Levi’s jeans? Short skirts? A designer dress? Those were items fashion lovers in the GDR could only dream of. Western fashion was a no-go in the socialist country and there wasn’t any money for high-quality fabrics. Clothes were also part of the planned economy, which meant that the designs were never up-to-date. But that didn’t mean that the love of fashion didn’t reach the GDR. Young boys and girls saw TV stars from the West wearing outfits they couldn’t find in their country – so they got creative.
Jeans from the West
One important aspect of socialism is the equality of all citizens. This basic principle also applies to fashion. Good clothing should be available to everyone and shouldn’t consist of any unnecessary luxuries or ‘frippery’. Jeans were all the rage in West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, but whoever dared to wear them in the East could expect questions about his or her political preferences.
Denim appeared to be more stubborn than the GDR leadership expected, however, and in 1978 they decided to bring their own jeans on the market. Now East German youths could wear a ‘Shanty’, ‘Boxer’ or ‘Wisent’ – although they didn’t look nearly as good as Western brands. For those who weren’t lucky enough to have friends in the West who would send them a pair, there was the option of the black market, if you were willing to spend an exorbitantly high amount on your Wrangler or Levi’s.
A revolution: synthetic clothes
The lack of good fabrics was a big issue for would-be fashion designers, so the GDR government promoted synthetic materials. There was ‘Lederon’, a leather replacement and ‘Dederon’ a synthetic fibre used as a material substitute that even had the country (DDR) in its name. ‘Präsent.20’ was used instead of silk or cotton. Synthetic materials might be considered less attractive for clothes right now, but back then they were a revolutionary innovation – albeit a short-lived one. They didn’t look too bad, but people complained that they didn’t breathe at all – so sweating was part of GDR fashion as well.
Anybody who had money could shop at ‘Exquisite’, a chain of exclusive shops that first opened in 1962. It sold expensive fashion from the West, but also a label with exclusive clothes designed in the GDR. The 30 designers of this label had access to fabrics that were otherwise unaffordable or unavailable in their country. All styles were manufactured in limited editions of around 300 and the quality was high, with great attention to wearability and fit. Unfortunately, most East Germans would never be able to afford any of them.
Getting creative at the sewing machine
A reason to wear unattractive clothes? Not for everyone. Women’s magazine Sibylle was extremely popular because it came with templates to design your own clothes. The photo models in the magazine wore government-approved clothes and outfits that were ‘too Western’ or short skirts would never make it. Still: anybody who owned a sewing machine (and that was almost everyone in the GDR) could use the templates and their own creativity to create the clothes they longed for. It is estimated that one in five items of East German fashion was designed by the people themselves.
Josefine Edle von Krepl remembers making wooden sandals from sandwich boards in 1960, after seeing girls walking around in them on Western television. She told magazine Der Spiegel in 2010 that she just wanted to look pretty and hated the clothes available in GDR shops. She started designing, much to the dismay of her teachers and later her boss at the women’s magazine Für Dich.
A true love of fashion
Against all odds, she managed to open her own fashion boutique in 1980’s East Berlin. A great success, but Josefine had to smuggle good fabrics into the GDR and was constantly watched by the secret police. She was driven by an extraordinary passion for fashion. Just a few months before the fall of the Wall, she decided to flee.
She returned in the 1990’s, only to discover that the underground fashion scene had completely disappeared and made way for the ‘uniform look’. She left the business and opened her own fashion museum (in Schloss Meyenburg, 1.5 hour northwest of Berlin) in the hope of inspiring and exciting people with her love of fashion. She may well be one of the few persons who can truly say she knows what that means.