The development of a consumer culture

Clothes shopping in Imperial Russia: the development of a consumer culture

Christine Ruane

The buying and selling of goods has taken on increased importance with the rise of modern industrial capitalism. While humans have always traded goods, the development of advertising, the mass production of consumer goods and the need for continually expanding markets under capitalism has given a prominent role to the consumer. Yet, despite the enormous emphasis placed on economic activity in imperial Russia by both Western and Soviet scholars, the study of Russian consumerism has been ignored. Much has been written about the debates over capitalism and socialism in Russia, but one of the fundamental features of daily life, the buying and selling of goods, has gone virtually unstudied.(1) The purpose of this article is to begin a preliminary exploration of Russian consumer culture by analyzing the cultural meanings attributed to the commercial activity of clothes shopping. With the development and proliferation of dressmaking shops, arcade shopping centers and department stores in Russia’s cities came the need to define clothes shopping both socially and culturally, to institutionalize the “values and forms of relationships based upon the purchase and acquisition” of clothing.(2) In Russia as elsewhere the discourse on production and consumption was constructed along gender lines: men produced and women consumed.(3) But in addition, those individuals who wrote about clothes shopping tried to use it as a way of defining Russian national identity by claiming that there existed a “Western” and a “Russian” style of shopping. And, at the same time, there was an attempt to counterpoise the new urban world of the Western stores with the traditional trading of the Russian markets. All of these oppositions – male/female, Western/Russian and urban/rural – played a critical role in the discussion of clothes shopping and the creation of Russian consumer culture.


The central event which influenced clothes shopping in imperial Russia was Peter the Great’s decree in 1701 that his nobility dress like their counterparts in Western Europe. From that day forward, Peter announced that all Russians except for the clergy and peasants who worked the land would dress like Western Europeans.(4) For Peter, it was not enough that Russia borrow from Western technological and economic development, for he believed that Russians should look like Westerners, too. He ordered his subjects to abandon their caftans, sarafans and kokoshki for breeches, petticoats and wigs. Despite some initial resistance to their emperor’s command, by the end of the eighteenth century most Russian gentry had abandoned their traditional Muscovite dress and wore Western-inspired fashions instead.(5)

The increasing demand for fashionable clothing created ideal conditions for the expansion of the garment trades.(6) To meet the demand, tailoring and dressmaking establishments sprang up in ever-increasing numbers. It is difficult to determine the number of shops in Russia’s major cities in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth-centuries; what numbers do exist suggest a slow and steady growth of fashionable shops from 1700 to 1914 with a significant increase during the second half of the nineteenth century.(7) In late seventeenth century Moscow, there were a few tailoring establishments specializing in Western clothing located in the German suburb, the section of Moscow where foreigners lived.(8) From this small beginning, shops began to proliferate. In 1840 of the 278 fashionable shops, 117 sold cloth or ready to wear clothing.(9) By 1885 the Moscow city directory lists seventy-eight stores which used the word, fashion, in their name. In 1911 there are seventy-three fashionable stores (modnye magaziny) and 267 stores which sold ready-to-wear clothing (plat’e gotovoe). These figures included only those individuals or stores that could afford a listing in the directory.(10) With the development of ready-to-wear clothing, arcades (passazh) and department stores also began to sell clothing. Most of these stores grew up in close proximity to one another, creating fashionable shopping districts. In Moscow the exclusive shopping area centered around Tverskaia and Kuznetskii Bridge. By the end of the nineteenth century Russians wishing to buy clothes in modern shops in Moscow could choose from a variety of stores – the Popov arcade, the Solodovnikov arcade, the Aleksandrovskii arcade, the Postnikovskii arcade and the Miur and Meriliz department store, to name the most important ones.(11)

What is interesting to note about this development of fancy shops and department stores is that much of the initial investment came from foreign, and not Russian, capital. In Petersburg, one of the first important clothing stores, DeLisle, was a branch of a French firm. The first department store in Russia, Gorod Lion, was also started by a French merchant.(12) In 1852 the shop owners in the Miasnitskii section of Kuznetskii Bridge petitioned the Moscow city government to have street lamps put up. Of the forty-four owners who signed the petition, only two had Russian last names. Although it was impossible to tell from the documents which shop owners were Russian subjects in 1852, the overwhelming number of foreign names suggest the preponderance of foreign capital at the beginnings of Russian commercial development.(13)

These European, and especially, French businesses which sold Western fashions coexisted with the traditional Russian open-air markets and trading rows. Not surprisingly, the well-to-do classes favored the more expensive Western shops, while the lower classes continued to trade at the inexpensive markets and trading rows. The result was the segregation of the European stores in the fashionable shopping districts, while Russian merchants and retailers predominated in the small shops and markets scattered throughout the surrounding districts. This bifurcation was most extreme in Moscow, but existed to one degree or another in all major Russian cities by the end of the nineteenth century.(14)

The coexistence of fashionable shopping districts with flea markets and trading rows was not uniquely Russian. The retail revolution occurred gradually throughout Europe and represented a transformation from a premodern to a modern capitalist economy.(15) In all the major capitals Europeans bought their clothes through a variety of retail outlets which included second-hand markets and small neighborhood stores. In Europe as in Russia, where individuals purchased clothing depended upon social class and financial resources.

