“We thought everyone in the GDR walked around in drab, dismal clothes, but suddenly we found this incredible stuff which showed there was a thriving fashion industry,” said Caz Hildebrand, the British art director who put the collection together.
But was there really? The photos were taken by Günter Rubitzsch, a Leipzig-based photographer who worked regularly for women’s weeklies such as Pramo (abbreviated from “Praktische Mode” or “Practical Fashion”) and Für Dich (“For You”), magazines which featured sewing or knitting patterns for women who liked to make their own clothes. And most of them had to.
“Everyone looked the same, so if you wanted something special you had to make it yourself,” explained Antje Lond Benn, who studied at the Technical College for Clothing Design in East Berlin in the 1980s. “Fabrics and patterns were really cheap, and everyone would improvise with them. And if you were lucky, you could fit into the kids’ clothes, which were heavily subsidized.”
Honecker’s haute couture
So the groovy GDR depicted in “Off the Wall” might, perhaps, be a little off the mark. But at least it scuppers a few cliches.
“It’s an acknowledgment of my work, and I’m glad it shows a different side of the GDR,” said Rubitzsch. “It proves that we weren’t all impoverished and that it was possible to be creative despite the restrictions we worked with.”
After the Berlin wall fell, he sold the rights to his pictures to the international agency AKG Images — and never thought that one day, they’d be rediscovered as high camp, communist-style.
Dating back to decades that taste forgot not just in East Germany, what really sets his pictures apart are their unmistakably socialist backdrops. One image features models reclining in vamped-up folksy frocks against a gleaming combine harvester, while others show girls posing in front of chemical plants, industrial sites and of course, the inevitable Trabants.
“I worked in Leipzig, and there was a limit to the backdrops available,” explained Rubitzsch. “The city was very industrial and that’s why many of the pictures were taken in front of factories or agricultural cooperatives.”
“In those days, fashion photography in the West was set in exotic locations like the Caribbean and so on,” he pointed out. “Obviously, we couldn’t match that — we had to make do with what we had, and that meant being very inventive.”
Meanwhile, at the more sophisticated end of the market was the magazine Sibylle, which took its cues less from Good Housekeeping and more from French Vogue. The fashion conscious woman’s style bible, its editor was Dorothea Melis, who later compiled the only book on GDR fashion to have been published in Germany since the demise of communism. “Sibylle — Fashion Photography from Three Decades of the GDR” appeared in 1998 and flew off the shelves.
Dorothea Melis agrees with Rubitzsch. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” she said. “Everyone has this idea that women in the GDR went round in aprons, headscarves and flat shoes, so I thought: I’ll show you how stylish we really were! Back then women were so much more creative than are today, they’d take the cotton we were getting from somewhere like Uzbekistan and dye or embroider it to rework classic looks we’d seen tourists wearing, on television or in magazines from the West.”
Like Rubitzsch, she wholeheartedly rejects the idea that fashion was a thwarted industry in the GDR. “Back then, we’d have one editor, one photographer and two models on an average photo shoot. We had to do everything ourselves, there was no huge team like they have today. We’d all have to double up. The editor would do the girls’ make-up, the photographer would also be the driver. It was a very intense experience.”
Not so exquisite “Exquisit”
After leaving Sibylle, Melis went on to work in the publicity department of the GDR’s most upmarket store “Exquisit,” where most of the clothes modeled in “Off the Wall” would have been sold.
“Exquisit opened in 1970 as a deliberate attempt on the part of the Party to placate the masses and make them think the GDR wasn’t all bad,” she said.
It stocked western labels such as Daniel Hechter and Georges Rech, and until the end of communism, remained the first port-of-call for any East Germans wanting to treat themselves — despite a minor upset in the mid-80s when customer complaints about a range of Italian shirts that had been falling apart prompted the store to reveal they were actually made from shrouds.
The rest of the time, people settled with cheap imitations of western styles, with the GDR even making a point of designing its own synthetics, such as the nylon-like “Dederon,” the frotte-esque “Malimo,” and its piece de resistance, the extraordinarily static “Präsent 20,” specially developed for the 20th anniversary of the GDR in 1969.
“There was no scope to actually design,” said Antje Lond Benn. “If you wanted to put in two extra seams, add a couple of buttons or use a different fabric, you’d always be told it was too expensive — and the best stuff was always exported to West Germany anyway.”
“Basically, there was no fashion industry,” she added. “There were just clothes.”
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