Across National Borders

The face of Berlin is changing. Once again. A city that had been divided – arbitrarily, into four parts initially, then into two parts, that could not be any more different – has finally grown whole again. East meets West and West meets East. Don’t mention the wall.

The new generation of Berliners will point out that this is one big city. No difference between right here and over there. Ich bin ein Berliner. Bored with the hype and mystification around this curiously unique historical setting, they live in the present, while the older generations cannot help but remember what the two Berlins were like pre 1989.

Berlin is in fashion again, even on an international scale. I arranged to meet Dorothea Melis, former fashion editor of Sibylle, the most popular East German women’s magazine in the former GDR. Eighty pages, forever out of stock: forty fashion pages, forty culture pages.

It is a sunny morning in February as I walk through Prenzlauer Berg, one of the first gentrified areas of the former Soviet sector. Russian writer and Berlin resident Wladimir Kaminer reckons this particular area is a ‘biotope that turns geeks into slackers’. Undoubtedly, this no longer applies. This part of town has a pleasant, polished feel about it. The roads are wide and lined with trees, the impressive old residential houses are of the type with high ceilings and stucco and a high tech pram parked at the bottom of each staircase.

I walk inside Xion, the corner café Dorothea Melis picked. ‘We should be fairly undisturbed here’, she assured me over the phone. It is a spacious café-slash-bar-type-thing, wooden tables and chairs, big windows with only a few seats occupied. I realise that I am myself one of the tourists that blend in, still a little shaky when it comes to interacting with Berliners. To them, I sound and look German, but I feel slightly lost. I wonder what it must have felt like for ex-GDR’lers to walk into a café in their new-old homeland and feel somewhat alien.

At 11am on the dot, the door opens and Melis walked in. I instantly recognised her. We greet each other and choose a table by the window in the adjoining room. Melis is used to giving interviews, since the publishing of her first book in 1998, she has become the self-appointed ‘information-auntie’ concerning East German fashion. But she is also an excellent contemporary witness, of a generation that experienced the rise and fall of the GDR as an adult. I, on the other hand, may have been old enough to remember what happened in 1989 but was too young to fully understand its implications.

Melis looks understatedly fancy and distinctive. Her dark brown pageboy haircut gives her a distinct style. There is a charming elegance about her. We sit down and begin to chat. She is warm and talkative; there were already stories bubbling out of her before I even begin recording our conversation.

Born in 1938, just a year before the start of the Second World War, she grew up in Post-War Berlin. The shattered capital was then divided into four sectors amongst the allies, hers randomly falling into that of the Soviets. At the age of nineteen she enrolled to study fashion design at the Berlin-Weißensee Academy of Fine and Applied Art. The academy for visual and applied arts was founded in 1947 by two Bauhaus alumni, Botjes van Beck and Mart Stam. ‘We perceived ourselves as industrial designers and not as aloof fashion creators’, Melis pointed out during her speech at the opening of the exhibition ‘In Grenzen Frei’ (‘Free within Borders’) at Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin in July 2009.

For the theoretical part of her diploma, Melis analysed the then out-of-touch magazine Sibylle. Angry with both the magazine’s content and layout, which portrayed the 1950s hausfrau in Paris’ haute couture, she heavily criticised the magazine within her project. It was her healthy portion of self-confidence and young diligence that notoriously landed her a job as the new fashion editor in 1961 — the same year the Berlin wall was built.

‘Of course, we had some journals at our academy, we definitely had Vogue and I had the comparison. I could see in what a cultivated way a magazine could be made. And Paris is the navel of the world! Yes, but not for the GDR. We still had food ration cards, there was a huge housing shortage, many women were working because they were simply needed as labour. And this was just absurd. Then there was also a feuilleton. There were interesting features in Sibylle about painters. But one should reflect on the fashion, in the visual but also in the applied art.’

