Till 15 January the exhibition “Crimplene Fever. Global Fashion in the Soviet Mirror” is on display at Brīvības bulvāris 32. The exhibition is dedicated to a bright fashion phenomenon – crimplene clothing, which in the 1960s and 1970s was a “fashion cry”. The museum exhibits one of the richest collections of crimplene costumes in Latvia from the collection of the artist Anna Aizsilniece, supplemented by items from the museum’s collection and private collections, as well as private memories of the former “crimplene mania” – how this fabric was obtained, sewn and worn.
Crimplene fabric – the pretty and practical fashion trend of the 1960s and 1970s embodied the reality of its era in multiple ways. Changed perception of everyday life and fashion united both Soviet daily life and the Western world. The 1960s emphasised the desire for convenience and practicality, simplicity, and functionality, thus facilitating the life of a hurried urbanite. Crimplene fabric offered all of this: it was bright, wrinkle-resistant, and easy to care for.
At the same time, crimplene also highlighted the unattractive and even tragicomic side of the Soviet system. “Crimplene fever” was not only about trying to keep up with fashion – which is characteristic of all eras and generations – it also underlined the extent of the shortage of goods as well as the everyday manifestations of profitable connections or the power of acquaintances.
This new synthetic fabric reached Soviet Latvia at the end of the 1960s, with a significant time lag compared to the Western world. At first, crimplene was considered something exclusive, because it was produced outside the USSR. It was bought from sailors and long-distance drivers, it arrived in parcels from exiled relatives in the West, and occasionally, by acquaintance and in exchange for some other goods, it could be obtained in the empty shops of Soviet Latvia. By the time crimplene reached Soviet textile factories, its popularity and prestige had already faded and fashion was turning its gaze in new directions.
What is crimplene?
Crimplene originated in 1959 when the British company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) started producing thick yarn and fabric, which was trademarked as “crimplene”. The name has to do with the Crimple Valley, where ICI’s chemical laboratory was located, and the word “crimple” (meaning ‘to curl’, ‘to crimp’).
In fact, the synthetic polyester fibre that makes up crimplene was invented already in the late 1930s. The widely used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was soon developed and became a commercial success. The patent rights for its production were acquired by the British firm ICI in 1941, by the US chemical giant DuPont in 1946 and, in the following years, by companies in numerous countries. In the 1950s, polyester fabrics for technical use were being produced all over the world, and slightly different fibres with different names were developed in almost every country. These names remained even when they became fabric to be used for clothing.
At first, crimplene clothes were not too popular. This changed in the first half of the 1960s when the demand for bright, easy-care and fashionable clothing materials increased rapidly in Western Europe and the USA. Crimplene devotees in the UK were even called the “Crimplene Club”. In the Western world, the crimplene demand reached its peak between 1964 and 1970 with its popularity extending to the Socialist Bloc only some 5-10 years later.
In terms of chemical composition, crimplene is a 100 % synthetic material derived from petroleum. First, the petroleum products (dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol) are converted into artificial resin and condensed to produce terylene, the raw material of crimplene. To produce the yarn, this mass is melted at high temperatures and passed through dies with 40-micron holes. The fibre is then given a supple and voluminous shape during the spinning and moulding stage – using the so-called false spinning technology. The spun fibre becomes dense, durable and voluminous. The heat treatment results in a soft crimplene fabric similar in feel and appearance to viscose or wool.
Properties and care of crimplene
+ keeps its shape, does not stretch
+ wrinkle-resistant (no ironing needed after washing or wearing)
+ durable (does not wear out, moisture-resistant)
+ does not fade (does not lose its colour even when exposed to direct sunlight for a long time)
+ retains body heat and does not let the cold in
+ easy to care for (does not require special care and maintenance, keeps its original appearance after washing)
+ easy to clean (does not require special washing detergent)
– highly electrifying, attracts dust and other dirt, therefore needs to be washed frequently
– non-breathable, causes sweating
“No crimplene today”
Like in other parts of the world, soon after its appearance in the Latvian SSR crimplene became a fashion trend, it was the most sought-after item to add to one’s wardrobe. However, the great demand was met by a limited supply. Unlike the West, the planned production of the Socialist Bloc responded very slowly to fashion trends. Therefore as typical for the USSR economy, crimplene was in short supply for quite a long time.
