While stories about Russian myths and legends seem inexhaustible, one of the non-myths and must-know information is regarding the way the Russian people dress up: Russians, and especially women in this country, seem to always be ready for any event at any time. As a student at a prestigious university in Russia, I assumed that the dress code of the university was just an exception compared to that of the rest of the country. MGIMO is known for educating the future diplomatic core of Russia so it seems more natural that the female students dress up in beautiful dresses and seem to have spent at least 3 hours on their looks before even daring to make the journey to university. But on asking around to fellow Russian students, I learned that it is not just the students at MGIMO, but all Russians who dress up like they are going to a nightclub or a gala on a regular basis. A walk on the street in any Russian city from Moscow to Vladivostok, on a beautiful sunny day or in the heaviest snowstorm, one cannot overlook the way Russians dress.
In the summer of 2012, I was meeting my Dutch friend and his Belarusian girlfriend in Klaipeda, Lithuania. We were about to go bowling. After a quick shower and a simple outfit, I was ready to go. Thinking I was the last person to get ready since everyone was dressed I walked towards the door to go, but to my surprise his Belarusian girlfriend insisted that she could not just go out in something simple such as a pair of jeans and a shirt. At least an hour later she was finally ready to go, but not just ready to play a simple game of bowling, if you told me it was for some important meeting I would have believed it too. While it is of course none of my business to judge, I was just amazed about how a simple activity such as a game of bowling could require looking top-notch. But those with the more attentive eye will notice that people from Russia, or any former soviet country, will be never seen outside in simple flip-flops, shorts and t-shirt on the street, like I would prefer to wear in the summer. Leather jackets for the men with black (leather) shoes next to girls on high heels and a dress or skirt often reveals the descent of the two. While I personally can only respect those who are putting more effort into matters than others, the question remains why people in Russia tend to put more effort in the way they dress in comparison with the West?
I asked this question at university, and to Russian friends to find out whether there is a reason for the difference in fashion. When I asked girls about it, they answered, “Because we like to look beautiful”. This was not satisfying enough to me. Who does not like to look beautiful? An answer that seems to come closer to the truth was that Russian women compete with other women over men. The more beautiful they dress, the higher the chances of finding a man. But does that mean that Russian men also dress up to compete with other men? An answer to my question that perhaps lies more in the middle is that dressing up nicely opens up doors, or in other words, dressing up nicely makes both the person that is well-dressed as well as the person who looks at that person feel more positive towards him/her. Russians want to look good because it makes them feel good about themselves, but also because it is in a certain way respectful towards others.
But do all Russians put more effort in their way of looking than Westerners? There is no difference in the dress code between Western and Russian politicians, bankers and so on. Also, on the Internet there are a lot of pictures and videos going around about how Russians dress up such as the great affection towards wearing Adidas clothes which one can relate to as a less formal way to get dressed than the dresses of the woman and the leather jackets of the men as mentioned before. But in general you will see the group that is more formally dressed is the majority and in Russian daily life, whether it is while doing your groceries or going to university, it seems like most Russians are ready to go straight to a gala dinner straight after they are done with the daily routines.
So is it important as a Westerner to adjust your way of dressing while coming to Russia? Since Russia is known for its more extreme winters, dressing up in the winter seems not to matter as long as you keep yourself warm. One tip that might come in handy is that you take shoes with you that are either black or can resist the strong chemical salt that is thrown on snow. Other than that, blending in seems easier than it is in summer or when you are going to take off your coat (for instance when you enter university, go visit a friend). For those occasions, slightly more formal dressing will make you blend in. But even if you do not want to adjust your way of style, you can at least enjoy the efforts of others!
ph: Sasha Saharnaya