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The Effortlessly Cool German Style: How History Shapes Fashion

During our week off this reading week, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Berlin where I was stunned by its historical landmarks and vibrant, youthful community. Besides these, however, one element stood out: the fashion of local Berliners. Notably different from that of anywhere I have ever lived or visited, Berlin’s style shocked me for its simplicity and clean lines, while still being edgy and fashionable. I found myself wanting to mimic the effortlessly cool style of the young locals I saw in Berlin’s of-the-now neighborhoods, such as Mitte and Kreuzberg, as they went about town in their dark toned, vintage style outfits.

Present day Germany is renowned in the fashion world for being a capital of streetwear; the mixing of high fashion and vintage pieces results in a style that looks put together while not actively trying to be fashionable or dressy. The influence of Berlin’s particular club scene also impacts trends as Berliners dress in a way that suits their lifestyles and social lives. As Catherine Schaer explains in her 2019 article, “Berlin’s style is all about the intersection of music, art, architecture and nightlife, rather than trends.”

This influence of culture on German fashion is by no means a recent development as German fashion has, for many decades now, been heavily influenced by the socio-political environment in which the nation exists at the time. In order to truly understand the influences of the sophisticated style of modern day Berlin, I want to briefly examine the history of fashion in Germany throughout the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1920s, German fashion was at a high point thanks to Jewish designers and clothing shop owners, who spearheaded daring and modern fashions as society looked to enjoy liberation in the wake of the First World War. The influence of Jewish designers on popular trends was a noticeable one: publications followed their releases and advertised their clothing as the height of style. This influence extended beyond just fashion as Jewish women were noted as beacons of modernity and trendiness. As Kelly Wallach described in 2013, “Jewish women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often regarded as cultural forecasters or even as agents of modernity—not only for fashion trends, but also for culture more broadly.”

Wallach goes on to explain that, Jewish designers Valentin Manheimer and Herrmann Gerson “are credited with launching Berlin’s Konfektion [ready-to-wear] industry,” which still plays an active role in modern German fashion. The undeniable and tangible influence of Jewish designers and brands was so much that Jewish women became synonymous with fashion. According to an article published by the Museum at Eldridge Street, a Jewish synagogue and museum in New York “the very idea of haute couture was considered to be a piece of Jewish culture,”.

Anyone who knows anything about German history at this period in time, however, can assume that this height of influence for Jewish designers and fashion houses was soon to be dismantled. Beginning in the early 1930s, Germany tried to rid itself of any foreign or Jewish influence. Nazi policies began a smear campaign on Jewish designers and clothing stores, encouraging Germans to buy clothes “made from Aaryan hands.” Jane Thynne explains that the Association of Aryan Clothing established in 1933, ensured clothes were made in the “acceptable way,” attaching labels that ensured buyers that the clothing was indeed made by what was wrongfully deemed the right race of people.

Fashion thus underwent a dramatic shift under the Third Reich, as Hitler’s specific preferences – such as his disdain for makeup, perfume, and trousers (which he deemed to be too masculine) – defined trends. The heightened control on all aspects of life under Hitler’s totalitarian rule was embodied by the establishment of the Deutsches Modeamt, a German fashion institute led by Nazi officers that, as Thynne puts it, “existed to put the fascist into fashion.” The institute ensured German citizens wore German clothes made by German hands and German textiles. Traditional styles of German dress, such as the Tratcht dress, were endorsed, according to Ayrika Johnson in 2018, as “clothing was a means of participating in the culture and society of a larger German empire.”

Fashion, like every other facet of society under the Third Reich, was looked at as an important component of the German economy and a part of the concerted effort to cultivate the ideal German race in Hitler’s eyes. As a result, any foreign influences, such as those of the Parisian fashions that were earlier looked to by German society as the pinnacle of designer fashion and elegant style, were denounced by the Nazi government. Hitler saw the infiltration of French fashion in German women, as Johnson conveys, as an infringement on the German economy when international fashion houses were preferred over German ones. This resulted in conservative and practical designs that “reflected gendered expectations that women would focus on raising loyal Aryan families,” according to the Museum on Eldridge Street.

Following the end of the Second World War, the scarring events of the past few decades marked a change in German society and, as a result, in its fashion. In post-war Germany, the newly split West and East Berlin existed in a state of political instability and unrest, which was mirrored by the fashion and culture of the young populations. According to Jeff Hayton, punk first came to West Germany in 1977 after the punk wave first hit the United States and United Kingdom. In Germany, punk was different, as it defined “a new German cultural identity” that many, including Alfred Hilsberg, a journalist and advocate for the German punk scene at the time, hoped would lead to a culture more “modern, stylish, experimental” that was “based on a rejection of older German traditions in favor of innovative avenues of communication that rethought social relations.”

In a rebellion against the intensely restrictive regimes of Nazi Germany and the social unrest that existed as a result of a split Berlin, the German punk scene mirrored social discontent among youths who advocated a unified Germany with liberal human rights. As Chris Wendt explains in 2016, West German youth sought individuality and a new Germany in the form of punk art, music, and fashion. Punk offered an outlet for the chaos of society, pushing ideological and political reform or rebellion in various forms of self expression.

Influenced by the DIY trends of the ’50s and ’60s, German punk was personal and constructed by the individual, allowing one’s punk fashion to project a unique message. As a result, the punk scene was distinct in each city and neighborhood – an aspect still felt today as Berlin neighborhoods are marked by their own characteristics, fashions, and atmosphere.

A phrase coined by Hilsberg easily sums up the attitudes toward punk fashion during this period in time: “Lieber zu viel als zu wenig” – better too much than too little. After undergoing decades of socio-political turmoil, German youths rebelled by diving headfirst into punk fashions and arts in an effort to express their discontent with the current state of the nation.

Each of these eras plays a role in the cultivation of modern day German fashion and Berlin’s reputation as a key influence in streetwear. According to Maria Hunstig in a 2019 article for Vogue Business, German fashion today focuses on practicality with sports brands such as Adidas and Puma being the most sought after. The affordable city of Berlin means not everyone can afford high-end designer items, resulting in a laid back style that prioritises comfort alongside fashion. Schaer explains that Berlin’s “24-hour nightlife style” also influences fashion in Berlin: staples such as boots and beanies are of utmost importance in order to achieve the “effortlessly stylish or creative, rather than overtly on trend,” look that Berliners chase.

Interestingly, Germans spend significantly less than their European counterparts when it comes to buying clothes. Hunstig states that “Germans will spend an estimated €719 on clothing per person in 2019, well below Italy (€834) and the UK (€1,133).” Though it is hard to say for certain, this could potentially be a result of generational trauma caused by the economic instability Germany faced, especially throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, German fashion highlights the freedom of expression won by years of turmoil against the German people by focusing on comfort and utility. Contrasting the dramatic punk fashions that sought to go over the top in a form of rebellion, modern day German fashion maintains self-expression, but in a more widely attainable way, allowing a range of people to participate in modern, fashionable trends. Though fashion is, of course, subjective, the depth of fashion’s history and its influences in Germany explains the nation’s reputation as a powerhouse in streetwear today.

Illustration: Sarah Knight

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