Muscovites who wandered into GUM, the USSR’s premier department store, one weekend in June 1959 were treated to an extraordinary scene: a trio of willowy French models, dressed in vibrantly colored suits, greeting shoppers and posing for commissioned photographers—LIFE’s Howard Sochurek among them.
The models parading through Moscow that day were in the Russian capital ahead of a five-night Christian Dior fashion show. Yves Saint Laurent had recently taken over the brand’s Parisian atelier and reimagined the seductive “New Look” for which the House of Dior had been known. Gone were the corseted jackets, crinolined ballerina skirts and towering stilettos, replaced instead with practical blazers, loose skirts and shorter kitten heels.
While Dior was undergoing its transformation, so too was the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier who envisioned a more liberal, dynamic future for his country. The world of Soviet fashion would not be exempt from “Khrushchev’s Thaw,” as the government brokered person-to-person exchanges with Western design houses to help revitalize the Soviet fashion industry, and French couturiers like Dior were especially coveted as guests.
Of all the designers to pierce the Iron Curtain during the 1950s, Saint Laurent’s Dior paired most harmoniously with Soviet reality. After all, the newly refashioned “New Look,” with its functionalist philosophy, embodied the socialist-realist trope that form should follow function, that art should accommodate reality, and that the masses—rather than the elites—should determine what it meant to be “cultured.”
Yana Skorobogatov is a doctoral student studying history at the University of California, Berkeley.