should wear only dark blue or black underpants.”12 .’ ”10 It should also be noted that the skills of pattern cutting and sewing became a measure of a “woman’s competence” in Soviet society.” The popularity of that practice was less a tribute to tradition than an attempt to adapt to shortages and the idiosyncrasies of the material environment in Soviet society. industrially produced things were of a single type.”9 Needlework was also a popular topic in other places besides the school curriculum.8 In time. That surprised me somewhat. monochrome materials. “There were classes in pattern cutting and sewing in school. with the publication of various small-format books on knitting and sewing. I think. as a rule. Sewing was taught in schools not only during the years of shortages but also during the Thaw. this even. from the 1950s or the 1960s.”7 Sewing skills were acquired in school. First. similar. “At home we still had a book called The Needlewoman [Rukodel’nitsa]. constituted a kind of visual representation of the cliché of the “gray mass” that was commonly applied to the Soviet people. and tailor clothing “to fit. when problems with goods accessibility became less pressing. and only then to sew all the other things. It said that ‘every girl should know how to make her own brassieres and briefs. I. for example. Later they started calling them labor classes. for example. assembled from identical and. in sewing circles.11 Any “real woman” was supposed to know how to take a pattern. or in courses on pattern cutting and sewing that were offered in Soviet Russia from the 1920s on. to some extent. The odd thing about those classes was that they started out by teaching us to sew briefs and nightgowns. These qualities basically related to outerwear but were also accurate with respect to underwear. Underpants of any other color were out of the question. We made them out of white cotton or sateen. because briefs were made of stockinet and they could be bought in the shops. green underpants. Probably they were a holdover from the early days in the syllabus.

up to a five. flower patterns. which. by sewing the crotch up or setting snap fasteners suitable for underwear in the crotch. we may call the “chance offerings of the moment. four. it would be a bad fit. Pretty ones. “We had them custom-made. or. satin. Another original discovery of “folk design” was the remaking of an undershirt into a child’s bathing suit. Awkwardness of cut was exemplified by brassiere design. But you couldn’t get anything for a fuller figure. And.”14 Third. unique objects that corresponded to individual demands. ersatz tights made their appearance due to the recognized inconveniences of existing designs for stockings and children’s undergarments and the unavailability of tights for children. They were inconvenient in all sorts of ways. sew the rest together and there you have a hemisphere. “It should all be so simple. What is a breast? It’s a hemisphere. They created all kinds of embarrassing situations. So we take a circle. though. you could buy the best-selling sizes. Because they came in standard sizes—three. . vice versa. following Michel de Certeau. So to make their lives easier. It’s very rare .”17 As this quotation shows. . snip out some wedges. but the cuts used to be as simple as could be. Different kinds. as my children experienced. we have accounts of problems with finding things in appropriate sizes. with broad straps. I had to take it in. things often “hung wrong. Ordinary tights for children appeared later. But who has a breast like that? No one.54  russian social science review Second. factory-made underwear that never once fit me as it should have. but my children were grown by then. In the 1980s. make my own. you couldn’t get a size zero. They were always coming undone or slipping down.”15 Amateur needlework was a way not only for a woman to make new things with her own hands but also to create original. in a best-case scenario. no problem.”13 If a garment had an awkward cut. Reminiscences yield the reasons behind these particular makeshifts: “Stockings were a terribly inconvenient piece of clothing.”16 One example of a “chance offering” was the ersatz tights that resulted when women’s or children’s stockings were sewn to underpants.” “There was the ordinary. I sewed some of those tights. fix it up. The painstaking nature of .

One way to prevail over the low quality of objects was clothing repair: for example. or friends. Soviet people in effect prevailed over shortages or appropriated and customized those standardized.” they opposed power. darning. Such tactics. You unraveled an old kapron stocking. We mended things. We should note that not only outerwear but underwear.” which are practices of resistance to power. factory-made items that they were able to acquire. They were visible no matter what you did. through their “strategies of the weak. are an “art of the weak.russian social science review  55 these makeshifts and the uniqueness of the resulting garments made people “sad to throw [them] out.” which gave them a long life with their owner. Second. the exchange is made between individuals who are relatives. “Oh. or embellishing something. “We darned away. Not only sewing but also the practices of preserving things and prolonging their lives may be regarded as “tactics of resistance” (resistance to time). uniform. which was widespread in Soviet culture. because by creating. there you go. We wore things for a very long time. that it is regulated by the rules not of commodity–money exchange but of barter.”20 Darning was necessary because things wore out before people thought they could be thrown out. What distinguishes such tactics is that in employing them people symbolically wrest from power the space of things that it had made and subordinated to itself.” a “last resort” of self-manifestation for those who have no power.18 The practices described above may indeed be viewed as types of resistance to power. what mom’s drawers have put me through! She got them from grandma and has been doing . first. Thereby. Another means of preservation was the practice of handing things down. of course. The joins were visible. altering. Michel de Certeau’s theoretical arsenal also includes the concept of “tactics. We darned with kapron thread. This practice. it could be used for mending. gave ordinary things almost the status of heirlooms.”19 Or “darning stockings. and if it was the right color. could be part of this transaction. we darned everything. acquaintances. The characteristics of “wearing out” are. too. One example of that practice was “wearing out” [donashivanie]. de Certeau says.

