Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (New York: Fredrick Ungar Publising Co, 1983).
Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: the Outsider as Insider. (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
Gesa Kessemeier, Herrmann Gerson: Das erste Berliner Modekaufhaus (Jüdische Miniaturen)(Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich Verlag, 2016).
Gesa Kessemeier, Ein Feentempel der Mode oder Eine vergessene Familie, ein ausgelöschter Ort: Die Familie Freudenberg und das Modehaus „Herrmann Gerson” (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich Verlag, 2013).
Molly Loberg, The Struggle for the Streets of Berlin: Politics, Consumption, and Urban Space, 1914–1945. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Susan Ingram & Katrina Sark Berliner Chic: A Locational History Of Berlin Fashion (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).
John Willet. The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011).
Hello and welcome the Season Premiere of Weimar Fashion: Made in Germany part of the German Fashion History Podcast formerly the East German Fashion History Podcast.
For this season, we will explore one of Berlin’s most-illustrious decades with a hard focus on the Ready-to-Wear garment industry, notable Berlin fashion houses and the inevitable destruction of it all with the Aryanization of the fashion, textile, and publishing industry leading up to Nazi Germany. From Weimar-era literature, fashion publications, film, and trusted secondary sources, I’ll be piecing together a mosaic of Berlin’s rich and complex fashion history — with all of its intricacies.
Today’s episode is actually not going to focus on fashion but will attempt to construct the complex cultural and political landscape of the Weimar Era to better understand the varying conditions, currents, and influences that persisted.
Fashion thrives on the ephemeral and lives symbiotically in the zeitgeist. So this is what you need to know to understand this fascinatingly complex sartorial culture.
What was the Weimar Republic?
The Weimar Republic was the interim Post World War I government between 1918 and 1933. Weimar refers to the city of Weimar where the republic’s constituent assembly took place. This Federal Constitutional government was formed after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Prior to this, Germany was in a 47-year monarchy.
In October of 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was created to delegate powers to the elected parliament. On October 29 in Kiel a rebellion broke out among soldiers, sailors and workers who had formed a Workers and Soldiers Councils modeled after the Soviets of the Russian Revolution. This uprising spread throughout Germany.
The country already had a growing Socialist movement which was split between the Independent Socialist Party which wanted peace negotiations and a soviet-style economy versus the Social Democratic Party also known as the Majority Social Democratic Party which favored a parliamentary system and supported the war effort. By the 7th the revolution had reached Munich and King Ludwig II fled and the MSPD insisted Kaiser Wilhelm abdicate himself. Kaiser Wilhelm refused which led Prince Max from Baden to say he did step down.
On November 9 the German Republic (which was later referred to as the Weimar Republic in the 30s) was proclaimed
In December elections were held for a National Assembly tasked with creating a new parliamentary constitution. On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly met in the town of Weimar and formed the Weimar Coalition. They also elected SPD leader Friedrich Ebert as President of the Weimar Republic.
On August 11, 1919 the Weimar Constitution was signed with SPD leader Friedrich Ebert as the President.
You’ve probably heard this term thrown around a lot to describe art, film or a particular mood.
And when we think about Weimar, we must think of it in terms of a thriving culture always on the precipice of something politically, artistically, socially ..motivated. Its reactive nature was mirrored by its environment — unstable, fragile, resilient.
What we know of the Weimar Republic in art, theater, film & fashion. Here are some of the cultural movements that were influenced by and a part of the Weimar Republic.
- The November Gruppe / November Group established in December of 1918. Adapting their name from the German November Revolution, this motley crew of artists and architects professed themselves radical and revolutionary sharing socialist values. This was led by Max Pechstein and Cesar Klein. In 1921 they called for an end to ‘bourgeois development of artists’ ; this was signed by Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Hannah Hoesch, Rudolf Schlichter, and Georg Scholz.
