This is Chapter 4 of my series The World of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale.” Earlier chapters can be found here.
I had set myself the pleasant task this week of writing about the early 20th century clothing store in Ryazan, Russia, where Yakov Kull worked as a shop manager. What followed was a lot of detective work of the kind that gets me excited, but doesn’t always resolve all my questions. The answers get closer, but at the same time coquettishly move farther away, drawing me deeper in.
For now I’ll present a “progress report” on the intriguing issues that have billowed up as I’ve searched for Yakov Kull and his brother Ber, who worked in the same shop. Maybe some one out there will read it and be able to part some of the mist surrounding this entire project on the world of Jews “Beyond the Pale” in Ryazan. Whether or not that happens, my search will continue for more stories about the lives of these Ryazaners.
The shop where Yakov Kull worked sold men’s and womens’ ready-to-wear clothes, a fairly recent phenomenon at that time. The Kull brothers worked in a new field, as it were, moving beyond the 19th century world in which poorer people made their own clothing and more well-to-do Russians had theirs custom-sewn for them by dressmakers and tailors. According to one article,
“In the early 20th century, Ryazan had only two clothing boutiques and one fashion atelier. These institutions were able to meet the needs of all the Ryazan dandies (men and women).”
This article described one Ryazan ready-to-wear shop, that of Madame Gelyassen, where the fashionable new “tailored suits” for women appeared in 1906. The ready-to-wear suits consisted of a jacket and skirt, in both summer and winter fabrics. The winter versions were made
“of inexpensive, practical fabrics in dark tones – broadcloth, wool. The summer suit was made of silk, cotton linen or duck, the edges trimmed with lace braid. Women of the intelligentsia and emancipated Ryazan women preferred dressing in these suits.
“In the first decade of the 20th century, a third element of the suit began to be sold: the blouse, which had to be lighter than the skirt and trimmed with lace.
“The suits of women who came from the villages to work in production were called ‘parochki:’ a fitted women’s jacket and flared skirt of the same fabric. It combined the traditions of Russian folk costumes and European city fashion. On the bodice of the jacket there was usually a lace insert.
“In the cold season, women wore capes – short fur capes often with a hood or a coat over their suits.”
So the clientele of Madame Gelyassen’s ready-to-wear shop appears to have been both educated women and rural women who came into the city to work in some kind of production.
In fact, the description of “parochki” worn by the latter sounds very close to women in a painting I just finished of Russian peasants. To the right is a detail of my painting, which is based on old Russian photos from the time period. The entire painting can be seen here.
It seems very possible that Madame Gelyassen’s was the ready-to-wear shop where the brothers Kull worked. I would love to know stories of their interactions with customers of various backgrounds who came into the shop looking for one of the versions of these suits. What were the daily dramas of the Kull brothers’ lives in the ready-to-wear shop?
One group of women who continued to have their clothing custom-made, as opposed to buying ready-to-wear, were the very wealthy. These women rushed to the latest styles when a new fashion, influenced by Art Nouveau, became all the rage in Ryazan, according to designer Elena Kroshkin. These were high-waisted clothes, with fabric in “a great wave from the bodice down,” and “asymmetrical lace draperies, swirling in a spiral around the figure.”
The Kull brothers must have been very aware of their near-competitor, Wulfson’s atelier, where clothes were made to order for wealthy clients. I wonder what the brothers thought of Wulfson’s and his business. Did they envy it or think it was over the top? Or some of both? According to one description,
“The girls stood in a queue for [the new Art Nouveau styles] at Wulfson’s – the German tailor, whose atelier was located on Seminary Street…. A month or two before each ball at the Noblemen’s Assembly Hall, the number of orders at the couturier’s increased significantly. The atelier sewed 20 dresses a month, and up to 30 ready-made dresses, brought from Moscow, taken in and adjusted to the figures of the capricious Ryazan ladies. For the “puffy” [presumably fatter] ladies, Wulfson made a special insert….
“Wulfson sewed shot silk, translucent chiffon, tulle with bright patterns and gauze in pale shades. He purchased these fabrics in Moscow. The finery was supplemented with collars of ostrich and cockerel feathers, silver and golden lace.”
Will the real Ryazan ready-to-wear shop please stand up?
I would love to find a photo of a ready-to-wear clothing shop in Ryazan – above all the one where the Kull brothers worked. Photos of the shop would set the scene for us to envision the Kull brothers’ daily-life stories.
But the closest I’ve come after a week of searching has been photos of three ready-to-wear shops in other Russian cities at the beginning of the 20th century. I’ve been wondering and debating with myself which of the three might have been more like our Ryazan shop. Which would be closest to the setting in which Yakov and Ber lived out their everyday comedies and tragedies?
The first photo is of an elegant-looking shop (left side of photo above) in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk, on the White Sea along Russia’s long arctic coast. This photo could easily be mistaken for one of the very upscale streets in Ryazan. Notice the fancy awnings at the windows in the Arkhangelsk shop. The structures on the sidewalks are electric poles of the same type seen on some Ryazan streets as well (see Ryazan photo below).
Leon Kull, great grandson of Yakov Kull, sent me links to two other wonderful photos of ready-to-wear shops in different Russian cities:
Which of these three ready-to-wear shops most closely resembled the one where the Kull brothers worked? The elegant stone building in Arkhangelsk? The freestanding wooden building in Perm? Or the Novosibirsk shop with its unusal Art Nouveau signage? At this point I can’t say for sure. I can only continue following clues which will hopefully bring us closer, not farther away, from history’s truth.
One clue we can pursue is location. According to the article quoted above, both Wulfson’s couture atelier and Mme Gelyassen’s ready-to-wear shop were on Seminary Street, in the northwest quadrant of the city of Ryazan. I don’t have a photo of any obvious shopping areas on Seminary Street. There were both stone and wooden houses along this street, possibly fitting any of the three photos above.
However, Mme Gelyassen’s was on the corner with Cathedral Street (Соборная улица). And Sobornaya was one of the trendy shopping streets in Ryazan. As one author wrote:
“Ryazan city slickers at the beginning of the 20th century bypassed the New Bazaar area. They preferred the ‘trendy shops’ of Postal, Astrakhan, and Cathedral Streets to peasant stalls. In New Bazaar square, the major dealers and buyers were Ryazan peasants.”
This description of Cathedral Street sounds more like one of the first two photos. So perhaps we should envision the Kull brothers ensconced there. (For a photo of another of the three trendy streets listed here, see the the photo of Postal Street above.) Since both educated women and newly-arrived rural girls were listed among Mme Gelyassen’s customers, we would have to imagine that only the most successful of these new immigrants to the city would have been able to afford to shop on this fashionable street.
However, if the Kull brothers worked at a different ready-to-wear shop than Mme Gelyassen’s, our imagined picture may shift a bit closer to the third photo. For according to the same author, New Bazaar’s trading square also included ready-to-wear shops:
“There were whole rows of small boutiques around the square at the beginning of the 20th century. ‘On New Bazaar square and its surrounding streets various goods were sold,’ describes historian Elena Kir’yanova. Here is was possible to find, in addition to grocery shops, ready-to-wear clothing shops and footwear. Here there were haberdashery and leather shops; the first shops appeared for books, candy and even tea. The trade stalls were adorned with womens hats and handbags. More than five hundred types of goods were sold in the retail stalls of New Bazaar.”
Perhaps less-affluent people, including those just arriving from the countryside, bought their ready-to-wear clothing in New Bazaar, while hoping to eventually make enough money to shift to shopping on trendier streets. And perhaps at some point in the future, we will discover which type was where the Kull brothers worked.