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A quick glance at fashion, cosmetics, and cosmetology in Poland
By Mark Wegierski
These are memories of a happier time in East-Central Europe, twenty years ago.
Poland is a country where the fashion sense and interest in cosmetology of many women is perhaps the third-highest in Europe (after France and Italy). Already during the later Communist era, it was said that women in Poland's large cities would adopt the fashions of Paris a few days after their appearance in the West. Also, many Polish women tend to visit their "kosmetyczka" (cosmetician) at the beauty salon or aesthetics center with a frequency somewhat greater than that seen in Anglo-American societies.
I gained some knowledge of this whole scene through my female relative – herself a tall, lithe, brown-eyed brunette who might have appeared to some observers as looking like a former model -- who had been working in the cosmetological profession for over twenty years. Unlike in Anglo-American societies, there are extensive programs of study at the university level in cosmetology in Poland. My relative, having the appropriate university training and decades of experience, rather lamented the fact that standards in the profession appear to be dropping, with some cosmetological study programs lasting a mere three months.
I recall that on Sunday, September 21, 2003, during my visit to Poland, I travelled with her to Warsaw, in her compact but elegant Peugeot 206, to attend a large trade show for cosmetologists. It was a sunny and rather warm day. I had been staying at Ciechocinek, which is a spa and resort town of about 14,000 permanent residents. It is known for its unique titration towers – large wooden structures with thick layers of bramble, through which water from nearby salt springs is filtered into the air, producing a healthy microclimate, approximating that of sea-air. Ciechocinek lies about 200 kilometers northwest of the capital.
We drove into Warsaw along the Wislostrada (Vistula Highway) which lies to the east of the main city of Warsaw, along the Vistula River. We found the trade center with some difficulty, and there were literally hundreds of cars parked on the sides of the road as we drove up toward the huge building. My relative was able to skillfully find a parking spot in the vast underground garage, despite the bustle of the place.
The trade center had probably been built only a few years ago. Warsaw is clearly the most prosperous city in Poland, with a huge building boom. While this is great for Warsaw itself, there are still the much poorer regions and smaller towns of Poland, especially in the southeast of the country, that are hoping for some relief from their often-grinding poverty and unemployment. The official unemployment rate in the country as a whole had been around twenty percent for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s.
We finally rushed up into the trade center venue, a vast hall jam-packed with exhibitors and huge crowds. My relative expressed the opinion that admission to the trade show should have been more selective (i.e., only for recognized professionals). As it was, anyone who paid 15 zlotys was allowed inside, resulting in a virtual mob scene.
The cosmetology-related products, devices, and furniture on display were of an enormous variety, and the prices for some of the items were out of this world, e.g., several thousand Euros for a professional salon bed. I gained some insight into how expensive getting effectively set up in this profession could be.
My relative insisted on viewing virtually every exhibit in the trade show, but after an exhaustive and exhausting run-through, which included picking up various brochures and pamphlets, we stepped out the door. We thought of eating at the local cafeteria in the trade center building, but the crowds there were massive, too.
We slipped out of the "madhouse" and drove up in light Sunday traffic to Three Crosses' Square (Plac Trzech Krzyzy) which is in the Downtown-South part of Warsaw, where there was a fine restaurant with which she was familiar.
Walking to the restaurant, called Modulor Café Bar, we noted the bright whiteness of the freshly restored church at the center of the square; the ponderous-looking, cavernous modern hotel (the Warsaw Sheraton, I believe); as well as the trendy student hang-out, Szpilki Szparki Szpulki (Needles, eyes, threads).
Eating at the Modulor restaurant at about six o'clock in the evening, it was mostly empty, but I imagine it is rather jumping later in the evening, as it also seems to want to cater to a trendy clientele. There is a large bar alongside part of the right wall of the restaurant, the tables are of black marble color, and there are various framed caricatures of persons active in the Warsaw arts scene – some of them probably from earlier decades -- on the walls.
The food – such as roast strips of chicken on a bed of lettuce -- was excellent tasting, with the added bonus that you could order things like real milkshakes (i.e., something frothy that can be sipped rather than slurped).
Except in major and medium sized cities, and a few smaller centers, very high-quality restaurants in Poland are not that easy to find, presumably because the cooking at home is usually so good, and it has been estimated that the average Polish person eats only 1 in 30 meals at a restaurant (although this may have begun to change to more out-of-home dining in more recent years).
Having rested up, we returned to our car, to begin our over three-hour trip back to Ciechocinek.
Unfortunately, a large, prosperous middle-class has not yet arisen in Poland, and it is that class of women that would probably give the largest support to cosmetology. Indeed, in the aftermath of Communism, a small number of people have become very rich, while wide swathes of the population have been pauperized. Ironically, some people look back with comparative fondness at the so-called "golden years" of the Gierek era of the 1970s, when small luxuries appeared to be within greater reach of the average pocketbook.
(An earlier version of this article has appeared in Polonez: Canadian-Polish News (December 2006), p. 13.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.