black-widow-and-the-riddle-of-post-soviet-style

Black Widow and the Riddle of Post-Soviet Style

When the revolution swept Paris in May, 1968, Jany Temime tore away from her studies at Paris Nanterre University. “I was on the barricades, I was throwing stones, and I had so much fun,” she says. “We wanted to fight against the bourgeoisie, we wanted to change the world.” After police beat protesting crowds, students dug cobblestones up from the sandy sidewalks and began pelting the cops. In solidarity with the students, more than 10 million workers walked out on the largest general strike France has ever seen. President Charles De Gaulle left the country, before returning to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections. For many of the students, life would never be the same. “If not for 1968, I would have become a teacher of Latin,” Temime says. “My studies were sort of aborted after being so bad on the barricades against the French government. So I had to change. I became somebody else.” She went to work for French Elle, then took up costume designing. 53 years after her revolution, Temime has created costumes for the Harry Potter series, the James Bond films, and, now, Black Widow. “I’m still a leftist person, of course,” she says, “but I will not throw stones anymore. I work for Marvel.”

As much as Black Widow provides the superhero backstory for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, it’s also a film about a group of former Soviet people, the spy family that Romanoff grew up with, trying to understand, and pummel their way through, the complex legacies of their vanished homeland. Temime is part of the first wave of Western costume designers really trying to understand the unique dreams and styles of post-Soviet people. Her efforts are in the more fantastical context of a superhero movie than, say, Suzie Harman’s work on Death of Stalin, or Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s on Chernobyl, but she’s just as thoughtful. Previous generations have imagined the Soviet world as a gray, lifeless place. Doctor Zhivago shows an opulent pre-revolutionary Imperial Russia where the walls of every apartment look like they’re borrowed from a Romanov palace. Then the Revolution happens and somehow all the intricately designed walls are immediately dilapidated. Suddenly the whole screen is gray.

Rachel Weisz in Black Widow.

Courtesy of Disney+

“Soviet society was a do-it-yourself society,” says Iuliia Papushina, an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics in Perm, Russia, who studies the history of Soviet fashion and facepalms at most of the clothes in Cold War American movies set in the Soviet Union. There were clothes available in the stores and a massive centralized fashion system was meant to design them, but in practice few of the thousands of designs they turned out every year made it into production. Garment factory bosses tended to favor easier cuts and cheaper fabrics to make sure they hit production quotas. The government was well aware that people needed skills to alter these shoddily mass produced clothes. “I used to have classes in school where we learned to sew,” says Olga Gurova, an associate professor at Aalborg University in Denmark who grew up in Siberia and studies the Soviet fashion system. “Soviet culture was all about how to create a thing, how to decorate a thing, how to make it personal, how to customize the thing, how to make it a little bit more unique,” she says. “There were lots of tactics people tried to make themselves a little bit more fashionable.” Soviet fashion magazines regularly printed knitting patterns so readers could reuse the yarn from their out of style knitwear to make something new and cool.

But when the Soviet Union fell apart, so did its centralized fashion system. “New magazines appeared, such as Cosmopolitan, which portrayed a glossy life,” says Gurova, “but life wasn’t glossy in real time.” As Turkish and Chinese mass-produced clothes flooded the Russian market, former Soviet citizens had to reconfigure their relationship to clothes. “People got used to the idea that clothes that come from abroad are of better quality. This was a paradigm in the heads of Soviet people,” Gurova says. “It collapsed when people actually faced the fact that these clothes would just fall apart immediately.” Temime saw Rachel Weisz’s character—the matriarch of the spy family who herself was raised in a Soviet spy school—as a true Soviet person who outlived her country. The way she dressed Weisz was distantly inspired by a look in La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s Maoist exploration of ‘60s student politics. Godard wasn’t the only influence on how Temime dressed the character for her semi-retired life, with a job psychologically conditioning pigs. “I was thinking about an early Russian Revolutionary work poster,” she says. “[Weisz’s character] was somebody who believed—you could feel it in her eyes, in the way she is, in the way she dresses—she really believed in the ideology. She grew up thinking that she had to save the Soviet Union.” Then the Soviet Union was gone, and she had to find a way to keep afloat without its ideals to guide her.

Not everybody was subjected to this disillusionment. Near the beginning of Black Window, Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov wears an expensive tracksuit and a pricey watch when he greets the young Natasha Romanoff and her family in Cuba in 1995, after they’ve had to flee Ohio, having been pegged as spies. “I wanted him to look very nouveau riche,” Temime says. “The first thing he did, in my head, was burn his uniform and buy something to make him look like he belonged to a very expensive marina or yacht club.” The effect of his gaudy new getup, like the clumsy luxury of the oligarchs who came to power in Russia in the ‘90s, was to spit on the efforts of true believers, like Weisz’s character. “This is what I wanted for the first image of Dreykov,” says Temime, “to show that it was all bullshit. All their suffering was actually for nothing.” We next see Dreykov 21 years later. Now the central antagonist, he’s wearing a three piece suit and a dark shirt with the top buttons undone. “This guy wants so much to be one of the grande, one of the presidents, and in a way behind his desk, he is,” says Temime, ”but the black shirt means that he didn’t get there yet. He’s still a little gangster.”

