What to Wear to a Cold War Summit, 1959

During the late 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union, there was a brief thaw in the Cold War between that country and the United States.  One sign of the shift was a big exhibit of American products, architecture, and fashion at Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959. Vice-President Richard Nixon and Pat Nixon attended on behalf of the United States. 

Life magazine covered the visit and featured a cover photo of Pat Nixon among the wives of high level Soviet officials on the cover.  I am fascinated by the contrasting fashion styles in this picture.  Nixon, then around 47, is casually dressed in a standard outfit of American women in the 1950s, a flowered shirtwaist dress.  The Soviet representatives also appear to have put some thought into their contrasting sartorial choices. Khrushchev’s wife, to Nixon’s right, looks even more casual in a geometrically patterned dress (maybe a knit) that isn’t well matched at the center seams. To her right, in the embroidered shawl, is the wife of Frol Kozlov, then considered to be Khrushchev’s second in command. She wears what might be Russian folk embroidery on the front of her dress. The only one who looks like she is dressed for a formal fifties event is the woman on the far left, Mrs. Mikoyan, wife of the head of the Supreme Soviet. In her suit, hat, and gloves, she would not be out of place at a meeting of an American charity.

Fashion was also a part of Cold War competition, and clothes were very much on the minds of the planners of the American exhibition in Moscow. Along with up-to-date kitchens and modern furniture, there was a half hour fashion show three times a day. The young American guides for the event (all Russian speakers) wore red, white and blue outfits representing “the kinds of clothes worn by everyday Americans.”  I would love to have been a fly on the wall at one of the fashion shows, not only to see the styles on the runway but also how the Soviet audience reacted. If I hadn’t retired from my job as a Soviet historian, I would look into this myself.

See the Life magazine coverage here.

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1 Response to What to Wear to a Cold War Summit, 1959

  1. Have you read Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty? One of the early chapters is set at the American exhibition. I think there might also be a bit in The Red Queen (Russian mini series) that takes place there.

    I’m in the last chapters of Martin Malia’s Soviet Tragedy and he gave me a much better understanding of Khrushchev and how he (didn’t) fit in at the top, being from the provinces. Still, he waded into a quagmire and tried to fix it with his reforms, and it could have worked, but his impatience and desire to do All The Big Things All At Once were ultimately his undoing. I think the photo above perfectly captures the dynamic of the Supreme Soviet at the time.

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