Stylistically they sought out a matter-of-factness in their work intent on a more unflattering approach and honest representation of life. This was a direct social criticism and a rejection of pre war German Expression sentimentality. They wanted a stronger unity between the public, art and life. As the Art Critic Edward Sorel remarked:
‘They were confident that merely by rejecting the sentimentality of prewar German Expressionism, and substituting a more realistic, sober view of the life around them, they could not only bring about a new society but usher in a ‘new man.’”
This raw and unfiltered representation of life is known as the Neue Sachlichkeit — New Objectivity which Otto Dix and Georg Grosz as well as Kaethe Kollwitz championed.
But ultimately the Novembergroup was a wild mix of different styles known as
- The Bauhaus from 1919–1933 was also a byproduct of the Weimar Era. The school conceptualized on egalitarian-minded principles with a vision of blending of mass production with high-minded, artistic design for every day, was founded by Walter Gropius. The institution had three schools in Dessau, Weimar, and Berlin. And similar to the matter-of-fact attitude of the New Objectivity the Bauhaus believed in an honest design where form follows function. Objects were designed to look like what they are with geometric and elegant shapes. Kitsch, scrollwork, and the personal touch or the ideas or feelings of the artist/ designer had no place here. Again. We’re moving AWAY from German expressionism of the Pre and Interwar years to a New, Unadulterated, Unfiltered, and honest way of perceiving the world in furniture, architecture, art, textiles, and in fashion.
- Theater and Film. The Weimar Era is probably most known for its film. From classics like Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the history of film owes itself to Weimar. Fashion was naturally a major part of this and many of the trends and coveted styles from Berlin Departments’ stores would be showcased on the big screen. Later in this podcast, we will explore how film was a vehicle for promoting the fashion trends of the day.
- Graphic Design
With the fall of the monarchy, which heavily censored everything from street signage to advertising, mass political communication like posters, etc., and ultimately all literature there was a new generation of revolutionaries that came into symbolic power. Commercial entrepreneurs, businesses and political clubs, and coalitions felt emboldened to proclaim their newfound freedoms of expression by covering city surfaces and walls with their own means. The newly constituted national parliament in Frankfurt lifted the barriers of censorship previously imposed by the German monarch and this so-called “Street literature” became a political vehicle of the revolution. This included posters, leaflets, cheap booklets sold by street hawkers and yes while it was revolutionary for its political content it also held a lot of symbolic weight of being able to read these pamphlets in public and not privately as once was the case. According to Molly Loberg’s “The Struggle for the Streets of Berlin’’, postwar Berlin was a place for paper revolutions as posters provided an essential medium. Because the messaging was sometimes more advanced for some reading levels, poster makers attempted to write in “Berlinerisch” or slang.
When the social democrats took over in 1918, they appropriated many of the same visual schemes like the monarchy printing its proclamations on vibrant red which was the color reserved by law for official posters.
And yet there was some propagandistic about the messaging from these posters — aspiring for discipline and sacrifice with slogans like:
“Don’t strangle the young freedom through disorder and fratricide.”
“He who doesn’t work is the gravedigger of his children.”
This new era of bustling and frenetic energy felt throughout the poster & paper-plastered streets and Berlin provided bounteous opportunities for commercial artists and graphic designers. In 1918–1919 when the SPD came to power, the office of Publicity called on Berlin artists like Max Pechstein and Cesar Klein from the November Group to design these various posters.
Naturally, with the post-war and a nation in transition, it’s a grave understatement to say that the economy was in a bit of a disarray. It was complete and utter chaos and we can’t really even begin to understand Weimar era fashion with the Black Market. Berlin developed a more extended black market than any other capital city at war. Authorities tolerated it since the food distribution schemes in place failed to supply the populace.
When the war ended, the Black Market surged into public space and trade was often bustling around train stations and working-class or poor city districts. The Scheunenviertel which was north of Alexanderplatz was such an example because of its large proletarian and immigrant district. This would eventually be the main site for antisemitic attacks and hate crimes which we will discuss more of this season.
