Blazing the fashion Trail: Underground GDR labels on show | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 07.07.2009
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Blazing the fashion Trail: Underground GDR labels on show

East German clothes were mundane, so those vying for fashionista positions back in the GDR had to design their own. Now, many of those underground creations are on display at Berlin's Museum of Applied Arts.

Woman wearing shorts and blouse in 1979

Summer fashion fun in 1979

Official fashion in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) was designed according to the directives of the Socialist Unity Party government, making it anything but fancy. It was cheaply made, uniform-looking clothing so devoid of character, that many youths rejected it.

So, what to do when you've got nothing to wear? Make your own! That's what GDR underground fashion labels such as "chic, charmant und dauerhaft" (literally: fashionable, charming and durable) did, and the duds were a smash. Colorful, off-the-wall and one-of-a-kind, they could often only be bought illegally in shady back alleys.

Woman wearing a feathered cap

Materials of all kinds found their way into creations

To create a unique, sensual look, underground GDR designers experimented with "special" kinds of materials -- anything from the packaging for strawberries, to goat membranes, readily available velour, even diapers and shower curtains.

Clothes make the man, or woman

Clothes were more than mere threads in the GDR - they were a statement, conveyed an attitude and always had a political dimension. Donning homemade clothing meant reclaiming one's individuality, and those who did it were likewise providing a subtle commentary on the realities of everyday life in then East Germany.

Though the GDR liked to present itself as an emancipated country where women enjoyed equal rights, reality was different. Ultimately, it was underground fashion designers who put into practice what the East German government only boasted about - making women leaders.

Large group of underground designers

Underground designers were a motley bunch

But, it's not just underground design that's on show. Mainstream GDR fashion is also on display in the "In Grenzen frei" (Free, to a Degree) exhibition at Berlin's Museum of Applied Arts. A pair of pants, for instance, sold in the elegant "Exquisit" shops for about 1,100 East Germans marks - the equivalent of a head physician's salary back then.

"Official" also meant "luxury" sometimes

During GDR times, this "official" luxury fashion - which likewise distinguished itself from the everyday, uniform look - was presented in Sybille, the Vogue of the East. Famous East German photographers worked for the magazine, while simultaneously applying their talent in the underground fashion scene.

Tina Bara

Women dominated the underground fashion scene

GDR models, for their part, were one big family. All of them were untrained, knew each other, and worked together rather than competing. Each received around 50 East German marks for a photo session. But, the fact that some of them graced the shows and catwalks of major fashion labels after the fall of the Wall shows that they were professionals.

The "In Grenzen frei" show at the Museum of Applied Arts offers a first-ever very personal look into the East German underground fashion scene -- providing a glimpse of outstanding fashion photography in the GDR, and presenting creations that would still cause a huge sensation among the avant-garde. Some 150 photographs are on display, as well as fashion originals by "Allerleirauh" and "Exquisit."

Author: Christoph Richter (als)

Editor: Charles Penfold

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