As soon as Academia Gustaviana, the predecessor of the University of Tartu was founded in 1632, Tartu student fashion started to evolve.
Back then, students were mostly very poor. It wasn’t rare to see their overcoats and trousers were adorned with patches. However, there were some exceptions.
The university’s Pärnu period (1699–1710) knew one lavishly clad student who raised the ire of professors for his imitation of French courtier fashions. This trend-conscious student wore a brocaded jacket, knee-length trousers, silk stockings, a three-cornered hat on a wig of long curls, and sported a rapier.
In 1710, during the Northern War, the university was closed and reopened under the Russian Emperor Alexander I in 1802. There wasn’t much room for fashion in this new period, as students were obliged to wear military-style uniforms. Depending on the rector or curator at the time, the attitude toward uniforms was sometimes more liberal.
Until 1831, the dress code called for a dark blue frock coat with gold oak leaves embroidered on a black velvet collar, a billed cap and a grey baize overcoat with epaulets that extended to the elbows. Later the coat became dark green, the collar blue and two rows of gold buttons were sewn into the front of the jacket. On festive occasions, white trousers and a sword were part of the costume.
In 1861, during Tsar Alexander II’s rule, the dress code was abolished.
In the beginning of the 20th century, it was again compulsory to wear uniforms comprising a coat, jacket and hat. There were three types of jackets and the full uniform also included a short sword or dagger with a ‘gilded’ handle.
In general, Russian students gladly wore the uniform, while Estonians and Germans tried to avoid it at all costs. From time to time, students were ordered into the auditorium for uniform inspection.
A quick observation easily revealed whether a student was Russian, German or Estonian. Germans and Estonians wore a starched shirt with a pressed collar, and their hair was groomed. Russian students appeared malnourished, often poorly combed, most of them with moustaches and beards, and wearing an embroidered Russian-style shirt and knee-boots.
The tsarist uniform dress code was abolished in the ‘national university’ era. After the War of Independence, some young men wore military clothing because they had nothing else to wear. Being in the educated class, students were expected to dress in a gentlemanly manner, which meant a suit and tie.
European fashions reached the university primarily through the female students. When the first Estonian women were enrolled at the university, corsets were a thing of the past, and women wore dresses with extended waists that exposed their legs.
Hairstyles had become simpler – instead of long hair worn in a bun, women wore short, wavy hairstyles. Although smoking was not deemed proper for women, it did not prevent some from elegantly holding a cigarette.
After World War II and up until 1947, one could acquire underwear, hosiery, footwear and other goods based on vouchers, issued by the university trade union in limited quantities. Vouchers for footwear were particularly sought after.
The same dress or gown would be worn for years and often these were hand-me-downs from one’s family. Usually students had just one set of clothes to wear at school, work, or outings; only the collars and sleeves were replaced.
Despite difficult times, young people tried to keep up with fashion. Woven patterned vests and sweaters came into style, as did floral print silk dresses and wavy hair. Stylish male students wore suits with cashmere overcoats and a hat.
Western fashion trends started reaching Estonia again in 1960s, with somewhat of a lag. New styles of dresses appeared and bell-bottomed trousers were introduced. Hairstyles alternated between long and short.
No one had much clothing, and obtaining shoes was even more difficult. Students (or their parents) who were able to travel to Moscow, Leningrad or Riga were more fortunate. The really lucky ones had relatives abroad who sent packages.
Sewing was an indispensable skill for those who wanted to dress fashionably, as stores simply did not stock the latest outfits. Quite a few young men also learned to sew trousers, and provided the service to their fellow students. Knitting was fairly popular among girls, as this could be done while chatting with friends in the dorm.
By the end of the Soviet period, the clothing stores were still bare, and when ‘deficit’ items came in, the lines stretched around the block. Not every student had the time or inclination to stand in queues. Parents would do this for them, sometimes more worried about their children’s wardrobes than the students themselves.
The first second-hand shop opened in Tartu in 1993 and became very popular among students. Travel opportunities also became broader and clothes were bought abroad, while sewing at home declined.
This story draws on the exhibition at the UT History Museum entitled “Studying in style. Changing times, changing customs.” The exhibition will remain open until December 30, 2012.
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