Clothing is all about communication, and often, clichés. What you wear can send out different messages in different places. A miniskirt may be trendy in a Bulgarian office, but taboo in a German workplace.
Tzvetelina Kreuzer was wearing heavy make-up, flashy nail polish and a miniskirt when she came to Germany from Bulgaria in 1997. Pretty soon, she noticed something was wrong.
While buying bread a man once asked her, "How much for an hour?" Kreuzer didn't understand what he meant. It finally dawned on her that the man thought she was a prostitute - and that her outfit was giving off a different impression than it would have done back home.
At first she was able to laugh away the anecdote. But the joke wore thin. At university and then later at work, her appearance meant that she was not taken seriously.
"My Bulgarian accent and all the news stories here about human trafficking and eastern European prostitutes added to the prejudice," Kreuzer said. "I didn't have any other choice but to adapt."
Kreuzer, an expert on Latin America and eastern Europe, has written numerous essays about stereotypes and discrimination. Prejudices are healthy and normal, but they can also cause damage, she believes. The result can be intolerance or racism. "Prejudice isolates us mentally," she said.
On-the-job dress codes
"I'm prejudiced," Nadine Thomas admits. The expression, "Clothes make the man," attributed to Gottfried Keller at the end of the 19th century, is still relevant today, says the manager of Modeinstitut Berlin, a company producing corporate fashion.
"People interact differently with you depending on the clothes you wear," she says. Her company advises businesses, hotels, and service companies in appropriate business attire and etiquette. "In Germany, classic styles dominate work attire. Open shoulders are taboo and skirts have to be knee-length or longer."
The turn toward the classic, conservative-leaning style has been globalized, adds Anna Oesterheld, chief designer at Modeinstitut Berlin. "You can definitely wear a miniskirt to work if you can pull it off. But my recommendation is, stay serious - especially when it is time to represent your company."
Women in business also have to fight back against male dominance in the workplace. In that sense, the women believe, it's important what a woman wears. Thomas and Oesterheld give examples of where a woman can overstep the lines of good taste. One exercise involved participants bending over to pick up a pen while wearing a miniskirt. The women were clearly uneasy.
What is feminine?
In such opinions, Tzvetelina Kreuzer sees a fallacy in western emancipation. If a Latin American or eastern European woman wants to emphasize her femininity, there's nothing wrong with it, she argues. One also shouldn't feel embarrassed about one's own gender.
"German women often think that they have to dress like men and adapt to their ways of business and thinking." In the last few years, however, Kreuzer has seen a positive development. Women today are once again embracing their femininity, using more make-up and wearing figure-hugging dresses.
"Does a woman hide her femininity when she wears a knee-length dress?" Nadine Thomas asks. Beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. For Oesterheld and Thomas, the Italians are paragons of stylish dress - both the men and the women.
"They understand how to look serious, but also casual. Italians always wear perfect shoes, which is something that men in Germany don't usually dare to do." Clichés of small, elegant French women wearing Chanel are obsolete though, Oesterheld says. "I traveled France with the express purpose of finding just such an image, but I wasn't really able to find it."
'Fashion was a way of bringing color into our lives,' Kreuzer says
Fashion in the former Eastern Bloc
In Germany, Tzvetelina Kreuzer started to dress less conspicuously and wear less make-up to counteract prejudices and be taken more seriously. When she visited Bulgaria five years later, her mother was horrified. "You look like a gray mouse! Do you not have enough money to buy yourself real clothes?" In her German outfit of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, Kreuzer no longer matched Bulgaria's feminine ideal.
As for why women in the eastern Europe tend to dress up more, Kreuzer says it has to do with the country's communist past: "Before 1989 we had huge difficulties getting our hands on any make-up at all. We had to get it on the black market. Make-up was a way of developing your sense of individuality, of bringing some color into your life." Women today have stayed true to that.
But in business, hotels, or in the banking sector, clothing styles have followed the West's conservative trend. "Globalization didn't pass Bulgaria by," Kreuzer says. Yet it comes across as a forced, unnatural way of dressing, she believes. Kreuzer looks upon this process of homogenization with concern.
It was much more interesting, she says, when one could meet people from different countries, from different cultures, and then discover how differently they dress from you.