Berlin’s fashion scene survived oppression and endures
Berlin fashion had always eluded me. Berliners held in their dress an immense power that my own suede heels and faux McQueen bag couldn’t quite pull off. Their underground, dank nightclubs and pop-up raves dripped with an intoxicating sense of nonchalance yet screamed exclusivity. In London, I am ashamed to admit I would grimace at clothing that draped the body like a potato-sack, masking gender and verging on ‘homeless chic’. In Berlin, the situation was disconcertingly reversed; my coral Topshop bodycon skirt and painfully obvious British accent were scoffed at. I somehow found myself inadequate in the face of a style I deemed ridiculous. One glance from the bouncers at the notorious Berghain club reminded me of being observed at school for my daily uniform check. With looks so intimidating, they had me considering raiding the nearest skip to fulfil the ‘edgy’ criteria. How could I consider my style cheap amongst people whose fashion was that deconstructed?
This ‘cheap’ feeling, I have since realised, was not sourced from the seemingly condescending attitudes or cliquey atmosphere. It was something that ran far deeper, not to be disregarded as a feeble stylistic hierarchy. The way that it made me stop short, reconsider myself, and shake off any preconceived views I thought I had about fashion was important. Whether knowing it or not, Berlin’s fashion is history adorned on the body. This cultural-historical phenomenon is an integral component to the city’s image.
Their attitude towards fashion is one of indifference, and yet it appears to address one crucial age-old question: that which concerns moving on. There is something distinctly different in indifference; a power in nonchalance. Berlin indeed began, in the 1920’s , as the cultural heart of Europe; the quirky and bizarre ensembles of modern icons such as Lady Gaga can be traced back to the legacy of the Bauhaus movement that originated in Berlin. The freedom of expression in this period could easily have smoothly progressed into the avant-garde, rebellious youth mecca that the city is today, and yet, it is the horrific intermittent years that forged the city’s true identity. Bauhaus was closed by the Gestapo in 1933, marking the beginning of fashion as a locus for oppression.
Nazi propaganda precipitated the idea that ready-to-wear fashion companies were Jewish-owned, and thus by 1940, 180 womenswear companies had been shut down. All Jewish designers were forced through an organisation called Adefa, intended to purge any elements of French or Jewish style. In short, the oxymoronic concept of ‘Nazi fashion’ dictated that women should be natural beauties, with plain, pastoral clothing and hair neatly tied back. Hitler held haute couture as a manifestation of the Jewish conspiracy; make-up and hair styling as corrupting. The appeal of fashion became morbidly distorted as Hugo Boss was employed to create the uniform for the SS, attracting unwitting German civilians into the grasp of the Nazis, lured under the pretence of status, luxury and style.
While we cannot pretend that the fashion industry, over all others, suffered the worst attacks from this period, oppression seeps in at every possible level, and thus liberation must be ignited in each one of these corrupted faculties. Because of Berlin’s history, it is difficult to see the fashion industry as anything but politicized; a historical minefield, which is not just the epitome of the modern city, but also a city of endurance championing industries of survival.
Under Communist control, East Berlin developed a subculture that distinctly distanced them from highbrow fashion, instead revelling in grime, punk and Goth. Experimental hair and make-up styles and highly sexualised behaviour emerged to challenge the socialist utopia, to rebel against everything that the GDR failed to deliver. Their lack of resources meant) that they fashioned clothes out of shower curtains and waste materials – even the plastic that farmers used to wrap strawberries in. As Ines de la Fressange put it, “Chic is when you have nothing left.” By 2003, the Berlin image had been reborn; the mayor at that time, Klaus Wowerweit, referring to the young, hip and creatively industrious image as ‘poor but sexy.’
We can look at androgynous, colourless and arguably aesthetically ugly clothing in disgust, but it is precisely this indifference in dress that paradoxically allows for a far sharper punch than a carefully constructed outfit. In a high-street peplum top, we can see a sign of current trends; the tastes of the individual at one particular time. But in a piece of elephant-skin drapery and haphazardly shaved hair, we can see the lasting individuality of the city, rather than a fleeting trend; the emphasis on fashion as an identity rather than uniform.
Look initially at Hussein Chalayan’s A/W 2000 table dress and you may think it ridiculous, but consider it as an illustration of the flexibility and resourcefulness of the Berliners who, when the Wall fell in 1898, had to pick up everything and move. Beauty is surely then evident in the emotional and cultural charge of the piece, rather than its mere aesthetics. Indeed, this mantra seems to permeate all elements of Berlin’s culture. The street artist JR’s project, ‘Wrinkles of Berlin’, covers fifteen buildings and walls around the city, pasting gargantuan black-and-white expressions of the elderly. Their blemishes are exposed: wrinkles pronounced, expressions candid, a resounding greyness engulfing the already rather visually dire city. But every stroke breathes the sigh of the age as they lean their foreheads together, eyes closed, and like the survivors of a shipwreck, hold on.
Whilst mainstream forms of self-preening and trend-setting should in no means be denounced, we can learn something important about self-exhibition from the Berliners. As JR emphasises through his art, often blemishes must be worn for a true and lasting beauty to emerge. The fashion of Berlin offers a unique opportunity for the onlooker: to explore the power and history of the individual without mediation. And this will never go out of trend.
This article was written and submitted by Emily Nearn for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Emily was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.