FINALE — Supersized: Denim on Demand/in Demand — the Story of Jeans in the GDR
Hello and welcome to the East German Fashion History Podcast. This will be our supersized season 2 finale where we will focus on all things denim.
For the winter months, we will be taking a break with a relaunch in the spring for season 3 featuring special guests and roundtables that explore various topics about fashion in the GDR both past and present.
Today is going to be a supersized episode meaning it will be a bit longer with a concentrated amount of information. To follow this episode please click the episode link description for show notes. And if you love all things denim and this topic continues to pique your interest, then I recommend reading Jeans in der DDR by Rebecca Menzel in German available on Amazon for $36.06.
Lastly, you can also follow me at The Artificial Silk Femme for updates on blog posts, season 3 and Made in Germany: Weimar Fashion
Now on with today’s show….
Since about the early 70s, denim — specifically Levi’s and Lee jeans were two of the most coveted items in East Germany. But they were more than just a highly desired style staple, they were a gateway into youth culture and a political expression of dissent.
SIDE NOTE: While you may have read that Levi’s and Lee jeans were illegal or banned in East Germany, please note that this claim is incorrect. While they were forbidden in schools and some events or club houses, these restrictions were eventually lifted. Another important fact to note is that calling them “jeans” was perceived as too Western so they were usually referred to as Cottino Hose or rivet pants. Also it was common in East German movies that whoever was playing the bad guy or antagonist would be wearing jeans. So the passive political undertone is evident.
Within the general history of denim, we can’t talk about jeans without exploring its inherent link to youth culture.
Under the approval of the Socialist Unity Party, The German Fashion Institute launched a series of fashion shows, celebrity endorsed campaigns and even opened up a chain of clothing stores all aimed at appealing to a generation of teenagers towards the latter half of the 60s.
In 1966 there was Jugendweihe a fashion presentation that showed a collection of fairly proper/conservative styles for teens.
In 1967 the wildly beloved schlager stars, (schlager is genre in Germany Austria similar to country) Chris Doerk (think of her as Taylor Swift) and Frank Shoebel, (think Justin Bieber) model for the Jugendmode or youth fashions magazine featuring 80 looks for men and women.
In 1968 the first “Jugendzentren”, a fashion-forward teen clothing store opened. These are later referred to as Jumo or Jugend Mode, youth/adolescent fashion. And these open up throughout the GDR.
Regardless if its fashion in the East or West, ageism has always been a perennial source of discontent. A personal account from a Heinz W who claimed he was forced to wear women’s sweaters due to stores’ lack of mens knitwear remembers watching a fashion show on a East German tv in 1971 and remarking “I still havent seen a fashion show where one shows…something for those of us who are older. Fashion for young people dominates, but we are also still around (for your information: I am 46). Could someone tell that to Bormann, Luci Kaiser, and the rest of the fashion designers?”
SIDE NOTE: For those of you wondering who Bormann as in Heinz Bormann and Luci Kaiser were, these were really the only two brandname East German designers that would have their clothes also sold at Exquisit. They were separate from the German Fashion Institute. For more information on them, specifically Heinz Bormann also referred to by the West German fashion press as the “Red Dior”, please circle back to season 1 episodes 2 and 3.
“West Jeans” specifically Lees and Levis were like gold in East Germany but also a catalyst for a change in conventional standards of dress and decorum as this personal account from Ralf Tour of Leipzig attests in the book Chic in Der DDR:
If you didn’t have family in the West, it was impossible to get jeans (Lees or Levis) Jumo had Lee jeans for a time being. When I went to highschool in 69 you were sent home for wearing them. 4 years later, this was over at the very least, people cared if you wore jeans to formal events. Of course you had to wear the “right” jeans and that naturally had a limited availability. Once I had to stand in line for 5, 6 hours at Jumo. Luckily when I finally got in the store, they had a pair left.
Not only is Ralf’s experience a great example of how denim obsessed the GDR was but interesting because his story is not much different than one of today, where people all over the world wait in line for countless hours at the former Opening Ceremony, Nike, or Kith stores (whatever era-defining of-the-moment retail store) for the latest sneaker or hype clothing drop.
In the history of almost any mercurial fashion culture, in order for it to come to life, you need to have a highly-coveted item that inspires a cult-like status and creates a demand so strong that it defines a generation. Denim in East Germany fits that quite well.
