Were Jeans Really Illegal in the Soviet Union? The Surprising History of Denim Smuggling and the Iron Curtain

The unique history of the Soviet Union has been told before, but many people don’t realize the ways the Cold War impacted the fashion world — and how the fashion world impacted the Cold War.

Usually when we look at images of life behind the Iron Curtain, we see a fashion sense that emphasizes uniformity. Today, however, we’re going to take a look at the secret blue jean smuggling history of the USSR.

By the 1960s and 70s, blue jeans were taking the world by storm. Worn by every young person in the West, Soviet teens and young adults wanted to wear them too. There was one issue: jeans were not made by Soviet manufacturers and the Party actively discouraged people from having an interest in Western dress. 

Given the lack of trade between the USSR and other non-communist states, people in the Eastern bloc were at a loss for how to get jeans and wear the fashions they wanted to. But then things started to change. This is the history of how young people all over the Soviet Union smuggled blue jeans into their country. 

Strike at the Vladimir Lenin Shipyard in August 1980
Soviet workers at present day Poland’s Vladimir Lenin Shipyard, 1980. Photo by Zygmunt Błażek, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Were Jeans Banned in Russia?

One symbolic focal point of the Cold War: blue jeans. While the smuggling of American-made jeans took on a legacy of its own, the Party’s problem wasn’t initially with jeans; the Soviet government had an ideological issue with American fashion.

 Beginning in 1917 with the Bolshevik revolution, fashion was considered bourgeois and decadent. While the USSR underwent a few different regimes that interpreted communism differently, one constant was that Western clothing, and the Western obsession with clothing was seen as deviant and needed to be eradicated.

But although the government tried to isolate the USSR from the West, no one could deny the power of fashion.

At this point, I should make it clear that jeans were never explicitly outlawed. Nobody who wore jeans would be thrown in jail, and in fact, a lot of people in the Soviet bloc eventually wore denim. But a mixture of government rhetoric and trade regulations kept the influx of American jeans at bay for at least a little while. 

[Learn more: How Denim Jackets Became So Popular]

soviet men's fashion
Typical (read: uncontroversial) Soviet fashion, early 1980s. Photo by Ceri C, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The block on trade from outside the Iron Curtain

The Soviet Union tried to isolate itself from capitalist influence, and there was no trade between the USSR and Western nations. People who got caught illegally selling jeans, for example, could go to jail because “trafficking in goods” was outlawed. Bartering and exchanging jeans for other goods, however, was permitted.

So it wasn’t necessarily illegal to wear jeans, but it was certainly quite hard to get your hands on quality American denim. Additionally, given the rations on cotton at the time, there wasn’t a good alternative to a classic pair of Levi 501’s. The government was fine with that; they wanted to cultivate a society without the decadence of fashion, and it wouldn’t be until the later years of the USSR that they caught on to the power of the culture war. 

bruce springsteen born in the usa
By Lawren, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jeans as a symbol of freedom, rebellion, and the West

These distinctly American pants faced controversy even within America for its image of subversion, so it’s no wonder that it also caused problems in other countries. Although today jeans are so commonplace that even some office environments will allow them, jeans rose in popularity through their association with American pop culture rebels

Jeans were initially part of the uniform of working class men, but things quickly shifted in the 20th century. In less than 100 years, blue jeans started being worn on everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Bruce Springsteen, and eventually even Jimmy Carter. 

Starting in the 1950s, jeans became so commonplace in America that they ended up serving as a symbol of America, and its capitalism-infused ideas of the free-market and freedom. When jeans started to become more prominent in American culture, young Russians idealized both the fashion and the lifestyle behind it. While you could make the argument that blue jeans descend from the working-class, the Russian Party elite saw them more as an American influence. Of course, that clashed immediately with the unified and distinct culture that the Soviet government was trying to hone. 

[Related: Why $700 Jeans Might Be Worth It]

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The standards of Soviet fashion

While the leaders of the USSR believed that fashion was superfluous and antithetical to the Communist project, they also began to understand fashion’s power. Although they had initially hoped to turn people away from fashion altogether and unify the country through Party ideology, they also recognized that having a strong culture could help strengthen their new republic. 

The Party uses fashion to unify a culture

Once the Soviet government realized that they could not entirely rid their country of aesthetics, they decided to fight the American look by creating a more distinctly Soviet one. This presented a unique challenge because the Soviet Union was made up of 15 different republics that all had their own cultural and fashion history. To overcome these cultural and ethnic differences within the union, the Party tried to instill a shared cultural identity that was meant to be “Soviet culture.” It was mostly just iterations of Russian life and customs. 

The Party called on the republics to forgo their traditional agriculture, language, and foods in favor of assimilating with a Soviet ideal that would unite lands from Poland to Kyrgyzstan. Clothing was also a part of these calls for change. 

Unsurprisingly, non-Russian USSR citizens were not into this idea. The resentment by the other members of the USSR led to the Soviet Union ultimately failing to create a strong national aesthetic. Additionally, cotton was scarce and faced rations, so Soviet-made pants were not as comfortable or as good looking as Levi’s. 

So when these disillusioned citizens discovered blue jeans, they were enamored by a new look that also conveyed a sense of freedom and quality. 

Young people invented new ways to rebel.

Russian teens are no exception. Additionally, no one wants to dress like their parents. Those two confounding factors began to give the Soviet government a run for their money while they were trying to consolidate a national look that mirrored the ideals of Communism.