blast them!”21 Another example: “In the 1950s. the practice is negatively assessed. when there was a lively trade with China. thereby problematizing an age-related differentiation of consumer models regarding underwear. But not everywhere. But as the example shows. No. Children’s clothing particularly often became a handme-down: when a child outgrew a garment. “There was a woman living in a neighboring apartment. a soldier. no. things were exchanged with and handed down not only to relatives but also to friends and neighbors. Just lovely. sons putting on their fathers’ undergarments. in the first example. So. brought his wife some lovely underwear sets [matching camisole and panties—O. such embroidery. and my brother.G. And they’ve survived! At this point. . The drawers in question were the flannel ones imported into Soviet Russia in the 1950s. Fantastic. even neighbors handed things down. Such fine little shoulder straps.56  russian social science review her best to wear them very carefully. after the company name on the label. they’re the faintest shade of blue. Then she died and left me her chemises. She worked in commerce. work colleagues. . it was passed on to a . and they were valued for their consumer qualities of softness and warmth. not kapron. The social networks of which things were a part extended beyond family and blood relatives to include apartment neighbors. with youngsters using up their elders’ preworn clothing.”22 Clothing was passed from generation to generation. There was a kapron gusset in some places. These examples demonstrate that durability could be evaluated both positively and negatively. but they’re indestructible. as they called them then. both near and distant. made of satin-back crepe. Then they came to me. To this day I regret having probably thrown them out. young women would rather not have had such pieces of clothing in their wardrobes.]. . In some instances. and girls wearing their mothers’ dresses and shoes. The everyday name for them was Friendship [Druzhba]. we made friends with China. The potential owner of the drawers wants no part in wearing them out.”23 As can be seen. and other acquaintances. so as to hand them on to me. All my life I’d never worn anything nor had anything like them. She had such lovely things. those qualities were important to the “grandmas’ ”generation.

” that certain items could be used once and then discarded. room was found for things. As for an object—you never know. the degree of availability being determined by the individual’s proximity to distribution channels. a special location was often set aside for unneeded things. mending kapron stockings. In other instances. under normal circumstances. “My grandmother lived her whole life by the rule ‘better in us than in the bin. finding safe haven in wardrobes and storage rooms in hopes that they would come in handy one day. ran regular features containing similar hints. First. goods were not available to everyone. In Leningrad. objects were difficult to acquire. Interesting confirmation of this thesis is found in the specialist literature about the maintenance of things. including Nauka i zhizn’ and the women’s magazines Rabotnitsa and Krest’ianka. relatively small. which was issued in a print run of 150.’ Food had to be eaten rather than thrown out. The above quotation notes that the slips were inherited from a woman who had worked in commerce—a professional position that made it easier to obtain items that were later handed on to others lacking that access. Such establishments were expected not only to mend or fix . due to shortages. The relevance of handing things down was determined by three factors. it might come in handy. if living conditions permitted.26 Periodicals.russian social science review  57 child whom it would fit. had a separate section on clothes care and included hints on refurbishing dresses. Three Hundred Handy Hints [300 poleznykh sovetov]. objects were stored. prolonging the wearability of footwear.000 in 1958. The life of objects in Soviet culture was virtually endless. In self-contained apartments.”24 This interviewee noted that efforts were made to save even things that had lost all their consumer properties. however.25 There were also no secondhand stores. and preserving elasticized things. Second. Soviet culture lacked the idea of “disposability. the quantity of items was. even if it was spoiled. Adult clothing could also pass from one owner to another. that was complicated by the prevalence of communal apartments in which storage space was extremely limited. The significant number of specialized repair shops for clothing and footwear should also be noted. Even where there was limited space. Third.

