A Fashion Controversy—What to Send to Russia

Life Magazine, July 27, 1959

Life Magazine, July 27, 1959

In 1959, the United States staged a big exhibition in Russia designed to publicize the American way of life. It was the setting for the famous “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, where they argued about the merits of capitalism and communism as paths to economic well being. In addition to modern kitchen appliances and makeup demonstrations, the exhibit featured daily fashion shows designed to give a sense of how real Americans lived.

An article in Life magazine, “Propaganda Goof over US Fashions,” revealed that the fashion show had an interesting back story. Put together by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Bergdorf Goodman executive Leonard Hankin, it was presented to an audience of 250 fashion editors before heading off to Moscow. Staged in a tableau style, the scenes included three African American models appearing in an integrated dance party, an integrated barbecue, and even a wedding scene with a white couple attending a black couple’s ceremony.

The show caused an uproar among some of the editors in attendance, who circulated a petition objecting to it traveling to Moscow in its current form. A few rejected the integrated tableaus, saying that they didn’t give a realistic picture of the United States.Others didn’t like the clothes. They felt there were too many casual pieces and far too many pants. Ruth Muglebee of the Boston Record called the show “an insult to American family life.”

The story was taken up by the New York Times, which ridiculed the petition signers for their narrow mindedness. But their comments did bring results. By the time the fashion show headed to Moscow, both the integrated wedding and barbecue scene had been dropped.

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3 Responses to A Fashion Controversy—What to Send to Russia

  1. Robert Moeller says:

    And an example of a Soviet response, here a short video on Soviet fashion from 1964
    And yet another take on fashion and the Cold War, a famous (infamous?) Wendy’s add from the mid-eighties as the Cold War had begun to heat up again.

  2. Fabrickated says:

    What an interesting story!

  3. Lizzie says:

    This is interesting on so many levels. I can’t help but believe that the real problem that the petitioners had with the show was just the inclusion of the three black models, regardless of the tableau in which they were placed.

    I also think Life was having more than a little fun with the fashion editors, especially in the three very unflattering photos they posted of the fashion leaders!

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