Despite these similarities in retail development, Western Europeans and Russians defined this phenomenon differently. In Europe most commentators saw the development of department stores as an extension of industrial capitalism and as part of each nation’s race to become modern.(16) For Russians too, retail developments were linked with modernity, but these influences were seen as coming to Russia from the outside world rather than as an integral part of internal economic developments. The Russian language expressed this view well. The word magazin, came from the French and designated all stores which had display cases or glass display fronts. The purpose of the magazin or “Western” store was to provide a more formal and “rational” form of shopping.(17) Well-dressed, polite salesclerks assisted well-heeled customers with their purchases. Prices for the merchandise were fixed; no bargaining was permitted.(18) The fixed prices of retail goods allowed customers to buy quality merchandise quickly, so that there would be time to gossip and promenade which were also an integral part of shopping. By contrast, in the Russian shop or lavka, salesclerks greeted customers outside the store expounding the glories of the merchandise contained within. Once the potential buyers entered the store, it was considered essential that customers buy something, but only after lengthy negotiations over the price.(19) Salesclerks were frequently punished if a customer left the store without making a purchase.(20) This bargaining type of retail transaction came to be seen during the second half of the nineteenth century as Russian and therefore, “non-Western.” If “Western” shopping was cold and formal, “Russian” shopping was informal with frequent heated exchanges between customers and clerks arguing over prices. “Western” shopping was standardized, predictable and orderly.

“Russian” shopping, by contrast, appeared unruly, unpredictable, spontaneous and disorderly.(21) Many Westerners and Russians alike identified Russian markets and retailing practices with the bazaars of the Middle East and Asia. I.I. Ianzhul, a distinguished Russian political economist, described the situation by claiming that “Russian trade has preserved an Asian character in many of its features.”(22)

The construction of shopping into “Western” and “Russian” meant that clothes shopping became part of the larger cultural debate about the meaning of Westernization in Russia. One social observer commented in 1851 on this cultural division between the two major shopping areas in Petersburg by remarking: “Gostinyi Dvor is a Russian bazaar, a memorial to older times, an episode from Moscow life. The Passazh is a European commercial street, a copy of foreign customs, a scene from foreign morals and manners. The former reminds one vividly of Moscow, the latter automatically of Paris.”(23) Thus, for some individuals, Russia’s attempt to modernize along Western European lines meant the loss of her uniqueness, her national identity. The tearing down of the old Trading Rows in Moscow in 1886 and their replacement with an arcade shopping center became symbolic of the loss of the commercial customs and habits which characterized not only old Moscow, but pre-Petrine Russia. According to G. Vasilich, writing at the turn of the century:

The difference between the former lavka and the contemporary magazin is not a chance phenomenon. In it are the echoes of two changing systems of morals and manners. With the colossal houses, with the trams and automobiles, in general with the ascendancy of the machine, the former good nature, the conviviality, the appealing disorderliness and freedom is disappearing. The tenor of life is becoming disciplined, is being chained to the pace of the machine.(24)

As this quotation makes clear, for individuals like Vasilich, modernization equalled Westernization and the wholesale rejection of Russian mores and values. Vasilich equates the cold, rational “pace of the machine” with Western stores and mourns the loss of “the conviviality” and “the appealing disorderliness and freedom” which he associates with the lavki. He expresses the fear which many Russians shared that in the government’s attempt to modernize, Russia was losing crucial aspects of its traditional way of life and national identity.

For those Russians who embraced Westernization and modernization, the pace of change was too slow and they welcomed any sign, no matter how insignificant, that Russia was becoming a part of the Western world. These people frequented the magaziny in the fashionable shopping districts and whiled away the hours gossiping and promenading with other like-minded Russians who believed in “progress.” Western goods, no matter what the cost, were perceived to be of higher quality than similar Russian-made goods. And, perhaps more importantly, Western goods were always made according to the latest style, whereas Russian goods often were not. One Russian had this advice for his countrymen:

If you have just come to Moscow and you feel you need to have a suit made, then I implore you do not order it on the Pokrovka, or across the Moskva River, in Lefortovo or Gruzinakh; you will perish … they will make you a suit in accordance with a fashion which has never existed, you will be dressed worse than a newcomer from the provinces. Hurry to the Tverskaia or Kuznetskii Bridge, address yourself to Zanftleben, to Samias, Reno, Otto, Muller, Tepfer, Lyuk…. (25)

Sophisticated Russians needed to wear Western clothes to appear like Westerners, and the primary way to do that was to rely on foreign born and trained tailors and shopkeepers. Only they knew what was a la mode.


As the above quotation makes clear, there was another dimension to the Western/Russian dichotomy in the discourse on shopping – one having to do with an urban/rural split in Russia. Fashion-conscious Russians dressed in the latest styles not only to appear European, but to distinguish themselves from their less glamorous country cousins. Those Russians who had given up provincial life for the allure and promise of the city wanted to wear Western clothing to signal that they were no longer part of backward, rural Russia.

As early as 1806 Ivan Krylov, the Russian fabulist and playwright, satirized the sartorial gulf between city dwellers and those from the countryside. In his play, “Modnaia lavka (The Fashionable Shop),” the action takes place in a fancy French boutique in St. Petersburg. The wily serf and salesclerk, Masha, sells out-of-date fashions to an unsuspecting provincial noblewoman simply by mentioning the names of a few prominent society women who shop at the store. And, although her husband pontificates about the treachery of French stores and retail practices and forbids the sale, nevertheless, his wife completes her purchases behind his back. The wife returns to her provincial estate dreaming of the sophisticated impression she hopes to make at the next ball in her French fashions.(26)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, European clothing had become so widespread that Russian dress had virtually disappeared on city streets. One unhappy commentator described the changes in Moscow;

In general in the last few years the streets of Moscow have taken on a more “Europeanized” appearance. A kind of “chic” has appeared among the crowds in the street whereas in old Moscow the population had no understanding of fashion. The dress and customs were regulated by tradition, daily comfort and personal choice. But, the tendency toward impersonal “fashion,” valued only because everyone follows it, is already growing with substantial progress in city life. This collective culture is levelling city dwellers by making them resemble factory-made products. Bowler hats, coats, monotonous in their black coloring – are conquering the Moscow streets. Long-waisted coats, Russian shirts, service caps and colorful shawls – all have disappeared and have gone to the suburbs. This levelling of the various strata of the city population testifies to the general democraticization of culture. Beneath the mask of imitation the yearning of the urban lower classes appears to join with the powerful flow of world culture. “Russian dress” is worn only by the Old Believers in the eastern part of Moscow, and even there “German dress” is sometimes worn for church services.(27)