In the first half of the 1970s, crimplene began to be produced more widely in the Soviet Union, but it was still hard to find any truly stylish items in the shops. The weak link in production was quality and design – colours and patterns lagged far behind the vibrant fabrics of the West and ready-made crimplene garments could be mostly seen only in magazines or fashion shows. Due to bureaucratic approvals, it took more than two years for a finished design to hit the shelves, by which time it could be outdated and unappealing to buyers.
The road to obtaining a beautiful fabric or garment was therefore long and adventurous. To get the desired crimplene, one had to stand in long queues, use one’s connections in the shop or try to get it semi-legally, for example from long-distance drivers, sailors or in a consignment shop.
Crimplene’s retail price reflected its demand. In the second half of the 1970s, crimplene cost around 30-35 roubles per metre – twice as much as the best wool fabric, three times as much as silk and even up to 30 times as much as cotton.
Cotton: 0.80-4 roubles per metre
Wool fabric: 10-37 roubles per metre
Wool with synthetics: 7-11 roubles per metre
Natural silk: 20-60 roubles per metre
Silk with synthetics: 7-18 roubles per metre
Capron with synthetics: 6-8 roubles per metre
Nylon: 9-18 roubles per metre
Crimplene: 33 roubles per metre
Censorship prevented open criticism of the Soviet planned economy, which was unable to produce sufficient quantities of quality goods of the light industry, including crimplene. But criticism was allowed towards the lowest level of the supply chains – directors of consumer associations or dishonest saleswomen who were accused of reserving the best crimplene fabrics and garments for their acquaintances.
Conservative voices in the press regularly spoke ironically of this sudden fashion trend, deeming it exaggerated and unacceptable for Soviet society. This social criticism also had an ideological twist since as late as the early 1970s crimplene was associated with “Western fashion”, which was, of course, considered harmful and tasteless in the eyes of the authorities. The ideological aspect of crimplene faded only with the increase of crimplene production in the USSR. By the end of the 1970s, crimplene was already being described as a phenomenon of “bygone seasons”.
“Crimplene trade” in Kurzeme
On 21 July, news of the expected crimplene supply in Kurmene Village spread at supercosmic speed. All kinds of “inquiry and news bureaux” were activated. The women whose bodies were most lively and energy most vital speeded over the big field of potatoes. Others used their office telephones to tell their friends and acquaintances the good news.
The fastest were already returning from their home with wads of money. The queue began to form. Right there, along the wall of the kolkhoz’s office. Several hours passed. The ones waiting for the crimplene started seeing black and green circles in their eyes from watching the road. Someone even saw the whole road covered in crimplene.
Newspaper Komunisma Uzvara (Victory of Communism), 16.08.1975
From the mini dress to coat
As soon as the new synthetic materials became more available, a large proportion of people in the Latvian SSR felt attracted by the unusually bright colours and ornate patterns and tended to dress in crimplene from head to toe. Since the late 1960s, dresses, pinafores, suits for men and women and light coats were all made from this fabric.
By the early 1970s, the laconic style of the previous decade had not yet gone out of fashion, and elegant geometry was still in vogue. Simple straight or trapezoid silhouette dresses were made with collars of various shapes, seamed hems and straight sleeves. The initially very popular ‘mini’ was replaced by longer ‘midi’ dresses, where the length of the skirt was between the knee and the ankle.
With the introduction of crimplene, bright and saturated colours of fuchsia, pink, blue, turquoise, green, red, yellow and orange became much more popular. Buyers bored of monochrome garments could choose something more varied – polka dots, checks, stripes, large or small flowers and abstract patterns. At the same time, plain-cut black and white suits also remained popular during the “crimplene decade”.
