On a crisp February afternoon, as I was flicking through the anniversary issue of Polish Vogue, one particular feature caught my attention. It was a news story about a fashion exhibition on show at The Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Moda Polska (Polish Fashion), the brand that introduced Polish women to the world of elegant, sophisticated fashion.
We were going to be in the city the following month to see Florence and the Machine live, so I excitedly checked the opening dates. As you can possibly imagine, once I realised our visit fell on the closing weekend, I messaged my boyfriend with a “can we please go?” right away.
Moda Polska or Dior…?
In my review of the Dior V&A exhibition, I mentioned how Christian Dior revolutionised the post-war fashion scene by rejecting the previously established standards of dressing. It would be no exaggeration to say that to Poland, Moda Polska was what the House of Dior was to the world. There’s an absolutely fantastic quiz where you can see if you can distinguish their creations from those of world-renowned fashion designers.
I have to admit that I made a few mistakes and it jolted a wave of shame inside of me. The designs of Moda Polska rivalled those presented on the international catwalks and yet, until I picked up that issue of Vogue, I’d never heard of the company before. In all the years of reading fashion magazines and news outlets, the name somehow never came up. I felt determined to dedicate this post to Moda Polska in the hopes that more people would be introduced to the brand that shaped the Polish fashion industry and become as fascinated as I was.
In order to understand the phenomenon of Moda Polska, we need to assess the post-war history of the country and how it intertwined with the advent of its fashion industry. After the outbreak of World War II, fashion-conscious Polish women were forced to give up their elegant apparel for more practical, often recycled garments.
Polish People’s Republic
The post-war socialist realism era failed to bring about much change. In 1947, when Christian Dior took the fashion world by storm with the introduction of his legendary New Look, Polish fashion was still tainted with austerity and scarcity. Women were advised to dress practically and modestly to be in line with the Polish People’s Republic’s ideal of the female worker. Inspired by foreign fashion magazines, they wanted to spruce up their wardrobes and wear flattering clothing and feminine gowns. They would teach themselves how to sew, while magazines around the country provided tips on how to create new clothes from old or substitute materials, including blankets, curtains, maps, and even parachutes.
The establishment of Moda Polska
And that’s where Moda Polska comes in… The fashion house was established back in 1958 as a state-owned enterprise, due to the economic and political conditions at the time. Its first manager, Jadwiga Grabowska, assumed the mission to “reconstruct the Polish woman”. She came from a wealthy family and was personally acquainted with Coco Chanel who influenced her taste and vision as a fashion designer.
Moda Polska collections
Moda Polska created two types of collections – haute couture inspired by Parisian catwalks and ready-to-wear clothing sold in a nationwide chain of shops. Each piece came with a hefty price tag, so being able to own one epitomised luxury. Their made-to-measure clothes were worn by the wives of the world’s most prominent communist politicians, for whom special mini fashion shows were also organised.
Admittedly, the company was in a privileged position – each season, Jadwiga Grabowska was able to travel to Paris in order to bring back the freshest fabric samples, accessories and inspirations from fashion shows. The collections they created were gigantic, often comprising 500 pieces each.
Once she left her position, the design studio was taken over by Jerzy Antkowiak, a charismatic designer who was known for rejecting unconventional design. Running a fashion enterprise in the Polish People’s Republic was far from easy – he had to answer to a very strict administrative staff who controlled the choice and use of fabrics, as well as the expenditures for fashion shows.
Despite these struggles, he managed to lead Moda Polska through the crisis-ridden 1980s, when nothing was readily available and shops were characterised by long lines and empty shelves. Back in 1982, when Poland was under martial law, he designed a collection that went down in the history of Polish fashion. As it was impossible to gain access to fabrics and fashion journals at the time, he chose materials typically used in tent production and complemented the collection with models’ own garments and accessories.
Moda Polska in the free market economy
Sadly, the company did not survive the economic change, as it struggled to operate in the free market economy. When it was closed down in 1998, Antkowiak purchased all the remaining artefacts from the receiver and kept them in the basement of his home. They did not see the light of day until his 80th birthday party in 2015, when they were discovered by the guests and the idea for this exhibition was born.
The exhibition was spread across two floors. Being on the top floor felt like taking a peek in the backstage of the company’s atelier. It presented the entire history of Moda Polska, from the company’s inception to its collapse in 1998 and highlighted the influence of political conditions on its operation. It showed different visions of the fashion house’s subsequent fashion designers, with Antkowiak at the forefront. There was also a pre-war mirror that once stood in the office of Jadwiga Grabowska and appeared in many photos of models trying on clothes. There were also various other items on display, including cups designed by Antkowiak and invitations to Parisian fashion shows.
The lower floor felt like a catwalk, with a range of evening gowns, perfectly-tailored jackets and other garments displayed on platforms. The walls were lined with sketches, drawings and newspaper clippings, while the centrepiece of the room was the neon sign that used to grace the shopfront in Wrocław for years. As we were making our way around the room, we found out that one of the visitors, an elderly lady, was a former model for the company. The guide pointed to some of her photos that were on display, which led us to think about what an emotional journey it must have been for her to see her young self on the museum walls.
Overall, the exhibition provided great insight into what the Polish fashion scene could have looked like had it not been for the country’s turbulent history. I strongly believe that if the economic and political reality had been different, Moda Polska could have gone on to become an internationally recognised fashion powerhouse.
“If fashion did not change, it would not make for a worthwhile pursuit. Therefore, the comparison of fashion with transience of time seems closest to the truth.” – Jerzy Antkowiak, 1993
What do you think about these designs? And if you took the quiz, how well did you do? Feel free to share your thoughts below!