Blue jeans infiltrate the Iron Curtain

Given that rebellion is an essential part of any young person’s development, the youths in the Soviet Union had to go against the grain too. The USSR was quite isolated from the West, but people were able to get snippets of information about other cultures. Occasionally, people living in Russia would see a clip of an American movie or see photos from American fashion magazines and see the prevalence of blue jeans. For many teens and young adults growing up in the USSR, they had to be a part of that world that boasted freedom and quality clothing.

east german disco 1970s
An East German discotheque in 1977. Photo by Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

With the handful of images of the western media that they got, many people became determined to get their hands on a pair of American-made blue jeans but the trade block meant there were very few ways to access jeans. Since they couldn’t just go to a store and buy Levi’s in Russia, they had to come up with an alternate method.

Western Parcels

With minimal trade between the East and the West, how did quality jeans get into the Soviet Union? The answer is through the mail, and largely through West Germany. When the Berlin Wall was built, effectively dividing Germany in half, it also divided families and friends along a line. But that meant that people on the Soviet side had direct connections with people on the other side.

People who lived in East Germany were able to receive packages from people in West Germany. Given the amount of rations in the USSR, many people couldn’t access necessities. It became common for Soviet citizens to ask their family in the West to send them packages filled with stockings, soap, and of course, blue jeans. 

[Related: In Defense of the Canadian Tuxedo]

jeans on a line

Tourists profited off of the blue jean craze

Diplomats and visitors were still allowed to visit the Soviet Union. When they came — wearing blue jeans — they soon learned how badly people wanted what they had. Given the scarcity, travelers to the USSR could sell their jeans at whatever price they wanted, and some people took advantage of that. Contraband sales of 100% denim jeans would go for up to 200 roubles, about the average person’s wages for the month. In comparison, a pair of Soviet-made pants cost between 10 and 20 roubles. 

When word started to spread through America of these sales, young tourists would start their European travels in Russia, and then fund the rest of their trip by selling jeans on the black market. It wasn’t easy to get Levi’s in Russia, but eventually plenty of people had their hands on a pair.

[Learn more: 7 Reasons Japanese Jeans Are So Expensive]

How did the government respond?

Eventually, the USSR had to accept that things were probably not going to change anytime soon. Denim had a hold on the Soviet Union, and they had to try to control the blue jean market. 

wisent blue jeans
Photo by Minderbinder, licensed under CC BY 4.0

East German Jeans

Given the immense pressure from West Germany to be as culturally advanced as they, East Germany was feeling the heat. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany’s state government at the time) had to create a product that would entice citizens to stop buying American products, while using only Soviet resources. 

The German Democratic Republic started manufacturing their own jeans brands in 1975. This way, they could satisfy the demand for jeans while still supporting the economy of the USSR, and not seeming to cave to consumer demand. The brands in question were named things like Goldfuchs, Wisent, Boxer, Shanty, and El Pico. These names aren’t as recognizable as Levis or Wrangler, because they didn’t last long.

East German Jeans didn’t only fade from history because of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They simply never really gained traction, even among Soviet youths. There were rations on materials, including raw denim, so these pants were made with a blend of denim and synthetic fabrics. This meant they would never be as quality as Western, 100% denim jeans. 

In contrast to American jean brands, these pants were uncomfortable to wear, had minimal stretch, and didn’t get that much-cherished fade.

The fall of the USSR

In 1989, the Russian fashion world changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall opened people in the Eastern bloc up to ideas they had only caught glimpses of before. With new access to the Western market, people from all over the former USSR could get jeans far more easily and for less money than they had before. 

Jeans took over. Now, young people all over Russia, Poland, Georgia, and other countries were throwing on easily accessible jeans and experimenting with personal style. Coupled with the end of rationing, this change allowed people to access better quality clothing, and it helped designers who grew up in the Soviet Republic to flourish.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Russian fashion today

Russia is now known as a major fashion hub. With many well-known designers, Moscow Fashion Week, and the post-Soviet fashion movement, a lot has changed since the days of smuggling Levi’s. Since the fall of the USSR, fashion in the Eastern bloc has focused on self-expression and good taste.

Nowadays, designers from the former Soviet bloc have the chance to make a name for themselves. Designers such as Gosha Rubchinskiy, Ruban, and Turbo Yulia don’t tend to look to America for inspiration the way that young Russians did a few decades ago. Now, they are carving out a name for themselves by creating a street style that is emulated globally.

Jeans still influence fashion in Russia

In a recent season, the designer Gosha Rubchinskiy honored Russia’s fashion past by presenting jeans with a twist. In reference to one way that Russian teens tried to get their Soviet-manufactured denim to look like Levis, he sent all his models down the runway with boiled jeans. This method creates a nice fade and recalls what Soviet teens turned to when they couldn’t get their hands on the real deal. 

Wrapping Up

This is not the only time that jeans have been a source of controversy, and a powerful force in the world. Since their invention in the late 1800s, jeans have captured the world for their overall quality and the way they lend themselves to a free-spirited, rebellious look. 

Although nowadays celebrated for their durability and American heritage, during the Cold War blue jeans were placed in a unique position for that association. That all being said, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the fervor for blue jeans has only increased, and they now have a place in a multinational fashion lineage.

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Kate Miano

Kate Miano is a freelance writer. She is a regular contributing writer at Shareably Media Network and also has poetry published in Venture Magazine, Dynamis Journal, and Overheard Lit. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and can most often be found at the Botanic Garden. You can contact her on Twitter: @_katemiano.

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