Fearless Fashion in the Former East Germany

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Sabine von Oettingen

A scene from the film Comrade Couture, which tells the story of the underground fashion scene in the German Democratic Republic

In 1980s East Germany, there was a group of independent fashion designers, photographers, models and stylists who refused to play along with the socialist regime's excessive egalitarianism. They called themselves "the Mob" and, rejecting the notion that you had to live in the free Western world to make something happen, their confident motto was "New York is where we are." The young fashion designers in the group created vibrant, often unwearable designs that were the opposite of the official fashion industry's ideal of clothing for the masses. From July 4 to Sept. 13, a new exhibition at Berlin's Museum of Applied Arts called "Free Within Borders" revisits the forgotten fashion scene of the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.). Using photographs, videos and model dresses, it pays tribute to a subculture that would not accept creative limitations, despite the restrictive society in which it existed.

"G.D.R. fashion was supposed to be of practical value, plain, ornamentless, modern, straight," says Henryk Gericke, one of the curators of the exhibition. "It was supposed to reflect the ideal image of the confident East German working woman." But when members of the Mob were wielding the scissors, they took fashion in a whole new direction. Passersby who looked into the windows of the shops in which the independent label ironically dubbed "Chic, Charmant and Dauerhaft" (Chic, Charming and Durable) held its first fashion shows witnessed scenes that couldn't have been further removed from the wholesome, clean style of East German fashion's mainstream. Models in colorful, voluminous outfits made out of shower curtains and hospital intestine bags were strutting the catwalk, spraying sparkling wine and foamy shower soap into the audience. "The pressure of standardization, forcing people into line — we were totally against all those socialist diseases," says filmmaker Marco Wilms, a former model whose documentary about the G.D.R.'s avant-garde fashion scene, Comrade Couture, was recently released in Germany. "We just wanted to be ourselves."

Although most of the East German fashion underground's protagonists didn't consider themselves political, their celebration of individuality and ostentatious narcissism certainly was. The Mob was not afraid to play around with socialist symbols, such as the hammer and sickle, or to use Russian army wear as the basis for its designs. Doing so was not without risk in a country where the secret police would ban you from Alexanderplatz, the East German capital's central square, for nothing more than wearing a little glitter spray in your hair.

The designers themselves were not specifically targeted. "The secret police was too busy hunting the punks, so they let this motley crew of ours walk around as we liked," says designer Frieda von Wild, a former Mob member and co-curator of "Free Within Borders." But as curator Gericke explains, another reason they were left alone was that by the time the independent fashion scene's activity reached its height in the mid-'80s, the regime was showing signs of weakness. "The state was already pretty helpless at that point ... it was completely overstrained," he says. "In the late 1970s, it wouldn't yet have been possible to behave that way."

Designs by the label Allerleirauh, founded in 1986 by Katharina Reinwald and Angelika Kroker, and the work of fashion photographers such as Sven Marquart and Sybille Bergemann reflected the atmosphere of decline. Clothes by Allerleirauh used mainly dark colors and lots of leather — a material that was hard to come by in the G.D.R. and that the designers would pick up straight from the manufacturers. Photos on display in the Berlin exhibition show the clothes against a backdrop of old staircases and rundown gray façades, making for a dark fairytale-like mood full of neo-Romantic pathos. "We somehow loved the morbidity of the G.D.R.," filmmaker Wilms recalls. "But it was only the façades that were crumbling; the people were young and beautiful."

East Berlin's independent fashion scene reached its artistic climax at the end of the 1980s, when Allerleirauh was putting on spectacular events that had little to do with conventional fashion shows. Visitors to "Free Within Borders" can watch video footage of Allerleirauh's fashion extravaganzas, which — with music composed especially for the shows and special effects including fountains of fire, fake fog and giant human "birds" flying through the air on steel cables — are best described as a mixture of apocalyptic party, theater and performance art. "It was a comment on the downfall of the G.D.R. without really knowing that it was going to happen," Gericke says.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Mob fell apart and most of its members went their separate ways. Despite all that creative potential, very few East German designers went on to make it big in reunified Germany. For Wilms, there were several reasons, mainly economic ones. And, he adds, the restraints of the G.D.R. may have helped push the Mob's creativity. "We were so crazy because we felt hemmed in," Wilms says. "I wouldn't even get the idea to dress that way today. A tiger in a cage is wilder than in the wild."

But at Berlin's Museum of Applied Arts, "Free Within Borders" is not so concerned with the question of whether the Mob could have existed outside the G.D.R. Instead, it celebrates the ability of a group of young people to be creative in even the most constrained of circumstances.