This story is over 5 years old.


I Was the Only Top Model in Communist Romania

For Romaniţa Iovan, fashion was once literally a dictatorship.

”Moda” magazine didn't have an employed photographer, only contributors. Dinu Lazăr is, in fact, a movie director.

If I learnt anything from popular culture, it was that any country that dabbled with communism was MISERABLE. Everything was built from concrete and soil and people had to marry tractors. So, I wasn't wildly surprised when I heard that the communist era hadn't been a great time for Romanian fashion.


The fashion industry, like all other busineses, was run by the state. Clothes were sold at one store, Romarta. Romrata only stocked clothes made by craftsmen’s unions with catchy names, like UCECOM (The National Union of Craftsmen’s Cooperatives) and UCMB (the Bucharest Union of Craftsmen’s Cooperatives). And these unions only sourced used materials from one state-owned supplier.

Still, a tiny bubble of glamour was allowed to float almost freely above all this: the government employed a crack squad of 25 models who, together with a select few designers, were involved in the biannual fashion shows. All the models were equal, but one was more equal than the others, and she was called Romaniţa Iovan.

I met her on a rainy morning at her office.

VICE: It's pretty amazing to meet you. How come you became a model?
Romanita Iovan: When I was in college, I accidentally saw a casting call for models in a paper. A girl was leaving her job to marry abroad and they needed to replace her promptly for an upcoming show with someone of the same size. I happened to fit. Afterwards, I attended a final competition for the job – the only competition I heard of throughout the communist regime. It was a rather subjective selection process by a jury consisting of the committee’s chief accountant, its economic manager and the editor-in-chief of Moda magazine, who was the only person who had anything to do with fashion.


They were interested in your social status and your relation with the state security – you could only travel abroad if you had a clean file. We were part of an international Socialist system and we worked a lot in former commie countries, like the Democratic Republic of Germany, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

What was it like being allowed into this tiny oasis of freedom?
At that time, UCECOM resided in a beautiful residence, which consisted of several villas. It was nicknamed The Ministry of Cooperatives and it was very different to the grey world most people were living in. Even during Communism, the fashion world was really colourful. We had a security guard keeping us under surveillance, but it was a small price to pay. How were the designers selected?
Even if there was a selection scheme, it was never applied. As far as I know, the designers were the same throughout the Communist years. They launched two collections annually, made from fabrics produced exclusively by Romanian suppliers. The clothes were not meant for consumption; they were samples made to promote next year’s trends to cooperatives that were then free to select what they wanted to produce for the mass market, which would then be sold at Romarta.

Romanița (center) and photographer Dinu Lazăr, wh =o used to bring his own tent to shoots so models could change in private. Were there any censored garments?
If they censored anything, they did so at the sketch stage. If a drawing failed to please, it was adjusted until it was accepted. Not much was censored, though; we were allowed to have low cut tops, skirts so short they reached up to the middle of our thighs and skin-tight clothes. They never forbade us to wear any particular piece of clothing on the catwalk, but, after a while, they prohibited jewellery to promote modesty. The products designed for export were different. When we went to presentations in Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union, we always brought clothes that were more austere. Were there any sources of inspiration?
UCECOM had a research library that was subscribed to 50 fashion magazines from non-communist countries and 70 from communist states. There was plenty of info there that was unavailable anywhere else. The weekly schedule for designers and models alike included one day of library research.


Romanița (left) during a fashion shoot for Moda magazine. Today, fashion designers are genuine superstars. What was their status during communism?
No one acknowledged a specific designer. A cooperative team included several designers and the fashion show was presented by the union, which placed no importance whatsoever upon the individuality of the designer. They all had precise roles: some only designed garments, others designed knitwear and others focused on shoes. They also got private orders, aside from their government work, which contributed to their income. Yet, their major satisfaction consisted of the right to pick their models, and the best of them had a priority.

Romanița wearing her own clothes in a Romanian Airlines advert. What was it like being a model during Communism?
As there were only 25 of us throughout the country, there was no modelling school. We were basically self-taught. We practiced the runway walk, learned how to style our hair and do our own makeup and smuggled in professional products from abroad through someone who knew someone who had a relative who had an arrangement somewhere. But it was a real profession; my union card said “Model – fashion presenter”. How were models paid?
We had a six-hour schedule, unlike everyone else who had to work for eight hours. The wage was the same for designers and models alike and our collaboration with the cooperatives was permanent, which meant we were paid monthly, even if they didn’t need us. There were also advantages, like free cards for beauty care.


Another shot from Moda. How were fashion shows organised?
They lasted for three days and were held at Bucharest’s only luxury hotel, the Intercontinental Hotel. It was the only hotel that accommodated international tourists. There were morning shows for fashion experts and then evening shows for special guests. The shows lasted for over an hour and always started with folklore-inspired stuff. Foreign music was prohibited; they mainly played Aura Urziceanu. How do you feel today about your time as a model during communism?
Those were the best years of my life and the experience helped me discover my skills as a fashion designer. But I am glad that we were able to open up to the wider world.

More fashion under weird circumstances:

What to Wear in North Korea

Hair Police

Cambodian Couture