The split between urban and rural Russia reflected a complex social transformation which was occurring particularly during the second half of the nineteenth century. The business, professional, and artistic elites were attempting to buy the luxuries which previously had been accessible only to the nobility. Through the particular efforts of the new business elite, it appeared that everyone could admire and perhaps even purchase the latest fashions in the new stores of the industrial age.(28)

This attempt to democratize shopping was more apparent than real, however. While on the one hand the new urban elites in Russia were attempting to wrest cultural control away from the nobility, they were also trying to preserve their new cultural power and status from encroachment by the lower classes. Even though the Western-style retail outlets were open to individuals from all classes, obviously only those with enough money could actually afford to buy the goods on sale. Moreover, the atmosphere of formal civility and prix fixe which prevailed in these “Western” stores was intended to intimidate those customers who did not have sufficient income to purchase the goods displayed. One commentator tells the story of a young seamstress who headed for Kuznetskii Bridge to shop for a scarf for herself and her sister. She was rebuffed by an indifferent salesclerk, by a society woman and by the glamorous atmosphere of the store. Instead, she went to the Trading Rows where she was not only able to purchase scarves, but to buy tulle, hair pins, and whale bone for a corset from an obsequious salesclerk. Although the shawls in the exclusive fashion district were more beautiful and of a higher quality than those in the Trading Rows, the young seamstress could not bring herself to endure the humiliations necessary to buy the goods.(29) This young woman’s experience was typical of the indignities suffered by many workers and peasants who attempted to cross the thresholds of Western-style stores. In the end they found that they were not welcomed except as salesclerks and janitorial staff. The rationality and the civility of the Western stores were the domain of the elites, while the sprawling and contentious atmosphere of the “Russian” markets was to remain the preserve of the lower classes.(30)


Once the fashionable shopping districts were established, well-to-do Russians flocked to Nevskii Prospekt and Kuznetskii Bridge to make their purchases. For Russian men, the sartorial choices were fairly straightforward. Most military personnel and civil servants wore uniforms. The uniforms were made by tailors according to the specifications of each individual branch of service. Men not in government service wore suits which had become the “uniform” for men in business and the professions. In addition, these men needed outerwear to protect themselves against the elements and a more festive suit for evenings at the theater or other such occasions.(31)

For elite women who wanted to dress fashionably, the situation was more complex. In order to dress comme il faut, these women changed clothing several times during the day, and it was necessary to have several different seasonal wardrobes as well. Fashionable women needed “at home” outfits, visiting clothes, cloaks and coats for all seasons, and fancy dresses for balls and parties. All of these outfits required the proper hats, gloves, shoes, purses, ribbons and lace to accompany them. Thus, a good deal of thought, time and energy were necessary in order for a woman to dress fashionably.(32)

As fashion-conscious Russian women began to dress like their counterparts in Paris, London, and Vienna, they became increasingly preoccupied with the clothes shopping necessary to acquire all of the accoutrements. In addition to the actual purchase of goods, an important aspect of Western-style shopping was “to see and be seen” in the exclusive shopping districts.(33) Wealthy women gathered in the fancy shops and the surrounding streets to gossip and show off their sartorial splendor. Shopping became an elaborate ritual with its own forms and etiquette. A fashion press developed in Russia to keep women informed of the latest designs. As commercial advertising developed in sophistication during the second half of the nineteenth century, advertisements were increasingly aimed at women in order to encourage further spending. Many periodicals including Niva, Vsemirnaia illiustratsiia, and Zhenskoe delo had either fashion supplements or lithographs of the latest fashions. Niva actually included dress patterns in its supplement, Parizhskie mody, so that women could make their own clothes at home.(34)

As more and more women attempted to partake in the shopping ritual, it became defined as a “woman’s” occupation. No less a theorist than Thorstein Veblen built an entire economic theory around the assumption that women consumed so as to enhance their husband’s status by appearing in expensive clothing which indicated to everyone that they were not engaged in any form of productive labor. Women’s role as consumers became an increasingly essential symbol of their husband’s wealth and status.(35) At the same time that women were being encouraged to shop for more beautiful and expensive clothes, however, some critics began to denigrate women’s “obsessive” concern with clothes and shopping. In Russia as elsewhere, clothes shopping carried multiple, ambiguous meanings. Women were expected to dress according to the latest styles so as to enhance their husband’s status, but without expending the effort or money necessary to look like the models in the fashion magazines.

The growing concern over women’s role as consumers can be seen in the changing images of women in the Russian attitudes toward shopping. One such “true” story can be found in the December 1851 issue of the fashion journal, Moda: Zhurnal dlia svetskikh liudei. The story begins in St. Petersburg with a beautiful young woman dressed for an afternoon’s outing. While waiting for her carriage, she meets her husband who suggests a visit to the fashionable boutique, DeLisle, on Nevskii Prospekt. According to her husband, the store has just received goods from the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. Delighted at his suggestion, the happy woman departs for the store with her husband. Inside she beholds a magnificent bazaar with goods from all over the world, displayed in a modern store setting. Amazed at all the splendor she sees, she finally comes upon an exquisite velvet outfit made according to the latest style. When the young wife asks the price of the “velvet poem,” she is quickly informed that it has already been sold. The young woman screams and promptly faints into the arms of her husband. In order to bring back “her smile of pleasure,” the husband races around the store buying the most expensive goods he can find. The wife leaves the store with many handsome packages but also with a slight tinge of regret about the loss of the “velvet poem.”(36)

This story suggests the important elements in the gendering of the discourse on shopping. It is clear from the story that both husband and wife are concerned about the wife’s appearance. Her beautiful clothing and carriage suggest to everyone they meet that her husband makes enough money to keep his wife in the latest styles which she purchases at the most exclusive stores in Petersburg. The story also shows how the wife uses her gender to get her husband to buy the goods she desires. Overcome by her passion for the beautiful clothes, her fainting spell emphasizes that she is a member of the “weaker sex,” a woman who cannot cope with any difficulty because of the delicacy of her physical and emotional health. She needs a man to act decisively for her in her weakened condition, to buy the goods which she desires. According to this view, shopping was seen as a release for women’s passionate natures. Women literally lost their “senses” upon entering a store and needed a man to act rationally for them.

