When Karl Marx dictated fashion

When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, Elke Giese was East Germany’s head designer. With her staff, she developed the look of the Socialist woman. But Socialist fashion collapsed along with the Warsaw Pact. Today, Giese works as a trend-spotter for a West German fashion firm.

 “In the GDR, we kept getting instructions from the government like ‘the Socialist woman doesn’t need this’ or ‘the Socialist woman doesn’t want this,’” Giese explains. “And when making our designs, we always had to consider the poor supply of materials in the GDR.”

The GDR Fashion Institute was East Germany’s attempt to create Communist fashion — and didn’t imitate Paris or Milan.

“Our task was to make clothes for working women, and because the GDR didn’t have enough cars, it had to be clothes that you could ride a bike in,” explains Giese. “The government wanted to show that our fashion was as good as anyone else’s. But the clothes weren’t supposed to be glamorous or sexy, because in the GDR, gender roles were very equalized.”

As a result, several hundred designers dutifully developed Socialist collections, substituting the high-quality fabrics the GDR lacked with cheaper alternatives.

Those fabrics included the East German innovation Dederon and a paper-like material that the government advised could easily be mended with Scotch tape.

The same look, no matter where

East Germany joined its sister Communist countries in following Moscow’s style ideology. They even staged Warsaw Pact runway shows.

“The Soviet system imposed facelessness and mass character,” explains Svetlana Tegin, a Russian designer who launched her career in the Soviet Union.

“Everyone had the same income, and the majority of people, especially in distant areas, looked absolutely identical. They lived in similar apartments with similar interior items and wore similar clothes.” Buying clothes, however, required lining up for hours, even days.

What women really wanted

“People watched a lot of West German TV,” explains designer Elke Giese. “They wanted to look like the people in American soap operas.”

People whose West German relatives had sent them Levi’s jeans were the toast of the town. And across the Warsaw Pact, fashion-conscious women sewed their own clothes.

“Every respectable woman had her own seamstress, so she could have an individual style,” recalls Russian designer Svetlana Tegin.


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