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Nihilist fashion in 1860s–1870s Russia: The aesthetic relations of blue spectacles to reality

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The ‘nihilist epoch’ in Russia of the 1860s was plagued by the mismatches between art and reality that could be discerned everywhere, from the philosophical maxims of the nihilists to their dress. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s notorious master’s thesis ‘The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality’ started that episteme, while his novel What Is to Be Done? provided codes of behaviour that were followed minutely by its fans. The article explores the gap between, on the one hand, the sartorial protests of real-life nihilists (fundamental to their construction of nihilist identity) and, on the other, the dress of the ‘new men’, modelled after the ideologues of the nihilist movement, such as Chernyshevsky. The analysis of the sartorial code of nihilism shows that it organically grew out of earlier European sartorial protest movements. In addition, I demonstrate how Chernyshevsky undermined his aesthetic theory by ‘not looking at life through blue spectacles’ as he tried to reflect reality and create the literary type of the ‘new man’, contributing to the later divergence between the sociocultural codes of ‘new men’ and ‘nihilists’.
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Keywords: Russian clothing; anti-fashion; counterculture; nihilism; nineteenth-century fashion

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan

Publication date: December 1, 2016

More about this publication?
  • We all wear clothes. We are all therefore invested at some level in the production and consumption of clothing. This journal intends to embrace issues and themes that are both universal and personal, addressing [and dressing] us all. Increasingly, as we all become accomplished semioticians, clothing becomes the key signifier in determining social interaction and behaviour, and sartorial norms dictate socio-cultural appropriateness. Following the rise of fashion theory, on an everyday level, we all understand that our clothes 'say' something about us, about our times, nation, system of values. Yet clothing is not fashion; clothing is a term derivative from 'cloth', to cover the body, whereas fashion alludes to the glamorous, the ephemeral and the avant garde. We wear clothes, but imagine fashion-an unattainable ideal.
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