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'Vogue of the East': GDR's underground fashion mag

June 28, 2012

Sewing your own clothes in communist East Germany was a subtle act of resistance against the regime. Women who wanted to craft their own style looked to the legendary magazine Sybille — the Vogue of the East.

Image: Roger Melis, Courtesy Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie

Models pose in trench coats, or in the forest wearing flowered dresses. Elsewhere, ballerinas dance in dilapidated neighborhoods looking like they are dreaming of another world, of individuality and freedom.

The styles, mainly created by unknown designers, were elegant, romantic and lascivious. They had nothing to do with the realities of socialism - which is why they went over so well with the readers of Sybille magazine.

Historic photo from Sybille magazine
Sybille also offered sewing patternsImage: Roger Melis, Courtesy Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie

Visual escape from everyday gray

The large-format publication first appeared in 1956 as a magazine for culture and fashion. At that time, food rationing cards had just been gotten rid of, the Berlin Wall hadn't been built yet, and the women in East Germany had been labeled as "proletarian rubble women."

In contrast, Sybille brought women with sex appeal and uninhibited erotic; there was no room for propaganda. It was a staged alternative to socialist prudery.

Much of this can be attributed to Dorothea Melis, one of the magazine's long-time, influential editors.

"I wanted to do something contemporary that catered to the women who were living and working in these economically complicated and bad conditions," said Melis, who worked for Sybille from 1961 to 1970 alongside the country's top photographers.

Historic photo from Sybille magazine
The magazine was closely watched by the stateImage: Roger Melis, Courtesy Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie

It was Sybille Bergemann, Ute and Werner Mahler, Roger Melis, Arno Fischer and Günther Rössler who, with Sybille, established a visual language that was understandable for everyone in the GDR. They cleverly created little escapes from the gray monotony in the form of photos which risked being banned.

Under close observation

"Sybille was put under surveillance by the Central Committee and closely watched," said Grit Seymour, who worked as a model in the GDR. "Articles were frequently changed, shortened or rejected because they contained details that didn't conform to the political line."

One photo shooting in particular is imbedded in Seymour's memory. "It was for a cover photo. At first, I was standing behind a barrier, but that had to be changed because a GDR woman naturally stands in front of the Wall and not behind it. She is not locked out, but is infinitely free," she explained.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Grit Seymour walked for the major labels at prêt-à-porter fashion shows. Today, she is a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.

Historic photo from Sybille magazine
Individuality was a form of silent protestImage: Roger Melis, Courtesy Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie

Since the models in the GDR were amateurs, their photos were characterized by a sense of naturalness, and were at the same time both largely public and intimately private. They would never have been published in a fashion magazine in West Germany.

Fashion buffs learned to sew

With a circulation of 200,000, Sybille always sold out quickly. In addition to articles about art, literature and design, the magazine featured profiles of both prominent and unknown women.

It also included patterns for sewing the clothes that, for the most part, could not be bought in shops. If the materials were available, women would experiment with creative alternatives, even out cloth diapers, shower curtains or even the plastic sheets used to protect strawberry plants.

To be cool in the GDR, you needed your own sewing machine, needle and thread. The clothes available in the stores were uninteresting to the fashion-conscious crowd. Rather, they preferred individualized fashion that didn't have anything to do with the one-size-fits-all styles on the racks.

Historic photo from Sybille magazine
The fashion-conscious sewed for themselvesImage: Roger Melis, Courtesy Galerie fuer Moderne Fotografie

"The things we wanted to wear couldn't be bought," said Frieda von Wild, photographer and co-founder of the GDR underground fashion label "chic, charmant und dauerhaft" (chic, charming and durable).

A temporary need

Fashion, therefore, was inseparable from politics and those who sewed were engaged in a silent protest against the crusty, standardized system.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989; Sybille stayed in print until 1995. That was it. The magazine had fulfilled its mission of offering an avant-garde counterpoint to everyday life. Looking back, it served a therapeutic purpose as well, encouraging readers to trust their own aesthetic, shape their own lives, and be wary of dogmas.

Author: Christoph Richter / kjb
Editor: Michael Lawton