Friday, January 11, 2008

Gesamkunstwerk: Polyester in the DDR

Poor Günter Rubitzsch. Everywhere else he had a dream job, that of a high-fashion photographer. The exotic locations, the gorgeous models, the perks, the peccadilloes. Everywhere else, that is, except in the Soviet Bloc, where Rubitzsch spent 16 years photographing the best of East German fashion for the drearily named Textil Service magazine. Textil Service wasn't going to give Vogue a run for its money; nor would it challenge the Sears catalogue to a couture duel (though it came perilously close). Textil Service was a biannual trade rag published for the Leipzig Trade Fair. The fashion photos inside the magazine served as a program of the apparel that appeared on the Socialist factory runway.

As history is wont to repeat itself, so does polyester, over and over and over. Dederon, some of it was called, nearly a homophone for DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The East Germans were proud of their polyester and nylon garments and Rubitzsch photographed them earnestly in the most incongruous locations and poses. Who didn't schuss without skis? What man was silly enough to go to work without his Speed Racer helmet? Who needs Tahiti when the Stasi building was such an exemplary stand-in location?

Published in 2005, the slim book Off the Wall gives a delightful, fashion-oriented view of what really was going on behind the Iron Curtain and why those behind the wall were so anxious to get their hands on the worst of Western denim. With the cheapest possible synthetic materials, the industrious East German designers aped the worst of American style straight off Friday night sitcoms, circa 1969. Marcia and Jan Brady never had it so good as the mindbending Pop Art-meets-tractor pantsuits modeled by Leipzig's finest catwalk cuties.

Although not captioned, it's easy to tell from which era--and in some cases which year--a picture dates. A particularly cheap ciré is 1971; white go-go boots and caps are mad Communist mod.

Schizophrenia ensues when the Brady Bunch meets the new Russian peasant. This ideological creative clash proves that the East Germans were either unable to decide who had better fashion--Russia or the West--or else they were under great pressure to include some gaily updated farmworker schmattes lest the giant red eye to the east gaze too judgmentally upon a scratchy orange cape or a sofa-print pantsuit.

A bit of research reveals a conflict between the perception of East Germany as a drab, utilitarian place with all the color of a dead mouse and what really went on, a good deal of winging it. The fashions have all the panache of a Simplicity pattern made by a seventh-grade Home Ec class in Peoria--and Honey, that's where the fun is.

All images: Off the Wall, Fashions from the German Democratic Republic, published by Bloomsbury Publishing

*If anyone would like to see more, let me know and I'll upload over the weekend.

12 comments:

WendyB said...

Fantastic post. Would love to see more pictures!

susie_bubble said...

Fascinating.... is it wrong to be drawn to all this polyester? To that colourful naivety? I'd love to have one mad wall plastered with these prints...

bronwyn said...

Priceless! Love the blue ski outfit and the man with the bike helmet - tres chic!

Suzanna Mars said...

Bronwyn, that man is my favorite!

SB, "naive" is a great word for this cheerful display. The designs had hope, I suppose, as respects competition with the West (home of the desirable Levis, etc). A wall would be fun! Wait til you see the rest of the photos.

WB, I will scan and post more tomorrow.

riz said...

this is superficial, but i really like that girl's tie.

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, it does have some panache! The color combo I am not too thrilled with, but the tie and its color now seem very au fait, in an neo-Oscar Wilde way.

lc said...

have you seen das leben der anderen? the main character has this really cool grey bomber in it. the drabness is vaguely depressing, but still. cool.

Suzanna Mars said...

Ic, no I haven't. But I will certainly make a point to now! Thanks.

Heather said...

These are crazy interesting pictures... I for one would love to see more!

laurakitty said...

I wish I was wearing one of those peasant style dresses today- they are fabulous...

jennifer said...

fabulous images! great writing too!

Suzanna Mars said...

I intended to scan more, but the very next day my combo printer/fax/scanner crapped out.

I bought a new one, and the scan quality is terrible.

Jennifer, thanks for the compliment!