Shortly after this story was issued, Russian women began to seek a greater public role in their society.(37) No longer content to remain delicate creatures dependent upon men, they sought employment outside of the home in the new service professions. This greater public presence of women in the workplace as well as the market place caused some concern about the “New Woman” and her quest for greater equality which began to find expression in the literature on shopping. One example can be found in Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, the story of one man’s sexual obsession and the resulting tragedy. Written in 1889 and published in 1891, The Kreutzer Sonata was widely-read and discussed. The story’s publication was, according to Laura Engelstein, a defining moment in Russian culture.(38) One of Tolstoy’s themes in the work was the connection between women’s clothing and their manipulation of men’s sexual desires. According to Pozdnyshev, the “hero” of the story,

Women, especially those who get their learning from men, know very well that conversations on important subjects are mere talk, and that what a man really wants is the body and whatever adds to the seductiveness of the body, and so that is what they offer him. If we could rid ourselves of this disgraceful habit which has become second nature to us and look at the life of the upper classes as it really is, we would see that it is a veritable brothel…. If people have different aims in life, if their inner lives are different, the outer forms of their lives will be different too. But look at the unfortunate women whom we despise and then at young ladies from the very highest society: the same clothes, the same styles, the same perfumes, the same bare arms, shoulders and bosoms, the same exaggerated behinds, the same passion for precious stones and expensive, glittering ornaments, the same amusements – dancing, music and singing. All the same means of enticing men are used by one as by the other. No difference at all. To make a strict distinction between them we can only say that short-term prostitutes are usually despised whereas long-term prostitutes are respected.(39)

The change between Tolstoy’s view of women and clothing and those expressed in the 1851 story is stark. Whereas the woman in the earlier story was portrayed as delicate and weak, in Tolstoy’s story high-society women have become prostitutes – they are still passionate creatures but this time in a cold and calculating way. Upper-class women ensnare men with their provocatively-dressed bodies, and like prostitutes they receive money in exchange for sex: high-society women marry for the money their hapless spouses possess. Once married, these women/prostitutes continue to shop and spend money:

Go through the shops in any large town. Millions of hands – more than can be counted – have labored over the things displayed there and just see! Can anything for men’s use be found in nine-tenths of these shops? All the luxuries of life are demanded and consumed by women. Count the factories. A huge portion of them are engaged in making useless ornaments, carriages, furniture and knickknacks for women. Millions of people, generations of slaves, perish at this cruel factory labor to satisfy the whims of women. Women, like queens, have forced nine-tenths of the human race to labor for them as their slaves. And all because they have been humiliated and deprived of equal rights with man.(40)

Thus, Tolstoy makes explicit the connection between women’s sexual passions, their greed as consumers of modern luxury goods and their desire to seek revenge for men’s unwillingness to grant them equal rights. What had been feminine delicacy in 1851 became women’s revenge forty years later.

Both Tolstoy’s novel and the 1851 story were written at a time when shopping in fancy Western stores was a relatively rare occurrence in Russia, something which only the wealthy could afford. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, these shops and stores had proliferated in Russian cities so that more and more Russians could experience the wonders of modern shopping. In addition, the early years of the twentieth century saw an increase of female peasant migration into the cities. These women continued to seek work as domestic servants and seamstresses, but they also began to look for work in Russia’s new factories and stores.(41) The proliferation of shopping and the new roles which urban women were demanding in the public sphere caused a change in attitudes toward women and shopping. One example of this change appeared in Russia in 1914. Iulii L. Elets, a decorated military officer, journalist and self-appointed social commentator, published a book entitled, Epidemic Insanity: Toward the Overthrow of the Yoke of Fashion.(42) Surveying the social crisis that was engulfing Russia in 1914, Elets blames the financial and moral decline of the Russian family upon women’s desire to dress a la mode. If Tolstoy described women’s obsession with shopping and clothes as the poison in male/female relations, Elets argued that women also neglected their children and their education because they were too busy planning their wardrobe. To illustrate his point, he claimed that many times women left their children behind in the stores because of their preoccupation with their purchases. These women either returned to the store once they realized that their children were missing or the store owners returned the children to their mothers.(43) As if this literal abandonment of children was not bad enough, Elets condemned women for spending their husband’s or father’s hard-earned money. He stated that seventy-five percent of family unhappiness was due to fashion and he included innumerable stories in his book of men who lost most of their money due to their wives’ insatiable clothes shopping.(44) These poor Russian men were victimized by the rapacious spending of their wives and daughters.(45)

Moreover, this “epidemic insanity” was not limited to elite families any longer, but affected working-class women as well. According to Elets, working-class women spent virtually all of their wages buying fancy clothes, or else they turned to prostitution to earn the money necessary to finance their clothes purchases. The only women in Russia who were immune to the “epidemic” were peasant women who remained in the village. Elets wrote, “Peasant women and girls, going to a party or wedding, never think about whether they will be dressed better or worse than the others, because all [peasant women] dress more or less the same.”(46) Thus, what had begun as a discourse on aristocratic women and their shopping habits had now been expanded in 1914 to include women of all social classes who stepped foot into the city.