At the magazine, Melis had pretty much free creative rein, much more than expected in a country where the media is controlled by the state. The so-called ‘central committee’ did not understand fashion and thought of it as harmless. The editor-in-chief Margot Pfannstiel, an economic journalist, trusted her to make the right decisions. ‘She had no idea about fashion, but liked my thoughts and this kind of aggressiveness and she actually said to me, “Well, if you really know everything about this, you might as well start here.” I was twenty-two and, of course, at twenty-two you know everything and this was also the tenor of my diploma.’

Most of the old team were laymen. She brought in a whole group of people. It was her team, many of which were former course mates or friends, people she knew, trusted and who thought alike. Melis was inspired by the West German cult lifestyle magazine Twen, which was hailed as the precursor of the sexual revolution. ‘Copies [of Twen] always made it across the border somehow. Amazing: the layout by Fleckhaus and also the attitude, the way they photographed women. This naturalness, casualness, anti-bourgeois-ness, we all thought of as super.’

Melis’s persuasion had always been to bring everything together under a common theme or concept where form and context should harmonise. ‘I am good at organising and I make good concepts. My creative work was mainly driven by the idea, not so much by the implementation. When I designed collections, my colleague would come along and she would go into the details, but I was not interested in that anymore. But the idea was there.’ Her role was to find the wider picture and organise, rather than follow it through to the very last step. She always knew where to find the right people to help her with the details.

Her circle of friends was a tight-knit, intimate clique of East Berlin Bohemians; artists, photographers, writers, many of which worked for Sibylle. They would sit together, drink and talk about their projects and openly discuss ideas. The reunification brought an abrupt end to their exchange. ‘After the reunification, everything was over. Nobody was there for each another any more. It was totally silent … this familiarity, this solidarity, that was over. Nobody spoke about their projects, about their ideas, about their thoughts.’ But Melis stuck to her guns and with her talent of bringing everything together, she was the first of the group to write a book about the history of the magazine, perhaps with the necessary distance of time. She compiled information, found former contributors and interviewed photographers in her book ‘Sibylle – Modefotografie aus drei Jahrzehnten DDR’ (fashion photography from three decades of the GDR). Its first of three editions was published in 1998 at Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf. Her intention was to show the world what was really happening in East Germany, a country that suffered from a common international ignorance of being somewhat culturally inferior. Many West Germans sympathised with their brothers and sisters in the East. There was a sense of nostalgia and a strong desire to be one nation again. But in many cases this was paired with an underlying attitude of complacency and arrogance.

Dorothea and her husband Roger Melis who was one of the most prominent portrait photographers of the GDR, enjoyed a special and rare status of being in possession of a passport that allowed them to travel to the West. They befriended Viktoria von Flemming, a cultural journalist at the NDR (North German broadcasting service). This was a ‘friendship without reservation’. At the journalist’s 50th birthday party in Hamburg, amongst the Hamburg media in-crowd, a writer from Stern, the journal that became internationally famous for the publishing of the forged ‘Hitler-Diaries’, insulted Melis upon hearing that they had visited from the East. If they were from the East, they would have to learn how to work first. ‘This was a widely spread mindset, this devaluation and making small, because they perhaps thought to be superior through this.’ It was after the publishing of her book that Melis realised ‘which deficit of knowledge was underlying everywhere about the Eastern culture’. Antonia Hilke, the prominent West German fashion journalist whose 1980s TV programme ‘Neues vom Kleidermarkt’ had reached cult status, wrote to Melis in 1997, ‘How little we had all known about the GDR in all these years’.

Melis remembers that many people in East Germany did not care much about fashion. They could not afford expensive clothes, even if they had been widely available. The GDR also imported clothes and high-quality fabrics from abroad, but she admits that the numbers were so small that you had to know somebody in the boutique in order to get your hands on these coveted goods. Luxury items were scarce. For example, people would wait ten years, often longer, to get a car.

