Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999

O F F  T H E  C O A S T  O F  B O H E M I A:
A Touch of Class?
Reflections on the Czech 'tracksuit culture'

Sean Hanley

After I had lived in the Czech Republic for a few years, my parents started to worry at certain strange changes in my behaviour when I visited them in England: ritually taking my shoes off at the front door immediately upon entering the house; complaining quite unreasonably about the infrequency of the local bus service; and interrupting conversations with bizarre questions like 'so how many kilometres is that?' It was all most worrying.

Most worrying of all for my parents, however, was my newly acquired habit of walking around indoors and in the garden in an old blue tracksuit, despite not apparently having taken up jogging or any other sporting activity. My mother, a worker in the community mental health service for twenty years, started observing me with a careful, professional eye, obviously wondering if the pressures of living in Central Europe were getting too much for her son.

The truth, more prosaically, of course, is that I had inadvertently picked up some local customs - not the least of them being an attachment to the tracksuit as an all purpose item of home and garden wear.

As elsewhere in the former socialist bloc good quality clothes were relatively expensive in Czechoslovakia before 1989. And, while improved in quality, they have remained pretty costly for the average person with an average wage after 1989. In this respect, the tracksuit is as much a symbol of the old socialist world and its post-Communist afterlife as Trabants or the rows upon rows of unsightly tower blocks. But this is not quite the whole story. The Russians, for example, have significantly lower living standards than the Czechs but usually reserve their tracksuits for long train journeys or digging potatoes down at the dacha; however, you are unlikely to see them much in evidence in supermarkets, health spas or post offices as is often the case in the Czech Republic.

Do Czechs then have some special attachment to their tracksuits - the ubiquitous teplaky? Czech cultural historian Josef Kroutor, for one, certainly thinks so. In an interview with the news magazine Reflex in 1995, Dr Kroutor bemoaned the uncouthness of his fellow citizens and their teplakova kultura or 'tracksuit culture', which he contrasted elegiacally with the 'social elegance, norms of behaviour and rules of conversation' of interwar Czechoslovakia.

Ah yes, Czechs have no class. They are basically a nation of peasants. Dr Kroutor is right.

Well, almost.

Before any Czech readers start reaching indignantly for their keyboards, I should explain that I see the humble Czech tracksuit as reflecting, not so much missing social graces, as patterns of social stratification. Unlike their Polish neighbours, or Hungarian near neighbours, Czechs emerged as a nation in the 19th century without much in the way of native aristocracy. Interwar Czechoslovakia was, by all contemporary accounts, a surprisingly equal, relatively compact society peopled by skilled workers, minor officials, prosperous middling farmers, small businesspeople and, of course, the odd intellectual. A generation or two before that, most Czechs were peasants working the land. Czechoslovakia's first President, Tomas Masaryk was famously the son of a blacksmith.

The 'democratic' and 'popular' character of the Czech nation is, of course, something of a historical cliche, and one which historians are slowly starting to debunk. Yet it does seem true to say that that the Czechs have, in one form or another, had an egalitarian culture. As Derek Sayer, another cultural historian, observed in his recently published book on Czech identity, the words most frequently used to describe this sense of healthy national plebianism are lidovost and civilnost. The first refers to a sense of being ordinary, down-to-earth and 'of the people', the second to a certain informal straightforwardness in dealing with people, rather than the English sense of 'civility' as politeness

Such sentiments are echoed in other countries with a similarly egalitarian culture, such as, for example, Australia and its notion of 'mateness'. A derivative of the slang word 'mate' (= friend), 'mateness' as a concept conveys a kind of blunt cheerfulness and helpfulness oblivious of formality and social distinction. So dear is the concept of 'mateness' to Australians that the country's Prime Minister has even suggested writing it into the Australian Constitution as a civic ideal.

Now, however, many consciously or unconsciously associate this strain in the Czech identity with nationalism, or Communism, or both. Derek Sayer, for example, traces a direct line between lidovost, kitschy 19th-century nationalism and brutal social levelling in the name of working class emancipation carried out by the Communists. Joseph Kroutor's contrasting the casual, scruffy tracksuit-wearing, post-Communist present with the 'social elegance, norms of behaviour and rules of conversation' of an idealised past is a typical example.

There is an unspoken longing of some who ponder both the past and present of the Czech lands for 'proper' patterns of social division to eradicate this dangerous and vulgar populism. Recently, for example, some Czech sociologists and politicians have become increasingly alarmed that their country's flagging economic reforms are failing to produce a real middle class. There are, of course, 'winners' in the economic transformation and, needless to say, as elsewhere in East and Central Europe there is a class of post-privatisation, Czech nouveaux riches - every bit as obnoxious (if not quite so obnoxiously rich) as the more famous 'New Russians'. What is needed, the sociologists and politicians argue, is a proper middle class combining prosperity with self-reliance and robust individualism.

However, such appeals are easily deflected by politicians with a more shrewd understanding of Czechs' sense of their society as a community of relative equals, rather than a social pyramid. While the English are still obsessed with class - George Orwell's remark about being 'lower upper middle class' is still immediately comprehensible to anyone brought up in England - Czechs often gravitate towards ideas of their society as a Demos, the 'people' or the 'nation'.

However, as more astute Czech sociologists such as Jiri Vecernik, have pointed out, what is needed are 'middle class' values rather than the creation of a 40-30-30 of 'have-nots', 'haves' and 'have lots' along British or American lines. Just as the Communist regime promoted 'working class' values - promoting manual labour, heavy industry and cheap beer and cigarettes, so the new democratic order must inculcate a 'middle class individualism' of personal responsibility, independence and aspiration.

The Czechoslovak Communists' efforts to keep a substantial working class in being as the key to building socialism, and their stereotypical emphasis on 'working class' class values as a blanket replacement for all social distinction, misfired badly, creating not a workers' state, but a bizarre social hybrid. The same may be said of looking for answers to the Czech Republic's post-Communist malaise in a reinvention of middle class refinement, or the generating of 'middle class' values by merely re-engineering the country's social structure.

In reality, no one quite knows how and why such a 'value shift' would occur. Undoubtedly, many of the values that have grown up in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere) in Central Europe could do with shifting. A dose of 'middle class' individualism would probably be in order. But as much current research suggests, an egalitarian culture and relatively low social inequality are in themselves no bad thing. Indeed, many economists see them as potentially forming the basis of economic success. They can promote social cohesion, facilitate meritocratic competition and underpin a democratic culture in both business and politics. Notwithstanding the discomfort of cultural historians - and in a country where intellectual elitism is the only real form of social snobbery available, this is only be expected - the 'tracksuit culture' may serve the Czechs well.

And now, if readers will forgive me, I will finish up and go and slip into something more comfortable - my faithful old tracksuit, needless to say.

Sean Hanley, 6 July 1999




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