There was another dimension to this concern about women and shopping. Elets was extremely worried about women’s moral purity which he and others claimed was destroyed in their obsession with clothes and shopping. Unlike Tolstoy, Elets believed there still were respectable elite women in Russia, but the marketplace was a dangerous place for them. It was filled with all sorts of unscrupulous individuals who tempted virtuous women to give into feelings of avarice, greed and passion. The cast of characters who attempted to corrupt innocent women included virtually everyone whom women contacted in the public realm of shopping.

The first danger to respectable Russian women were the saleswomen who worked in the various dress shops and boutiques. It was assumed by almost all Russians that these women were prostitutes as indeed some of them were. Poorly-paid, overworked saleswomen, recruited primarily from the lower classes, turned to prostitution to supplement their wages so that they could afford the nice clothing required for work. More importantly, even those saleswomen who did not supplement their income in this way were seen as prostitutes and subjected to lewd and lascivious comments by the shop owners.(47)

The second set of sleazy characters who were part of the world of commerce, according to Elets, were the shop owners themselves. Advertising and window displays designed by shopkeepers enticed honorable women into their stores and encouraged them to buy goods they could not afford. According to Elets, shopkeepers sometimes blackmailed their unsuspecting clients which frequently led to the downfall of innocent young women. In one such story, he described how a respectable maiden, having just graduated from the gymnasium, moved to St. Petersburg to live with her relatives. One day she admired a beautiful new hat and the woman shopkeeper urged her to take the hat without paying for it. The young woman demurred but finally accepted the offer because she looked so perfect in the hat. These events were repeated two more times and then one day the shopkeeper presented her client with the bill for the hats which amounted to more than 400 rubles. The young woman was devastated, for she did not have the money. The angry store owner used her debt to blackmail the young woman into becoming involved with a certain prince who had become infatuated with her. The young woman agreed in the end and succumbed to her inevitable downfall, the loss of her virginity. This sad story, Elets concluded, was typical of the evil nature of many shop owners who specialized in women’s fashions.(48)

The final set of dubious characters who inhabited Elets’ world of fashion and shopping were the customers themselves. Many clients who frequented the exclusive boutiques were part of the demimonde – actresses, dancers, and singers who were frequently the mistresses of influential and powerful men. The demimondaines played a prominent role in the world of fashion. They often helped to publicize the latest fashions by being the first to dress in the newest styles, either on the stage or in the restaurants to which they retired after their performances. At the same time, some of these women, although still dependent upon men in varying degrees for their success and notoriety, did not live by conventional moral and sexual codes of behavior, and therefore provided an alternative example of how women could conduct their lives. There was great concern that respectable women by making the acquaintance of the demimondaines in the shops might become influenced by their example and lifestyle in rebelling against conventional morality.

These unwholesome characters were believed by Elets to make the world of clothes shopping an extremely dangerous one for the respectable Russian woman. At every step along the way, she came into contact with women who had been corrupted by sexual licentiousness, passion and greed, for these were the characteristics which united saleswomen, shop owners, and customers. The respectable Russian woman was “seduced” into buying items which she did not need, and she, in turn, used these garments to seduce her unsuspecting husband and/or lover. All these women had abandoned appropriate “female” behavior emphasizing modesty, restraint and self-sacrifice to participate in the world of commerce. Thus, a simple commercial transaction became, in the eyes of many commentators, a defiant and deviant expression of a woman’s sexuality. In this sense any woman who participated in commercial activity was a publichnaia zhenshchina, a public woman who sold her body for men’s pleasure, as Tolstoy so vividly described. It is the women who were corrupted and sullied by wanton consumerism, not the men who remain, according to this view, the hapless and innocent victims of their female companions’ greed and passions.

What is so striking about the gendered language used in describing shopping in Russia is its similarity to the European discourse. In the nineteenth century virtually every Western European nation developed a literature equating capitalism and its retail developments with women and sexual licentiousness. But what do these similarities mean? Did Russians in borrowing European retailing developments also borrow a European construction of these same developments? What does this suggest about Russian consumer culture? The answers to these questions are complex, and not simply a matter of direct borrowing. More importantly, Russian attitudes toward shopping suggest a way of understanding better their responses to modernity and Westernization.

Russian discomfort with women and shopping paralleled the concerns of many Western authors and social commentators. Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie and George Gissing in Eve’s Ransom and others provided commentary on women and consumerism, but the most influential work was Emile Zola’s novel, Au bonheur des dames.(49) In this work Zola chronicles the rise of a department store in nineteenth-century Paris. Significantly, Zola’s fictional store is called Le Bonheur des dames, the Ladies’ Happiness, a store whose sole purpose is to release women’s alleged passion for luxury goods, gossiping and spending money. Much of the novel concerns itself not just with the shopping habits of the store’s clientele, but also with their sexual lives. The upper- and middle-class women who shop at Le Bonheur des dames are buying goods to enhance their beauty to please their lovers. The women salesclerks occupy their time with thoughts of their lovers who are often male store employees. The heroine, Denise, is virtually the only virgin in the story, and much of the novel chronicles her attempts to save her purity in the midst of the sexually depraved world of the department store. The language of the novel is saturated with sexual imagery – the same images which Elets used in his work.(50)

The use by Zola, Tolstoy, Elets and other writers of sexual imagery to describe women and shopping reflects a deep concern Russians shared with other Europeans over the changes industrialization and urbanization had brought about in gender relations. Wealth in Russia was no longer based upon titles and serfs, but upon the accumulation of capital, creating a new monied elite which could purchase the new, mass-produced, manufactured goods. Women who had the leisure increasingly became the consumers. Although mass consumption was not a possibility for all Russians or Europeans, the Western-style stores suggested a “dream world” where customers could look at the new industrial goods and sometimes buy whatever goods they desired.(51) Because of their prominent role as the new mass consumers of industrial goods, women and their supposedly passionate, sexual natures became the locus of the anxiety for those Russians and Europeans who did not like mass consumption.

