Beneath the Spy Costumes, ‘Black Widow’ Tries to Nail 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.

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