Commerce and trade were turned inside out. Buying, selling, and trading went from the shots to the streets. Street hawking was a lucrative opportunity to respond flexibly to unpredictable market conditions. You only needed a little capital to get started.
One could find a breathtaking array of goods : bread, leather jackets, jewelry, tobacco, soap , bicycles and even diamonds. August Mertens a Representative of the Social Democrats sarcastically described the street hawking scene in an April 1919 speech as: “A complete department store style business emerged, a business so exemplarity and magnificently organic that one could have taken pure pleasure in it, if it didn’t concern you that it was stolen or otherwise illicitly obtained goods…in short, if someone wanted to buy something in Berlin and didn’t know where to get it, he could do nothing more clever than take a look there.”
In January of 1919, a Spartacist Revolt resulted in the looting of the Tietz department store at Alexanderplatz bullets sprinkled across store windows. And an estimated 30,000 Marks in damages. Looters also rampaged through a clothing store in the MItte district. It was noted that for weeks after suits, fur coats, women’s gloves, and umbrellas were then found on the black market and probably hawked on the streets.
Book and magazine sellers became human kiosks. Pinning all the goods they sold to their clothes. You could wander around any major transit hub and see trays of fresh rolls wrapped around a hawker’s neck, or a drum player and a muzzled “dancing” bear luring children to outdoor carnivals.
In the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin this spirit really captured this spirit.
Franz, the main character who was just released from prison is trying to survive and make a living in Weimar era Berlin hawking on the streets quote”
“Franz, who has sold his overcoat, and is wearing thick underwear, which Lana got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabisch & Co. a high-class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characters of our products. Franz is hawking necktie holders. He shouts his spiel “Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you to, Fraulein, with your husband minors allowed, it costs no more for minors. Why does the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ’em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s not good and he can’t tie the tie with it. That’s swindling, it makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. Why, for instance, do not they wear those big tie-holr because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at ladies in gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child’s brain. OH lord, the dear little head, the little head, and the curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you got to pay alimony, tis not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go buy yourself a tie like that at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.” He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. “The big department stairs don’t’ have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one i have here, and then decide how your’ going to tie it tomorrow” (end)
There’s a lot to unpack from this passage. Because it’s emblematic of some of the many biases, sentiments and class structures that existed during Weimar and are going to be a part of the dialogue when we talk about Weimar fashion.
First, there’s this undertone of us vs them the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie,
There is also this underlying sense of post-war poverty and trying to find a scapegoat.
The dichotomy of big corporations and department stores versus the small business owner or street hawker in this case and entwined in that is most obviously, antisemitism. The fact that Franz had to assert he was a “nordic” man even in the book as you read on, he befriends and works closely with a Jewish man.
Since the late 19th century in Germany, there had been a lot of backlash from shopkeepers about department stores. Shopkeepers lobbied regional governments for special taxes on department stores. These initiatives channeled anti-modern and antisemitic sentiments against large stores.
So everything up to this point in the episode we haven’t actually physically gotten “into” the popular Berlin department stores and the coveted collections they carry, and the fashion culture around it — with popular magazines like Die Dame — and we’ll get into that later in this podcast. But just from the physical outside where we still are in this story, you can begin to get a sense that dress and fashion culture happens on the streets. And one of the major vehicles for fashion’s ephemerality and sense of urgency are the street hawkers. Selling the latest and greatest from what’s in store and for probably less. With leathers, furs, ties — all being sold at once with spurts of a supply and demand.
One could make the argument that fashion and dress were about immediacy and mirrored the instability of the Weimar era.
That is it for this week. Thank you so much for listening. Join me next Monday as we dive deeper into street hawking, department stores, and fashion.
Special thanks to Dr. Katrina Sark for her incredible guidance and mentorship and Dr. Gesa Kessemeier for her fabulous research and work on Berlin fashion history. For show notes, books and other sources that accompany this episode, please refer to the episode description for a link to the blog.