Moreover, this gendering of shopping and its equation with seduction was part of a larger cultural image which Russians and Europeans shared to characterize the impact of urbanization on European life. According to a recent study by Elizabeth Wilson, an entire male discourse developed equating urban life, control of disorder, and women. Wilson writes:

Woman is present in the cities as temptress, as whore, as fallen woman, as lesbian, but also as virtuous womanhood in danger, as heroic womanhood who triumphs over temptation and tribulation … many writers … posed the presence of women as a problem of order, partly because their presence symbolised the promise of sexual adventure. This promise was converted into a general moral and political threat.(52)

To use Elets’ metaphor, clothes shopping was an urban mental illness which attacked women of all social classes foolish enough to enter the city. Thus, women shoppers and salesclerks symbolized the dangers inherent in urbanization for Russia and Europe.

Gender was only one component of the Russian discourse on shopping. Another element was shopping as a component of national identity. For Russians the changes in retailing were an integral part of their country’s drive to modernize and industrialize. Mass consumption inevitably followed mass production. And, here too, there are striking similarities between Russian descriptions and their European counterparts. Vasilich, who compared the rise of the magaziny with “the ascendancy of the machine,” is really only mimicking Zola who also used the language of industrialism to describe his department store, Le Bonheur des dames. According to Zola, the department store was a machine – built of iron and steel and run with the labor of hundreds of Parisian men and women who worked to ensure the smooth running of the great machine.(53) The department store was one of the great inventions of the industrial age, a huge modern emporium where all manufactured goods could be displayed under one roof. And even though Russia did not have many department stores, the arcade shopping centers and the boutiques all suggested to Russians the first step toward the new industrial age and its consumer culture.

By using the language and metaphors of industrialization to describe mass consumption, Russian and European writers brought in the third important component of the discourse on shopping, the increasing gulf between modern, urban life and the tradition-bound life of the countryside. Although mass production allowed for a greater number of goods to be produced and the department store allowed for greater accessibility than had previously been possible, the ability to purchase these goods remained limited to the old aristocracy and the new bourgeois elites. For most members of the Russian and European lower classes, the “dream world” of mass consumption remained exactly that, a dream.

Because this democraticization of luxury was more apparent than real, it caused many members of the Russian and European intelligentsia to question the role of consumerism in modern life. The new stores brought with them some serious concerns about the changes which were occurring as a result of industrialization. In her study of late nineteenth-century France, Rosalind Williams has written about the debate among social thinkers between those who wanted to encourage consumption as part of a general democraticization of luxury and those who felt guilty about mass consumption. In her words, “this ambivalence formed a serious fault line in bourgeois culture.”(54)

For Russians this fault line in bourgeois, urban culture was even more serious because many of them saw this culture as Western and therefore alien to Russian life. While the French were also disquieted by the retailing developments, they understood them as an inevitable part of their own capitalist development – at least French department stores were run by Frenchmen. In Russia, however, capitalism was seen as an external imposition upon Russia from the West. As we have already observed, there was a “Russian” and a “Western” way of shopping which appeared quite distinct. By labelling the shops in the way they did, Russian commentators were asserting the alien nature of Western retail and capitalist developments in their native land. This discomfort with capitalism had long roots in Russia and was felt keenly by both right and left. For conservatives like Elets it meant the loss of the older, traditional Russian way of life. For Populists, it meant the creation of a bourgeois, urban culture which was anathema to their economic and political agenda.(55) And even Marxists, who saw the development of consumerism as an important sign of capitalism, believed that this new consumer culture must be destroyed by the great socialist revolution.

By the eve of World War I, Russian consumer culture was defined by three discursive oppositions – Western/Russian, urban/rural, and male/female. Although much more work needs to be done in order to understand fully Russian consumer culture, it appears that the transformation of retailing never came to be seen as an intrinsic part of Russian capitalist development and was viewed instead as a foreign import. Clothes shopping became one of the more visible symbols of Russians’ discomfort with capitalism and the greed, poverty, and disorder which it unleashed. This discomfort with capitalism, coupled with the role of women in the new consumerism and the resulting change in gender relations, may have given many Russians some compelling reasons to fear just such a capitalist order and its consumer culture.

Department of History St. Louis, MO 63130-4899


An earlier version of this paper was presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Convention, Phoenix, AZ, November 1992. Financial support came from the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, the International Research and Exchanges Board, and a Washington University Faculty Research Grant. My thanks to Joseph Bradley, Reginald Zelnik, Lynn Mally, Elisabeth Domansky, and the anonymous Journal reviewers for their helpful comments.

1. Two recent exceptions to this are Robert Gohstand, “The Internal Geography of Trade in Moscow from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War I,” Ph.D dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1973; and Anne Lincoln Fitzpatrick, The Great Russian Fair: Nizhnii Novgorod, 1840-1890 (London, 1990). For an introduction to the Soviet work on trade, see G.A. Dikhtiar, Vnutrenniaia torgovlia v dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii (Moscow, 1960). The publishing industry and its trade have been studied in three excellent books: Jeffrey Brooks, When Rissia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985); Gary Marker, Publishing, Printing, and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia, 1700-1800 (Princeton, 1985); Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime: The Development of a Mass-Circulation Press (Princeton, 1991).