for example.58  russian social science review things whose properties had been lost but also to adjust or adapt unserviceable clothing as the consumer wished. and that a floor cloth is on the very bottom rung of that ladder. Therefore the role of a cloth for cleaning the table could well be taken by some repurposed thing—a pair of old knit swimming trunks.”27 Special cloths for cleaning could indeed not be purchased until recently. “Cloths were made out of old clothes. The indicator of the immortality of an object elicited by these examples is its secondary use—but this time as an item with new functions.28 Nevertheless. everything was very absorbent. we may say that things have their own career ladder. Following the cultural theoretician Mikhail Epshtein. the assumption being that this function would be performed by clothing that could no longer be worn. and handing things down. in a sense. much as people do. an event fixed in memory. was the best place to store onions or was pulled over a broom to keep it from shedding or was used to make a plaited rug. The final parting from a thing. Members of various social groups recount their experience of preserving. it would not be sent to “perish” on a trash heap but was instead transformed into something with other functions. be called “immortal. So while things today circulate within a framework of novelty and immediacy. in a sense. having lost its original functions. this assumed a change in that object’s status. a kapron stocking. repairing. Here.” When an object acquired new functions by becoming a floor cloth. An example of that transformation would be the use of old clothing as cloths for dusting or cleaning floors. A singular use was found for underwear that had served out its useful life: a soft knit-cotton undershirt with excellent absorption became a floor cloth or dust cloth. even the cloth lives on until it is tattered beyond recognition. or. darning. the Soviet thing may. Since the functional mode of Soviet things was constant consumption. When an undergarment finally became unwearable. . where there were no synthetic fabrics. They never used to sell anything special to use as cloths. was truly atypical for the Soviet person. a new thing. being airpermeable. the Soviet thing functioned in a state of constant consumption.

Interview with a female subject. Interview with a female subject. Interview with a female subject. Timothy J. [Gurova is referring to vol. 1937. Michel de Certeau [Luce Giard. 1955. Noiabr’ 2000 g. See. 2000). 6. 1971. A “woman’s competence” in the Soviet gender framework is discussed by Anna Temkina and Anna Rotkirch in “Soviet Gender Contracts and Their Shifts in Contemporary Russia” (www. p. 14. Za fasadom “stalinskogo izobiliia”: raspredelenie i rynok v snabzhenii naseleniia v gody industrializatsii. Interview with a female subject with a higher education.] 12. b. b. 9. Rendall’s translation of Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press. Anisimova. trans. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. 1937. Povsednevnyi stalinizm. S. 1939. 16. 13. The Practice of Everyday Life. Igor Kopytoff. Tomasik. 1937. 5. 1925. 7. Symbolic Exchange and Death] (Moscow: Dobrosvet. Simvolicheskii obmen i smert’ [Jean Baudrillard. 1 was published earlier. pp. Kniga otzyvov vystavki “Pamiat’ tela: nizhnee bel’e sovetskoi epokhi. Certeau. 10. Interview with a female subject. Interview with a male subject with a higher education. 1979).” Rabotnitsa. Bodriiiar. “The Cultural Biography of Things. b. On shortages as a condition of the consumer market. 11. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.valt. Interview with a male subject with a higher education. The orthography and punctuation of the author have been preserved [but not in translation—Ed. Fittspatrik.russian social science review  59 Notes 1. 3–63. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. Interview with a female subject with a higher education. Arjun Appadurai. 1967. 15. Zh. Interview with a male subject with a higher education. . p. with a different translator and press. 1937. 3.] The Practice of Everyday Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.].” Sankt-Peterburg.” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.” The publication cited in this note does not currently appear to be available online. ed. 18.—Trans. 1961. Soviet Russia in the 1930s] (Moscow: Rosspen. “V shkole kroiki i shit’ia.htm). b. 1927–1941 (Moscow: Rosspen. Sh. see E. and Pierre Mayol. for example. [The title at this URL is “The Fractured Working Mother and Other New Gender Contracts in Contemporary Russia. 37.” [Gurova’s framing of the questions does not exactly match Kopytoff’s on pp. In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sotsial’naia istoriia Sovetskoi Rossii v 30-e gody [Sheila Fitzpatrick. 66–67. p. Quotations in this article are taken from Steven F. Osokina.—Trans. 1997). pp. Kopytoff.–ianvar’ 2001 g.] 3. b. Vol. and Vera S. 1986).—Trans. Durham. b. 8. b. 2: Living and Cooking. 1998). Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1984).” in The Social Life of Things. 2001). b.] 17. 4. 37. 387. 66– b.A. 2.

Interview with a female subject with a higher education. 1950. b. call 1-800-352-2210.” 22. Interview with a female subject with a higher education. 21. To order reprints. 27. 24. 26. Trista poleznykh sovetov (Leningrad: Lenizdat. b. b. Interview with a female subject with a higher education. Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia] (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. 1935. Mifologiia povsednevnoi zhizni [Svetlana Boym. 89. Epshtein. outside the United States. 25. M. Kniga otzyvov vystavki “Pamiat’ tela: nizhnee bel’e sovetskoi epokhi. Obshchie mesta. 1998). O literaturnom razvitii XIX–XX vekov (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’. 20. 1967. b. b. 324. call 717-632-3535.60  russian social science review 19. 1950. 1961. 1958). 23. p. Boim. Interview with a female subject with a higher education. Ibid. Paradoksy novizny. Interview with a female subject with a secondary specialized education. p. . S. 28. 2002).