Revolutionary spirit and folk motives: Legendary actress Alisa Koonen’s dress

Revolutionary spirit and folk motives: Legendary actress Alisa Koonen’s dress
An ethnic style dress, 1920s. Cotton fabric, handmade lace, embroidery. From the collection of the Museum of Moscow
This mos.ru article reveals facts about the friendship between a great actress and a great fashion designer, links between Western fashion and Socialist ideals, and tea towels that were transformed into a dress.

The new hero of the History of Things column is an ethnic style dress manufactured in the 1920s. Almost a century ago, this dress belonged to actress, People’s Artist of the RSFSR Alisa Koonen, the wife of Russian theatre legend Alexander Tairov. Between 1914 and 1949, Koonen worked at the Tairov Chamber Theatre (renamed the Pushkin Moscow Drama Theatre in 1950). She was the theatre’s lead actress; her talent allowed her to successfully perform not only dramatic roles but comic ones, too.

The actress was also famous for her beauty and impeccable taste. Her clothes are preserved today in museums and private collections.

Alisa Koonen and Nadezhda Lamanova, one of the most famous Moscow fashion designers of that time, were longtime friends. The actress had many dresses made in Lamanova’s studio. This dress was probably made there. It was in a very poor condition when it arrived at the museum, but was given a new lease of life by experts.

An ethnic style dress, 1920s. Cotton fabric, handmade lace, embroidery. From the collection of the Museum of Moscow

Lamanova was one of the originators of the Russian and Soviet fashion of the 20th century and was the Supplier of His Imperial Majesty’s Court. After the revolution, she designed plain clothing for common people, as well as costumes for films by Sergei Eisenstein, Grigory Aleksandrov and Yakov Protazanov.

During the New Economic Policy era, Soviet Russia learned about foreign fashion, but its position was uncertain. Nadezhda Lamanova tried to connect foreign trends and Socialist ideals using ethnic motives to create a new style. At that time, the state was not able to set up production of quality garments, and Lamanova urged artists to create beautiful pieces from simple fabrics. She suggested creating clothes with details such as eye-catching features and  preferably folk motives as these patterns were valued in Soviet Russia for their ideological neutrality. In 1925, Lamanova was awarded the Grand Prize at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris.

The silhouette of this dress is a simple rectangular, and the fabric is very humble – large tea towels. The intricate embroidery was designed by sculptor and artist Vera Mukhina and Lamanova’s student, goddaughter and probably niece Nadezhda Makarova. Despite the peasant-looking style of the dress, it was definitely influenced by European fashion of the early 1920s.

Alisa Koonen’s dress is displayed at the From the Museum Collection: Museum Workers’ Choice exhibition. Employees from various departments of the Museum of Moscow selected pieces from the museum’s collection to assemble the display.

For more stories about the items at the Museum of Moscow collection, see our The History of Things project