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'Sibylle': East Germany's top fashion magazine

Gaby Reucher db
June 14, 2019

An exhibition in Berlin showcases "Sibylle," an East German fashion and culture magazine that for decades offered women in the communist state more than dress patterns.

magazine cover "Sibylle" , face of a woman
Image: Günter Rössler

Sibylle magazine, founded in 1956 and named after the first editor-in-chief, Sibylle Gerstner, is celebrated in a traveling exhibition that is currently showing at the Willy Brandt Haus in Berlin until August 25, 2019. The focus is on 13 influential photographers who have shaped the magazine, including Sibylle Bergemann, Arno Fischer and Ute Mahler.

Showcasing East Germany's best photographers

When working for Sibylle in the 1960s, Arno Fischer brought the models out of the studios and onto the streets of Berlin.

But Sibylle Bergemann, who later co-founded the Ostkreuz photographers agency, put her stamp on the magazine in the 1980s with her staunch aesthetic and sometimes melancholy images, such as one of a woman with a long black dress in front of a chalk-painted wall.

Another longtime Sibylle photographer on show is Ute Mahler, whose pictures worked with individual aesthetics.

"It was about style, taste and encouraging individuality," Mahler remembers, adding that the country's best photographers worked for the magazine over the years, well-known for their signature portraits, reports, essay series and landscape photography.

photo of woman sitting at a table and smoking
Lounging in a cafe in Budapest in 1974Image: Günter Rössler

DIY fashion

Instead of posing between lions and elephants in faraway countries, the models would present East German fashion at subway stations, in pubs or at work, both in the GDR and locations in Eastern European states.

The fashion was not for sale, however; Sibylle provided patterns allowing women to sew the blouses, skirts and dresses.

With 40 pages filled with fashion, travel stories, portraits of artists and other culture events with a special focus on young people, from 1956 to 1995, Sibylle hit the newsstands every two months. In its heyday, the magazine's circulation topped 200,000 copies, contributing significantly to the image of women in East Germany at the time, as well as reflecting social conditions in the communist country.

Censorship creeps in

By the mid-60s, the governing Socialist Unity Party of Germany blamed the country's weak economic performance on enemy ideology, spelling an end to the tolerant attitude toward a magazine seen as the mouthpiece of the country's more rebellious youth. Women were presented wearing worker-style fashion in shiny, bright colors designed to symbolize a healthy economy in the socialist country that described itself as the workers' and peasants' state.

pages from magazine "Sibylle" that show a female enginner
The East German working woman was featured in many articles over the yearsImage: Jochen Moll

In the early 1980s, the GDR's economic and political stagnation led to a time of social change. The magazine began showcasing ambitious artistic photography with a less conventional focus, giving readers a respite from their everyday lives.

The last issue in 1989, a time of major upheaval in East Germany that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall, marked a turning point. The series, entitled "Handschriften" (hand writing), showed fashion by East German designers who had just presented their collections at a fair on the other side of the Wall, in West Berlin — symbolically placing the models in front of crumbling old walls.

A West German company bought Sibylle, which secured the magazine's existence for a while without, however, building on the success it once had in East Germany. The magazine finally folded for financial reasons in early 1995.

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