Why do we, Russian women, dress to impress?
Actually, not just to impress. Many of us also dress to seduce. "It's best to be as pretty as possible for destiny," Coco Chanel once said. I think many Russian women still unconsciously use these words as a life motto. And it doesn't really matter if we are looking to attract a man or not. It could be that the seduction game just happens to be part of our DNA.
But is it really?
When I am traveling outside Russia, I find myself quite carefree about how I look and what I wear. Something uninterestingly practical like jeans, a simple turtleneck, sneakers, ponytail, hardly any make-up. I prefer not attracting extra attention, at least from my appearance. Not to mention that abroad I get a lot of attention anyway which is not always the case in Russia.
Back to Moscow, a very different routine begins. High heels (forget the killer weather and multiple appointments to attend across town during the day), a dress or an elegant blouse with a pencil skirt and some artfully applied make-up. When I happen to leave the house without the latter (and this happens very seldom), I feel eminently vulnerable as if I were naked. Like a knight who's lost his life-saving armor. Or as if my identity were not quite in place.
Where's this insecurity coming from, I wonder? I am not a teenager anymore and I am not hunting for a man at the moment — in fact, I have been happily not single for quite a long time now. Still, I feel this urge to impress and compete — with other women in the first place, and to keep marketing myself at the Moscow 24/7 vanity fair.
"A l'amour comme a la guerre ("at love as at war") — that’s what you Russian girls are," a good friend of mine, a Parisian who has lived in Moscow for more than ten years, recently observed. As opposed to French women who on a daily basis tend to dress rather conservatively and nonchalantly, he insisted that most of us, Russian females of dateable age, put a herculean effort to look and act extra feminine. "You are always seducing - when you're driving, shopping or working. You keep seducing even after you get married," he said. Not that he really complains about this, my friend added with a mischievous smile.
Well, then I wasn't surprised at all that this observant Frenchman chose to stay in Moscow for such a long time. But I still wondered if being always in alluring mode is indeed part of our sophisticated feminine mystique, charged with the inferiority complexes from the shopping-deprived decades spent behind the iron curtain. Hence the need of the show or, better, to show off, to keep the facade fresh and nearly perfect. Even if we can't really afford it. Add the country's curious juxtaposition to both Europe and Asia, with the influences from both the East and the West.
I asked Ekaterina Mukhina, fashion director of the Russian Vogue magazine, what she thought about this. Our women dress to impress out of desperation rather than because of some peculiar fashion taste, she noted, wistfully. "Women tend to overdress here either to get a man or not to lose one," she said. "Guys are incredibly spoiled in Russia by the availability of super-beautiful women and their unhidden anxiety to find a man." Whereas the males, she stated, don't have to bother much about the way they look — they know they won't stay single long unless they choose to. "And they are also quite flattered that other men might stare at their provocatively dressed woman," Mukhina said. "This validates their choice."
I inquired from several men if they indeed liked the way girls dress in Russia. Most said yes. "Provocative is much better than those make-up-free Western European girls dressed in unisex grey stuff. Russian women know exactly what men want, they know we are rather primitive creatures," said Igor Chersky, editor of FLASH 3.0 magazine and former editor of Maxim magazine/Russia. "It's nice when women dress sexy but I feel sorry for the girls who spend half of their salary on high-heeled designer boots and then struggle walking in them in the mud or snow," said another friend of mine, who's quite a connoisseur of the opposite sex. "I'd rather prefer effortless femininity, one with more taste," he added.
Interestingly, the effortless femininity could be the style direction the younger generation of Russian girls are taking, fashion experts observe. These women grew up being able to shop freely and travel and therefore they aren't so big on competing and impressing. Instead, they tend to dress to express themselves just like their peers back in London, New York or Paris do.
Even so, when I am done writing this column, I'll run to iron a dress that I am going to put on tomorrow. Forget that it's going to be -10 C outside and I am not driving.
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.