There was even a play, “The New Sorrows of Young W.” by Ulrich Plenzdorf a denim-clad protaganoizt who professe sthat jeans are “an attitude” and “the finest trousers in the world.” The protagonist forgoes the synthetic and poorly made GDR styles for the “real thing”.
An account from Dietmar K of Goerlitz states
Once I treated myself to something really special — -a pair of Levis (unwashed) My dream pants cost $60 DM at Intershop (a store where you could only buy West German products with West German marks). I had a work colleague that always had West German Marks and I traded mine 1:5 so for $300 Eastmarks I got my dream jeans which I would only wear for special occasions. That was about half of my monthly income.
Fake It to Make It
Now if you didn’t have the money or connections to get a pair of jeans from the West, your next best option were the knockoffs. Vietanamese guest workers created their own lucrative side business of making elegant imitations.
Here is an account from:
Peter J out of Schwedt
I had my own “individual” Lev’i’s that a Vietnamese friend had sewn. Their Platbauen apartment was packed with orders but as long as there was room for the Singer sewing machine and fabric, it worked.
Of course each pair of Levi’s has a different serial number. With these knockoffs me and my friends all had the same serial number, but we didn’t care because every detail was identical to the original. And in our minds, we had as close to the real thing as possible.
In terms of home sewing jeans, as we’ve explored DIY was essential to the GDR fashion culture this was another alternative if you couldn’t have them copied. There is one issue of Pramo/Praktische Mode, a home sewing/fashion magazine, that prominently features a pair of jeans on the cover.
Information on how to sew them and insider tips of applying the rivets with pliers or hacks like wearing your jeans in the bathtub or in the Baltic Sea to help break them, these all exclusive insider tips that further helped create the cult-like status of denim.
Designer Denim — GDR Style
Given the demand for denim from the West, in 1974 the GDR released non branded styles of nietenhose, or rivet pants, aka jeans.
That same year they launched a slew of their own designer label denim with brand names such as:
“Boxer” “Wisent”, “Shanty” and “Gold Fuchs”.
Their quality leaves something to be desired, they do not match the originals from the West, but are still in high demand and available for retail at Jumo.
Sabine L from Wittenberg recalls that…
There were a variety of denim brands made here, Boxer and Wisent were the most well-known. But also Bison and Goldfuchs. Goldfuchs came from Eldamo Zwickau which was considered more elegant. Boxer was of the best quality and cost 120 Marks. Wisent was cheaper. The more you washed your Boxer jeans, the better they looked.
In general, imports for raw materials like cotton were hard to comeby so these jeans usually contained synthetics.
Now Boxer jeans were known to be a little stiff as Doris H from Guestrow recalls
I had a pair of Boxers. The material was really stiff so I had to use a brush to soften and wear it down. West jeans in the Inter Shop weren’t possible to get if you didn’t have Western relatives. So I saved for my Boxers. They were more than 100 marks and as still an apprentice at my job, I got 190 marks monthly so they were quite expensive.
Levis and Copyright Issues
As we’ve learned in our journey through exploring the story of fashion in the GDR there are often bits of irony that come about. And this last piece to our story of denim exemplifies this.
The GDR denim label Wisent came under fire by Levi’s for plagiarism because of the identical proportions of the pocket seam. Negotiations dragged on but the production of these still continued.
In late November of 1978 SED Party Leader Erich Honecker signed off on a deal for the import of 1 million pairs of jeans that were sold at selected universities, companies and even the Ministry of State Security.
It is unclear as to why he signed off on this when ideologically and it’s everything he would have been against. The East German Communist party orchestrating the design and manufacturing of an entire denim industry, insisted on calling these coveted pieces “rivet pants” because “jeans” was to Western.
And that’s it for today and for season 2 of the East German Fashion History Podcast. I really want to thank all of you for tuning in these past two seasons. I hope you learned something and that this podcast broadens your perspective of fashion and what life was like in East Germany.
Stitziel, Judd. Fashioning Socialism: Clothing, Politics and Consumer Culture in East Germany. (New York: Berg Publishers, 2005)
Jeans in Der DDR. (Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2005)
“How Jeans Became a Symbol of Youth Empowerment During the Cold War”