2. David Chaney, “The Department Store as a Cultural Form,” Theory, Culture and Society, 1, 3 (1983): 27.

3. The representation of men as producers and women consumers permeates Western literature on consumerism. With industrialization men’s work and home life were separated as they had never been before. This separation was universalized and inscribed in the European discourse as separation between production and consumption. Men left their homes to enter the workplace and participate in the production of manufactured goods, while women, now charged with maintaining the home rather than seeking outside employment, became the consumers of these new manufactured goods. The development of this opposition of production and consumption in no way reflected the social reality of the times. Both men and women produced and consumed clothes as well as other manufactured goods. The important point is that this reality was not reflected in the ideology of consumption which was emerging with modern consumer capitalism. For an introduction to this issue, see Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (New York, 1985), especially chapter 2; Elaine S. Ableson, When Ladies Go A-Thieving (New York, 1989), chapter 1; Kristin Ross, “Shopping,” Introduction to Emile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise (Berkeley, 1992), v-xxiii; and Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France (Berkeley, 1982).

4. The text of Peter’s decree can be found in “Moda pri Petre I,” Iskusstvo odevat’sia 4 (1928), no pagination.

5. “Russkii kostium 1750-1830 godov,” Russkii kostium 1 (1960): 9-10. For an introduction to the history and interpretation of Western fashions, see Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York, 1983); Francois Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment (New York, 1987); James Laver, Costume of the Western World (New York, 1950); Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History (New York, 1988); and Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (Berkeley, 1987).

6. For a history of the garment trades, see E.A. Oliunina, Portnovskii promysel’ v Moskve i v derevniakh Moskovskoi i Riazanskoi gubernii: Materialy k istorii domashnei promyshlennosti v Rossii (Moscow, 1914); S.M. Gruzdev, Trud i bor’ba shveinikov v Petrograde 1905-1916 gg. (Leningrad, 1929); Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi federatsii, f. 6869, op. 1, d. 35, 11.7-17.

7. See Akademiia nauk SSSR, institut istorii, Istoriia Moskvy, (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1953 and 1954), vols. 2 and 3; ibid., Ocherki istorii Leningrada (Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1955), vol. 1. The different labels used to identify fashionable clothing stores as well as the introduction and popularity of ready to wear clothing during the second half of the nineteenth century also make it difficult to compile precise statistics.

8. E. Iu. Moiseenko, “Mastera-portnye ‘nemetskogo plat’ia’ v Rossii i ikh raboty,” Trudy Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha, 15 (1974): 141-151. According to Moiseenko, tailors at the Kremlin also made Western-style clothing in the late seventeenth century, but these would only have been available to members of the Court.

9. The figures are in Gohstand, “The Internal Geography,” 44.

10. The 1885 figures are from ibid., 725-730. The 1911 numbers were compiled from Vsia Moskva (Moscow, 1911), 400-403, 551-557. In the 1912 St. Petersburg city directory there were several categories in which one could look to purchase clothing. There were 198 modistes, 101 fashion stores, 54 ready-to-wear shops, and over 250 dressmakers. See Ves’ Peterburg (St. Petersburg, 1912), 1442-1444, 1516, 1530-1532.

11. Irina Paltusova, Commercial Advertisements and Packages in Russia, XIX-XX vv. (Moscow, 1993), 5. See also, T.S. Aleshina, “K istorii proizvodstva odezhdy v kontse XlX-nachale XX veka: Po materialam Gosudarstvennogo Istorichecheskogo muzeia, “Muzei 10 (1989): 89-94 for a list of other Moscow stores which sold clothing.

12. Aleshina, “K istorii proizvodstva,” 83; and Moda: Zhurnal dlia svetskikh liudei, 14 (1852): 112.

13. RGIA g. Moskvy, f. 14, op. 2, d. 364, 11. 1-29. The two Russian names were Konstantin Popov and Praskovia Tret’iakova. The names can be found on 1.29.

14. Gohstand, “The lnternal Geography,” passim; Joseph Bradley, Muzhik and Muscovite: Urbanization in Late Inperial Russia (Berkeley, 1985), 82-90; James H. Bater, St Petersburg: Industrialization and Change (Montreal, 1976), 122; and Patricia Herlihy, Odessa: A History, 1794-1914 (Cambridge, 1986), 264-265.

15. For a history of the retail transformation, see Hrant Pasdermadjian, The Department Store: Its Origins, Evolution and Economics (London, 1954); Michael B. Miller, The Bon Marche: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920 (Princeton, 1981); Alison Adburgham, Shops and Shopping, 1800-1914: Where, and in What Manner the Well-dressed Englishwoman Bought her Clothes (London, 1964); John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (New York, 1993); James B. Jeffreys, Retail Trading in Britain, 1850-1950 (Cambridge, 1954); Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800 (Oxford, 1991); Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1982); Hoh-cheung and Lorna H. Mui, Shops and Shopping in Eighteenth Century England (Kingston, 1989).

16. See Williams, Dream Worlds; Remy G. Saisselin, The Bourgeois and the Bibelot (New Brunswick, 1984), chapters 2 and 3.

17. According to one business historian, “(T)he department store represented, from its very beginning, a typical application of the principles of modem organization. From the outset, it was imprinted with the mark of efficiency. By its size, its greater degree of division of labour, its use of relatively unqualified labour welded by the resources of the organization and of the principle of delegation of skill into operating teams, its preparation of events and its inventive spirit, the department store has appeared in the eyes of the public, from its inception, as one of the most tangible and striking demonstrations of the possibilities of organization.” See Pasdermadjian, The Department Store, 22.

18. Paltusova, Commercial Advertisements and Packages, 5.

19. Gohstand, “The Internal Geography,” passim; Bradley, Muzhik and Muscovite, 83-90. A lively description of this process can be found in A.B. Granville, St. Petersburgh (London, 1829), II, 409-411.

