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'Frugal Fashionista' Chic Behind The Berlin Wall


In the days of a divided Germany fashion was inseparable from politics on the communist Eastern side of the Berlin wall, and the only way to "To be cool", make an attempt at individuality, possess something attractive or simply use as a form of silent protest, was to have your own sewing machine, needle and thread, or support the underground fashion label CCD, "Chic, Charmant und Dauerhaft".

Chic, Charming and Durable, an ironic use of the alleged description for what was produced by the GDR, the German Democratic Republic, fashion industry.

As with the other industries in the former East Germany textile production was state regulated, which covered decisions on everything from the designs, quality and quantity. While whatever was produced also had to be done as inexpensively as possible with no trims, fancy detailing or anything that resembled typical Western fashion and products.

Although the country did produce its own jeans range eventually, to counteract those that were being either illegally imported or sent there in "care packages", these were substandard so throughout the communist bloc 'Levi's' and 'Wranglers' remained the 'must haves'.

Indispensable during those days, not only as a source of sewing patterns but as an escape from socialist conformity, was "Sybille", an inspirational fashion and culture magazine named for its creator, Sybille Gerstner. Published six times a year it featured profiles of unknown women as well as those in the public eye, together with articles on everything from art and design to literature.

From the time of its start-up in 1956, in the days when there was no Berlin Wall and the women of East Germany were still thought of as Rubble Women, copies sold out as soon as they hit the stands and were passed from hand to hand with an estimate of at least ten readers for each issue. It was closely watched by the state, with articles changed or rejected if they went against party thought, nevertheless the magazine became a legend as "The Vogue of the East", and continued in print until 1995 six years after the fall of the wall.

The models featured were all amateurs. Women and young students who had been approached in cafes or as they walked down a street, and their photos were perhaps posed in flowered frocks in a forest, practicing ballet steps in a run down neighborhood, or standing by tram lines in the middle of a city, and could often be styled as "avant-garde" even by present day standards. Nevertheless they were characterized by a sense of naturalness which would not have been chosen for publication by any art director working for a West German fashion magazine, while at the same time, as with the magazine's articles, the photographs also ran the risk of being banned.

One of the young photographers was Ute Mahler, now a Professor of Photography in Hamburg, and she never allowed her models to laugh as "I thought that if they did it brought them too close to the official East German image of our happy women". Instead the team of eight photographers "tried to show an image of women which corresponded with our ideal. Beautiful, clever, sensual, self-confident, strong".

Although the magazines censors, who did not officially exist, were known to 'edit' smiles onto the faces of models before a photo was allowed to go to print, while the 'Maxi' fashion was not allowed to be featured because it was considered to use too much fabric.

The styles and sewing patterns which came with Sybille were in the main designed by unknowns, often by one or another of the four editors, and bore no relation to everyday life in communist East Germany as they tended to be romantic, flirtatious and elegant. Nevertheless they made it possible for the women of the German Democratic Republic, with its shortages and restrictions, to identify with the dreams and ideals they represented.

People learned to sew, and showing their individuality through their clothes and those of their families, became an aim for many who lived behind the Berlin Wall.

With the shortages in fabrics and sewing notions, sometimes "re-cycling" had to be heavily used in their creations, and not only with the inclusion of whatever could be salvaged from old clothes. "Frugal" was the keyword, decades before it became a trend elsewhere. Young designers as well as home sewers made use of everything possible, which could be shower curtains, cloth diapers, foil from food containers, garbage bags, and even hospital intestine bags, to add additional touches or fashion accessories to their 'homemade' couture.

Like most aspects of design, from architecture to fashion, behind the 'Iron Curtain', official East German fashion had not moved with the times. There was a one style fits all mentality and it lacked the essential ingredient of fashion, reinvention and renewal. So for many it became an essential part of life to show their own individuality in one of the few ways open to them, through their clothes.

But the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 which brought with it welcome liberation, and this included the easy availability of fashion for all tastes and circumstances.

Although Sybille stayed in print until 1995 sewing machines were put away, and designers, photographers and editors moved on to a different life and prospects, leaving behind not only memories of an era in which they had shown the possibilities for creating individuality in a rigid world, but also an inheritance which continues to have an influence on fashion in Germany.

The minimalism of the young and alternative East German designers was at its best both modern and elegant, and this style continues to feature strongly both through the work of Germany's current designers and on the pages of the country's fashion magazines.



Photographs from the East German Magazine "Sybille" by Ute Mahler, courtesy of Ute Mahler/Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie. Ute Mahler was a fashion photographer in the GDR, and she now works for international magazines as a photojournalist and no longer does commissions, only work that interests her. She is a professor at Hamburg University and a partner in a photographic agency and school.

Having had the chance to visit East Germany several times in the days shortly before the 'Fall of the Wall', Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall was a fascinating read. It explained so much that as visitors we had not been allowed to see, while at the same time drawing a vivid picture of what life had been like, across all generations, for those who lived there. A reflection of the history of East Germany which, although a 'dictatorship', wasn't all negative, it did not mean there had been an absence of fun, enjoyment or positive feelings about life.


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Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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