In the mid-seventies, when crimplene became more available, its practicality made it a popular fabric for business casual wear – those were somewhat uniform suits and dresses whose style was far from contemporary fashion.
Crimplene was also used to make coats – one of the most important wardrobe staples that keeps you warm in colder weather and gives you an elegant look.
At the beginning of the “crimplene fever” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the coats in fashion were trapezoid, without a pronounced waistline, knee-length or a few centimetres above. Designers played with proportions and added large, expressive collars, buttons and pocket flaps. This, however, sometimes made the wearer look girlish and doll-like.
First, coats in light pastels and bright colours were in demand, while in the 1970s, earth tones from brown to green became more popular.
At the beginning, to get the desired crimplene coat you had to turn to a seamstress, but at a later stage there was quite a wide range of coats in the shops too. In 1973, the factory Baltijas Modes started crimplene coat production joined by the manufacturing association Latvija a year later.
In the second half of the 1970s, Soviet Latvian fashion saw a certain renaissance of luxury – for formal occasions, women often chose long, luxurious dresses, while men opted for bright suits with crisply ironed seams.
To avoid wasting precious crimplene and to ensure that the garment would fit “like a glove”, similar dresses or suits were sometimes made using tried-and-tested patterns. Such garments could then be distinguished in someone’s wardrobe only by the colour.
For decades, the most exclusive fashion items in the Soviet Union – clothes, fabrics, accessories, and jewellery – were those produced outside the USSR. While imports from the Socialist Bloc countries were common in the 1960s and 1970s, items made in Western Europe, the USA or Japan were rare.
These fashion items were not mostly bought in shops but came from parcels of exiled relatives. In the mid-fifties, regular exchange of letters between relatives on both sides of the Iron Curtain began, and parcels also travelled to Latvia. They were either sent by the relatives directly or via companies offering a wide range of possible deliveries in the Latvian exile press.
Since the late 1960s, crimplene too was included in parcels to relatives in Latvia – both in the form of fabric and ready-made garments. The necessary measurements sent to the relatives abroad ensured that the garments would fit perfectly, however, if a piece of clothing did not fit anyone in the family, it was sometimes sold.
Jewellery – from plastic too
In the 1960s, accessories made from polymers (plastics) became popular worldwide alongside synthetic fabrics. During the processing, plastic is flexible and holds its shape well upon hardening. These properties allow to use plastic for a wide range of bright-coloured jewellery – beads, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and even amber imitations.
Mass production of such accessories was relatively easy and cheap, making plastic jewellery widely available to buyers. Their popularity was ensured by their low price and bright colours, as well as their compatibility in style with synthetic fibre garments, including crimplene.
Plastic accessories were also popular in the Soviet Union. Local products, however, were undoubtedly surpassed in quality and design by, for example, Czechoslovakian jewellery from artificial gemstones and pearls. If such appeared in a shop, there was a long queue and they were quickly snapped up.
A tailor of one’s own costume
Since fashionable ready-made crimplene garments were rare in the shops, people often made their own clothes or had them made by a trusted tailor. In the 1970s, the rhythmic rumble of a sewing machine could be heard in almost every home. At weekends and in the evenings, when other work was done, fabrics and patterns were laid out on the table together with pictures of film stars as a source of inspiration.
The modern silhouette could be seen in local or Socialist countries’ fashion magazines as well as in Western films. People tried to copy what they had seen, making new dresses, suits or costumes. To look like Sophia Loren or Brigitte Bardot in their last movie was the dream of many women, also in the Latvian SSR. It was possible if you had the West German Burda Moden magazines at hand, where you could find the desired model.
However, not every woman was able to sew like a professional. To make more elaborate crimplene costumes, seamstresses were in great demand. Although tailor ateliers and public utility workshops were available, some seamstresses also worked on the side privately, which during the Soviet period was restricted by law. Such “workshops”, usually set up in the seamstress’ living room, were often packed with pieces of fabric, patterns, half-finished and finished customers’ garments, all from the desired material – crimplene.