Sibylle Disobedience: Fashion as Subversion in the GDR

Following the postwar division of Germany into East and West, the Eastern side was, from the beginning, characterized by perpetual scarcity coupled with a state-enforced lack of individual freedom and choice; the declining economic condition of the East Germans wrought more desperation and hopelessness under each decade of the Soviet regime. Every aspect of life, including what could be worn, seen, and discussed publicly, was carefully and forcefully controlled by the government. Luxury goods were particularly regulated and produced a uniformity and drabness in style that became symbolic of East German culture. Only one type of car, the Trabant, was sanctioned for production and was created using recycled hard plastic, synthetic resin, and even discarded rags.

Nearly every kind of industry and innovation was stifled under the East German regime, and clothing, which is often utilized as a statement of personal and creative style, was no exception to the rule. Garment shops were state-owned and what could be produced was controlled exclusively by the German Fashion Institute. The results were synthetic, ill-fitting, and lusterless clothes that fell apart quickly after first use. Though there were higher quality clothes being produced within East Germany, most were made through prison labor and intended for export to the West, with some being showcased in high-end shops with prohibitively high prices inaccessible to the average citizen. 

Despite these constraints, East German citizens would eventually channel their resistance to the regime by manufacturing their own, home-made brand. In 1956, a new and avant-garde fashion and cultural magazine came into circulation and proffered citizens a glimpse of the world of fashion and art beyond the Iron Curtain. This magazine was Sibylle: Zeitschrift für Mode und Kultur (Sibylle: Fashion and Culture Magazine), founded by and named after Sibylle Boden-Gertzner, a German-Jewish costume designer and fashion writer who escaped to Paris in the wake of World War II to study and master her craft. The confluence of Gertzner’s knowledge of Parisian fashion culture along with her experience as a woman of Jewish heritage during the Third Reich created in her the perfect storm to instigate protest through fashion. Since its beginning in 1956, Sibylle magazine produced six publications per year, with only 200,000 printed of each due to imposed restrictions. This limited supply certainly didn’t reflect the magazine’s immense popularity, nor did it meet demand, and copies were often passed between friends. Sibylle was alluring mostly for its striking contrast to the stifling prudishness of life in the Easter Bloc, and covers typically featured beautiful, carefree, and fashionably-dressed women against abstract and colorful backgrounds. More importantly, the contents of the magazine included clothing patterns by which readers could create their own garments at home, providing subtle encouragement to reclaim individual style among mandated conformity. Cloth was difficult to come by and those that got their hands on the sewing patterns would need to make due by using what was available, sometimes fashioning garments from bedsheets, upholstery, curtains, old rags, and even tarp. But despite the image of unhindered freedom that the models represented, the magazine and its contents were occasionally subject to censorship. Because it was initially deemed by the government to be unobtrusive, Sibylle didn’t receive the same level of scrutiny as other printed media, and its editors were quick to take advantage of the lax restrictions. For some time, and particularly in the beginning, editors were free to report on cultural themes, like art, literature, and theater, that were outside of the magazine’s intended scope. 

By the 1960s, the liberty that the editors of Sibylle once enjoyed was curtailed in the wake of further economic decline, which was blamed on subversive “enemy” ideals and influences. Sibylle Gertzner resigned from her position as chief editor in 1962 after the magazine was accused of being “too French for socialism” and returned to her work as a costume designer. Arno Fischer became Sibylle’s new photographer that same year, and with him came a new vision for the contexts in which models would be presented. Originally, the models were photographed in studios with fixed, staged poses complimented by brightly colored backgrounds. After 1962, the models were freed from the artificiality of the studio and brought into the full light of day — Fischer’s style of photography presented women in more natural poses in every-day locations, such as sitting on the benches of train stations, frolicking through meadows, or strolling confidently along the streets of the city. 

The 1970s was a period of further economic decline, and the mood of the era was captured in yet another shift of style. The graceful and delicate models that were usually featured were replaced by plain-featured and androgynous women in typical GDR worker’s fashion, One photo, taken of a model standing behind a low wall, was deemed to be too repressive by the government and was retaken to feature the model in front of the wall instead as a symbol of freedom. The magazine’s style became somewhat stagnant, and this trend persisted throughout the decade. Although the economy never recovered until well after the GDR was dissolved, the magazine editors slowly readopted their original, bolder artistic style, and in some ways became more daring than their predecessors, going so far as to depict models wearing lingerie and swimwear. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Sibylle magazine, and the escape and exoticism that it once offered, was no longer necessary and its popularity quickly waned. The “Vogue of the East”, as it used to be known, declared bankruptcy by 1995.

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