20. I.A. Slonov, lz zhizni torgovoi Moskvy (Polveka nazad) (Moscow, 1914), 70.

21. Gohstand, “The Internal Geography,” 28 and 29.

22. Quoted in A. Gudvan, Ocherki po istorii dvizheniia sluzhashchikh v Rossii (Moscow, 1925), 26. See also G. Vasilich, “Moskva 1850-1910 g.,” Moskva v ee proshlom i nastoiashchem, X-XI (1910): 9.

23. “Gostinyi Dvor i Passazh,” Moda: Zhurnal dlia svetskikh liudei 8 (15 April 1851): 61.

24. G. Vasilich, “Ulitsy i liudi sovremmenoi Moskvy,” Moskva v ee proshlom i nastoisahchem, XII (1912): 6. My attempts to find biographical information about Vasilich have not been very productive. He or she wrote a number of popular histories about the Decembrists and the reign of Alexander I, in addition to the articles cited above. Beyond a list of publications, I have been unable to find out anything more about the author. Indeed, it is quite possible that Vasilich may even have been a pseudonym, further obscuring the identity of the author. My thanks to the Slavic Reference Service at the University of Illinois, Urbana for providing me with this information.

25. “Vneshnii vid Moskvy srediny XIX veka,” Moskva v ee proshlom i nastoiashchem, X-XI (1911): 49.

26. The play can be found in Russian Satiric Comedy: Six Plays, ed. and trans. Laurence Senelick (New York, 1983), 27-65.

27. Vasilich, “Ulitsy i liudi,” 7.

28. The relationship between urban culture and the department store is discussed in Miller, The Bon Marche.

29. I.T. Kokorev, Ocherki Moskvy sorokovykh godov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1932), 125-131.

30. The boundaries of Russian consumerism cannot be definitively defined by this essay. I have not been able to locate any retail sales’ figures for Russian clothing stores in the nineteenth century. However, even if retail sales’ figures were available, one of the key features of the European consumer revolution was the opening up of stores which sold luxury goods to individuals from all social classes. Prior to the appearance of arcades and department stores, only aristocrats had been able to purchase such luxury goods; to be mass-produced, these goods were displayed for all who were interested, not just the aristocracy. And even though most European and Russian workers and peasants could not afford to buy these items, they could at least come into the stores and admire them. It was the ability of these stores to bring in new customers to gaze at the products of the industrial age that has caused some scholars to label these stores, “dream worlds,” emphasizing the pleasure gained by those individuals who were “just looking.” Even though many of the new store customers never bought any goods on these expeditions, they were participants in the world of modern consumerism. Thus, the “democraticization of luxury,” as this process has been called, was concerned only partially with the actual acquisition of goods. The other part of this process was providing a public space which encouraged individuals to daydream about the acquisition of luxury goods. As more and more Russian peasants came to the cities in search of a better life at the end of the nineteenth century, it seems likely that some of them would enter into the fashionable shops, if not to buy than at least to dream.

31. For a history of men’s costume, see Russkii kostium 1-5 (1960-65): passim; V.M. Glinka, Russkii voennyi kostium, XVIII-nachala XX veka (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1988); and L.E. Shepelev, Tituly, mundiry, ordena v Rossiiskoi imperii (Leningrad, 1991), passim.

32. For an introduction to the history of women’s fashions, see Russkii kostium, vols. 1-5, passim.

33. Bowlby, Just Looking, 1-17.

34. According to Jeffrey Brooks, Niva was the most popular “thin” magazine of its day. It had a circulation of over 100,000 copies a year at the turn of the century. See Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read, 111-114. At the present time I have counted over one hundred journals published between 1800 and 1917 which contained fashion articles and illustrations. Even though many of these journals were short-lived, their large number indicates the popularity of the fashion press.

35. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (London, 1899), 167-187.

36. “Modnyi svet,” Moda: Zhurnal dlia svetskikh liudei 23 (1 December 1851): 177-179.

37. For a history of the women’s movement in Russia, see Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton, 1978).

38. For a discussion of the work’s impact on Russian society, see Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia (Ithaca, 1992), 218-221.

39. L.N. Tolstoi, “Kreitserova Sonata,” Pol’noe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 27 (Moscow-Leningrad, 1933), 22-23.

40. Ibid., 26.

41. Rose L. Glickman, Russian Factory Women: Workplace and Society, 1880-1914 (Berkeley, 1984), chapter 3.

42. Iulii L. Elets, Poval’noe bezumie: K sverzheniiu iga mad (St. Petersburg, 1914).

43. Ibid., 269-270.

44. Ibid., passim.

45. This tendency to view men as the victims of their wives’ scandalous spending was an essential part of “conspicuous consumption” and the gendered construction of shopping. See Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (New York, 1982), 147-150.

46. Elets, Poval’noe bezumie, 91.

47. Gudvan, Ocherki po istorii dvizheniia sluzhashchikh v Rossii, 136-140. See also Barbara Alpern Engel, “St. Petersburg Prostitutes m the Late Nineteenth Century: A Personal and Social Profile,” Russian Review 48 (1989): 21-44; Richard States, “Prostitutes and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Russia,” Jahrbucher fur Geschichte Osteuropas 1 (Spring 1984): 348-364; and Laurie Bernstein, “Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitution, State and Society in Russia, forthcoming.

48. Elets, Poval’noe bezumie, 144-149.

49. Bowlby, Just Looking.

50. Emile Zola, Au Bonheur des dames (Paris, 1910), passim.

51. For a fuller discussion, see Williams, Dream Worlds.

52. Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Berkeley, 1991), 6. The emphasis is in the original.

53. Zola, Au Bonheur des dames.

54. Williams, Dream Worlds, 14.

55. For a discussion of the Populist perspective, see Andrzej Walicki, The Controversy over Capitalism: Studies in the Social Philosophy of the Russian Populists (Oxford, 1969).

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