In 1971 Melis left Sibylle and went on to work for Exquisit, the GDR’s only luxury clothing label, formed under the first head of state Walter Ulbricht, in order to ‘supply the population with clothing produce with high value of usage and modern design in the higher price genres’. Melis was appointed press and PR director and shaped the image of the label. Sibylle served as Exquisit’s ‘mouthpiece’. Her stance on the formation of Exquisit is that ‘the party and the government were afraid that the people would go to the barricades. Actually, there was nothing there to be bought from the money that we worked for.’

Exquisit was selling so-called ‘fashion standards’ because they were not available in the state supply of garments. They were basic wardrobe staple pieces with a classic and often timeless style. ‘If you think about it, what should really have been available at every corner, that’s what we sold at Exquisit. Yes, it was expensive, but this is how it was.’ The GDR practised planned economy with textiles, on a national scale and for export. Melis believes that this type of planned economy was the ‘death of any fashion’. ‘You can plan fashion, fashion has concepts, that is right. But you cannot [do this] two years in advance and also according to units. They accounted the fashion, the garments, according to units. “We now have 200,000 coats” and then the plan was fulfilled.’ But the people didn’t buy the produce so it accumulated in warehouses. It was offered to other socialist countries, which were not interested in buying the masses of unwanted, old stock. ‘There was no free market analysis. What do people want, what do they buy, what do they wish for? This was uninteresting. So this was just [created] by party secretaries. Every firm had union representatives who would sometimes make proposals what a collection should look like. Hello! And this is exactly what it looked like. Every collection was put to test through at least ten committees. If you think about it, the sort of skirt that would come out at the end of it!’

We chuckle a bit, but actually, the reality of it feels heavy and doleful. I try to imagine what it might have been like to work creatively under the conditions in the former German Democratic Republic. I am impressed with Dorothea Melis’s optimism and her ability to formulate a strong opinion through the means that were available to her at the time, forever walking a fine line between what was possible without risking her own freedom or credibility. What is striking is that she managed to do this from within the system, while the Fashion Institute and the Women’s Commission was looking over her shoulder. At no point did she openly rebel against the regime. This would have been the death of her influence. Her mission was to make the daily grind of the East German citizen more beautiful and joyful, by helping to express one’s identity through fashion and culture within the legal realms.

Ideologically, the socialist ideal of beauty was different to that of the West. The strong focus on ‘naturalness’ was considered rough and bland by the West who had just discovered luxurious status symbols as the ultimate accessory. The GDR citizen’s naturalness was portrayed as a logic implication of the stigma of austerity that was portrayed, how could they not want what we have? But naturalness meant something very different to the East German. ‘To us’, Melis explains to me, ‘naturalness presupposes a lot of discipline. One has to recognise one’s self to appear natural. And the one that appears natural no longer has a chance to hide behind anything, but he is himself.’

Nauseated by the throwaway society we experience today, Germany reminded itself of the lost socialist regime that has been swallowed by the Federal Republic of Germany. 2003 saw a revival of Eastern chic – Ostalgie (an amalgmation of the words ‘east’ and ‘nostalgia’) – a mystification of the GDR and its lost values. Through the lens of time, an entire country has looked back towards the old East and began to understand some of the positive features of the communist ideology.

Melis remembers what it was like when she went to the department stores after the reunification. ‘Now there were these rummage tables, this mass offering, this cheap supply. It is the same today when I go to a department store, I think it looks so cheap, so shabby, it is so dreadful. And on the other side there is this high culture from, say Escada and Donna Karan … you barely see a really classy and well and beautifully dressed woman … After the reunification the corpulent and older women would wear leggings. Oh no! I thought, if this is the prize or the success.’ Sibylle helped to show East Germans how to create beauty out of the few means available. Yet, if need renders creativity, then abundance stifles it.

This interview was written during my first year on the Critical Writing in Art & Design MA course at the Royal College of Art. It informed my interim dissertation about the criticism of Sibylle towards the East and West German regimes during the 1960s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: