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Sublime design: Varvara Stepanova’s unisex sports uniform

A utilitarian, no-waste ethos was at the heart of Stepanova’s fashion and design ideas. Designs by Stepanova in LEF magazine, 1923.

A peculiar thing happened in Russia in the early 1920s. Abstract art, often considered the pinnacle of elitism and high art, was instead employed by artists as a testing ground for ideas that promised to change society for the better.

In 1928, Russian artist Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) designed a unisex sports uniform with a striking geometric design that accentuated the movement of the athlete. With bold lines that echoed the jumping, running, ducking and weaving of its wearer, the boxy shape, utilitarian design and block colours precipitated the minimalist look of contemporary fashion labels such as Alpha 60, Kuwaii and Above.

Stepanova’s design was part of an experimental Russian art movement, constructivism, that aspired to no less than the revolution of society.

Constructivist imaginings

The constructivists’ abstract, geometric compositions were not created to explore space and material in a gallery but instead became models for new industrial designs. Artists used their skills and imagination for architecture, urban space, clothing, graphics and social activism.

Stepanova with her husband Alexander Rodchenko in the 1920s. Wikipedia Commons

The dream was a modern world where men and women from all walks of life could work productively, side by side, in an egalitarian society. “Composition” became “construction” and artists became artist-engineers. Many of these wild and wonderful ideas were never realised in mass production, and in fact could not be realised, based as they were on abstract dreaming rather than engineering principles.

The austere workings of Stalinism preferred realism and propaganda to the imaginings of the constructivists. And yet their spirit of art-making at the intersection of design, with a vision for social transformation, resonates strongly with the values of contemporary art today, particularly in the wake of what is known as the “social turn” or socially engaged art.

Stepanova’s design

Designs by Stepanova in LEF magazine, 1923.

Stepanova was a prolific and influential artist in the constructivist movement, a graphic artist and textile designer who championed principles of function, simplicity and respect for materials.

Stepanova’s design was characterised by a fundamental honesty; her textile prints drew attention to the material quality of fabric, including the weave of thread and the shape of the material in its simplest form. Her clothing design responded to how the body moves in space, considering the function of the clothing above aesthetics – with no superfluous elements that might detract from the pure fundamentals of how the fabric and garment would be used.

This utilitarian, no-waste ethos was at the heart of Stepanova’s ideas about “construction”. Stepanova created uniforms for specialist workers, actors and athletes, each designed to best accommodate the physical movements of the wearer. Strong geometric lines emphasised the garment’s structure including the seams, pockets, buttons, fabric bias and weave.

The results were striking with bold colour contrasts and optical flickers in the fabric print that force us to look again and more closely. The finished items were theatrical in spite of their strict logic, partly because of the literal intentions and partly because of the almost absurd link between abstract art and useful design.

Sustainability in fashion design

Stepanova poses in sports clothes of her own design, 1923.

Why would such humble design principles resonate nearly a century later? At the core of Stepanova’s design is a quality that is of increasing importance today – sustainability. In fashion, sustainability is linked to the use of garments. The more useful a garment is, the more likely we will keep it, repair it, sustain it.

In Stepanova’s textiles, the print reminds us that the fabric has been woven together, the seams remind us that pieces of fabric have been sewn together, and the geometric lines remind us of the ways in which the fabric will bend, flex and move with our body in space.

Considering the origins, the process and the endurance of a garment makes us more likely to care about who made it and the conditions of its production. We are more inclined to spend money to ensure a living wage is paid to those who produce it, and we are more likely to take the care to hand wash, dry clean, repair and care for that garment in the long term.

At the time Stepanova was designing, issues of environmental sustainability were only a shadow on the horizon. What was at stake for the constructivists was human sustainability – care for workers, respect for people across class divisions, opportunities for women, a society that could provide equally for all.

Stepanova’s sports uniform was stylish in its simplicity, bold in its utilitarian design, playful and functional. And in this recipe we find the ingredients for sustainable fashion today.

Read more articles in the Sublime Design series.

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