Between the spy suits, David Harbour in a slightly more realistic—or at least rumpled—look.

Courtesy of Disney+

The most pared down political construct in Black Widow is David Harbour’s Red Guardian. “When I designed his costume, I wanted to do an imitation, of course, of Captain America, but it couldn’t be Captain Russia,” Temime says. “I made it a little bit pathetic, not because the character is pathetic, but because I thought that the USSR must have had less extremely good fabric or material, or that it would have looked a little cheaper. It was not cheap — trust me, it wasn’t cheap — but a little bit cheaper than Captain America. It was like a pale, hand-made version of Captain America. That was the spirit of that costume.” If that sounds like lingering Cold War rhetoric, Temime allows that there may be something to that. “Marvel is an American product,” she says. “It’s an American point of view of the Soviet Union.” And if Black Widow isn’t exactly a capacious depiction of post-Soviet people, well, what’s an accurate post-Soviet superhero anyway? “It is a little bit cartoonish,” she says, “but it’s very symbolic.”

But even Temime’s sharp analysis points to one of the remaining blind spots of contemporary American movies set in the Soviet and post-Soviet world. “Every bit of post-Soviet space is being treated as a purely political space,” says Michael Idov, a screenwriter and director of Russian films, former Editor-in-Chief of GQ Russia, and writer for this magazine. “Because being tied to Moscow and being tied to Putin is what defines Russianness in the eyes of the US and Hollywood. There is no real understanding that there’s a Russian identity that’s actually not geographically tied to Russia, a Russian cultural identity. And we, as Russian-Americans, don’t do nearly enough to ask for that.”

Hollywood’s twentieth century record does have at least one bright spot in this regard. The Robin Williams comedy-drama Moscow on the Hudson is the Cold War American movie post-Soviet people tend to point to as having gotten the most right, or, the least wrong, about the realities of their lives. It features the work of two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Albert Wolsky, whose parents left the Soviet Union in the early ‘30s, when travel in and out of the country was less restricted. “During the ‘30s, my father would go back and forth to see his family in Moscow,” says the 90-year-old, “it wasn’t that big a deal.” In the late ‘50s, Wolsky took his own trip to the Soviet Union. “It was snowing,” he remembers, “it was stunning.” But he didn’t rely exclusively on memories when designing costumes for the Soviet portions of Moscow on the Hudson. He dove into research, consulting costumers’ libraries, and pulling as much reference material as he could. The core insight he had, and that so many generations of American costume designers have missed, is that Soviet people were individuals and they dressed like it. “I’d never thought of it as just a bunch of gray clothes,” he says. “What you look for is a feeling for who these people are. That’s what makes it different. If they’re wearing a sweater, it’s probably been hand knitted. That’s why it looks the way it looks.”

Robin Williams and Maria Conchita Alonso in 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson, a high water mark for Russian costume design.

Archive Photos

The new wave of costume designers working on Soviet and post-Soviet set films and TV shows have assimilated that understanding. “Each character that we did definitely had his own little way of wearing things,” says Suzie Harman, Costume Designer on The Death of Stalin, “and it’s not just the main characters. It’s every single person.” This, in part, is the result of looking at photographs of how Soviet people wore their clothes—actually looking, not just imagining a far-off other. “We found this one reference of Red Army soldiers hanging out and smoking and just being boys,” Harman says, “they had literally pulled the bagginess of their tunic round to the back, so it almost looked like pleating and it was nice and tight at the front.” She says director Armando Ianucci loved these sartorial Potemkin villages and they made it into the film. Harman’s colleague Odile Dicks-Mireaux made a further leap into authenticity with her work on HBO’s Chernobyl. “I honestly think Chernobyl is the game changer that throws the previous 30 years of Russia-set movies into relief as being pretty half-assed,” says Idov. A big factor in the show’s success, Dicks-Mireaux says, is the fact that they filmed in Lithuania, where the memory of Soviet style lives on. “There was a kind of boldness in some things, but that was a bit clumsy,” she says of the style she discovered for a new audience. “It had a sort of strange charm. I can’t explain it, but it did.”

And while Black Widow might be one of the biggest looks yet for post-Soviet style, it’s still part of a carefully regulated cinematic universe. “I have been trying to put some realism in Marvel,” Temime says, “as much as I could.” Black Widow gestures at the limits of its genre when Natasha Romanoff watches Moonraker, the movie in which James Bond and Jaws, the steel-toothed killer, fight on a space station. But, on an emotional level, Temime’s revolutionary moment helped her understand that the characters in Black Widow aren’t just victims of history’s excesses. They’re people who fought for one dream, got sucked into another, and got hurt in the process. “That was the whole idea behind the film,” she says, “to make them human beings.”

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