Comrade Couture Revisiting Communist Germany's Fashion Scene

Most think of East Germany as having been drab, gray and boring. But an underground fashion scene did its best to spice things up. A new documentary takes a look at the perils of creating avant-garde couture in a communist country.
Von Caroline Winter

Marco Wilms clearly remembers an early lesson from his days as an elementary school pupil in communist East Germany. One day, the director drew a crooked tree on a chalkboard. She then explained to the class that her job, and that of the socialist collective, was to bend that tree and make it grow straight.

"It was obvious that she was referring to me," said Wilms, laughing.

Under a regime that demanded conformity, Wilms preferred individualism, and wasn't afraid of speaking his mind. He paid the price. As a teenager, he was labeled a "potential enemy of the state" and barred from finishing high school, despite top grades. Instead of applying to art academies as planned, he spent the next three years waking up at 6 a.m. to work at a factory making fish hooks.

But when a scout spotted Wilms at a disco and recruited him to join East Germany's elite cadre of state-sanctioned models, Wilms finally found his niche: Pulsating on the fringes of East Germany's highly regulated mainstream fashion world was a brazen alternative scene that reveled in self-expression, subverting precepts of how a citizen of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was to dress and act.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wilms -- now a fairly ordinary-looking, if sleekly dressed, 43-year-old filmmaker -- has documented this thrilling movement. His touchingly personal "Comrade Couture," which hit German cinemas earlier this spring, combines film footage and photos from the 1980s and revisits four of the scene's most vivid personalities in an attempt to summon the thrill of freedom and economically unencumbered creativity that lent East Germany's fashion underground its potency.

Opposition Cloaked in the Guise of Aesthetics

One of those is Frank Schäfer. Once one of the GDR's most sought after stylists (who recently drew attention for advertising pubic hair styling at his Berlin salon), Schäfer has a maxim that underscores the intensity that marked Communist Germany's fashion netherworld. "A tiger that lives in a cage is much wilder than a tiger that is free to roam," he says.

The scene's illicit shows, staged everywhere from living rooms to abandoned chapels and bath houses, were ebulliently theatrical, heavily influenced by punk, Goth and New Wave aesthetics and peppered with undertones of morbid and aggressive sexuality. The models' dark makeup and exquisitely freakish get-ups contradicted East Germany's wholesome state-approved fashion. For many, the stage was not just an opportunity to strut on catwalks and perform, it was a rare venue to express an element of their true selves under a repressive regime.

Over the years, the performances, hosted by two main groups -- Allerleirauh (All Kinds of Fur) and Chic, Charmant und Dauerhaft (Stylish, Charming and Enduring), known simply as CCD -- grew increasingly elaborate, eventually featuring original music scores and over 100 designs created purely for a handful of packed performances attended by a small network of fashionistas and rebels.

The fact that the scene blossomed primarily in the 1980s, a time in East Germany when the state took a slightly more tolerant view of non-conformism, may explain the survival of the groups in a communist dictatorship. Still, a constant fear of arrest fueled the intimacy and excitement at the shows. Those lucky enough to be clued in say they were unforgettable.

"I got goose bumps watching them. It was clear that they might be taken to jail at any moment," recalled Grit Seymour, who worked as a model and designer in East Germany -- even tailoring a dress for Erich Honecker's wife -- and later parlayed her experience into work for Donna Karan, Max Mara and Hugo Boss. "They pushed things very close to the edge and it felt very moving, very illuminating and freeing to be there. It was an act of strong opposition cloaked in the guise of aesthetics and beauty."

Making Due With Shortages

The German title for Wilms' documentary, "Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie," translates as "A Dream in Strawberry Foil." It refers to the durable plastic that farmers use to cover strawberries -- a material that served the underground designers well, as the GDR offered little in the way of quality fabric, most having been reserved for export.

"We also used black and white striped shower curtains...and hospital bags meant to hold organs and intestines," remembers Sabine von Otteginen, the dynamo behind the group CCD and another of Wilms' protagonists.

Once a police officer threatened to ban the group for tempting East Germans with fashions that could not be bought. In response, von Oettingen cried, "But they can make it themselves!" and offered to have patterns thrown into the crowds from the catwalk.

The reality, however, was that even the garb in official magazines wasn't usually for sale. Aside from in pricy, under-stocked government boutiques, there wasn't much worth buying.

Dorothea Melis, a former editor of the GDR magazine Sibylle, writes that fashion spreads were cobbled together from found and individually manufactured items, which caused many a reader to write angry letters, complaining that the patterns were impossible to follow. "Our helpless answer was always 'improvise, sew things yourself, dig through old drawers and closets,'" Melis recalls in her book about Sibylle. Instead of clothing, then, magazines sold ideas and patterns.

In fact, creativity and individual style flourished in the context of East Germany's tight economy. A handful of independent designers profited from selling one-off items to a population with mostly hand-me-downs and ill-fitting, mass-produced government garb at its disposal. Improvisation was also common.

"My mother sewed me an outfit from bed sheets, and I decorated it with graffiti because Beat Street was playing in the theaters at the time and I was a huge break-dance fan," said Wilms, who also remembers having been wearing a half-finished, homemade faux-leather jacket with enormous shoulder pads when the model scout approached him.

Socialist Models With An Elite Touch

East German fashion photography was an art unto itself. Although magazine images were government monitored, Wilms says they "offered an aesthetic world that didn't need to be commercial but just had to appeal to a kind of longing."

Paradoxically, although magazines avoided images that could be understood as critique of the state, models hired for official photo shoots and fashion shows "looked intelligent and had an elite touch," according to Wilms, who remembers the modeling community as a refreshingly bohemian enclave. "If a girl looked pretty in a cheap way, they said 'she looks too Friseursisch' -- or too much like a hairdresser," he explained. "I was an intellectual student type -- long hair and spectacles. That's what they wanted."

Freedom Without the Cage?

Wilms often jokes that the fall of East Germany ruined his modeling career. In fact, reunification enabled him to pursue his dream of becoming an artist; modeling in itself had never been a passion. Older, more established members of the scene, however, lost the world they had built up over the course of years.

"The film has a kind of levity that many (people from that scene) no longer have," acknowledges Wilms. "Perhaps that's because it's my take on those times. But I'm probably six years younger than most and I was more of an observer. That's why this loss, this transformation after reunification didn't effect me as strongly."

Wilms' documentary does not, however, ignore the GDR's repressiveness. It records the injustices the state visited on his protagonists and points out that he himself fled the country in search of freedom. Wilms even interviews a former agent of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, who admits that the stylishly rebellious were targeted, especially when they appeared in conspicuous public spaces like Berlin's Alexanderplatz.

But at its essence, "Comrade Couture" is not a critique but rather a celebration of the GDR's uninhibited fashion underground, which survived perhaps because of its small and secretive nature. In the film, Wilms -- together with Schäfer, von Oettingen and others -- winds up trying to recapture the spirit of the scene by recreating some of the strawberry-plastic-and-shower-curtain designs and staging a fashion show in his Berlin flat, a former squat.

The result is boisterous but no match for the shows captured in the 1980s footage. Perhaps everyone is simply older -- but it's more likely that the explosive sense of freedom that made CCD and Allerleirauh shows so emotional cannot be recaptured outside the cage.

The underground fashion of Chic, Charmant und Dauerhaft and Allerleirauh will be featured in an exhibit on East German Fashion in Berlin's Kunstgewerbemuseum beginning on July 4.

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