Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Stil in die Stadt (im Herbst)

Berlin. The novelist and playwright Honoré Balzac thought it boring. The Marxist leader Rosa Luxemburg considered it ‘cold’ and ‘tasteless’.[i] Adolf Hitler welcomed the Allied bombing of the city in the 1940s because its destruction would facilitate the construction of Albert Speer’s gargantuan structures for Germania, the new capital of Große Deutschland.[ii] In the nineteenth century, another visitor to the city, German novelist Theodor Fontane, focused his criticism on the Berliners themselves, whom he regarded as ordinary and mediocre. In 1963, American President JFK would proclaim that he was a Berliner as a gesture of political solidarity, but Fontane would never have considered himself such, however figuratively.

The publication of several books on German street style would suggest the country, its chief cities, and Berlin especially, are creative rather than conventional, populated with trendsetters and not mere imitators. On previous visits to Berlin, I would have doubted this, as I would for any city today. If commentators question the existence of clothing trends because fashions, despite changing so frequently, are increasingly homogenised and androgynous, is it really possible that an area in Western Europe just under 900km2 could posses its own sartorial culture?

A short visit to Berlin last week provided an opportunity for me to give the city’s style more attention. I had to look hard. Berliners in Autumn are dressed as practically and darkly as the buildings they inhabit. In part this is understandable, for the city at this time of year is cold; to walk along the Spree can be bracing. But practicality and darkness does not mean drab. For, like their newly erected buildings, street style is all about the detail. Berliners dress in contrasting textures and use flashes of bright colour to add light-hearted and personal touches to their rugged and weatherproof clothing. This point was particularly evident with footwear. Boots and trainers with buckles and bold coloured laces were commonplace; a particularly heavy-duty pair of red boots distracted me from the sixteenth-century paintings in the Gemaldgalerie. Neck scarves were equally evocative, as were the glasses, although continental specs are invariably more interesting than those available in the UK, so this was not so surprising. More interesting was a seemingly unintentional contemporary twist on lederhosen (or plus fours?): high socks, or body-hugging leggings, worn under three-quarter length trousers. In the Gemaldgalerie – clearly the place for stylish Berliners – one young boy wore green trousers over blue socks and with accompanying blue trainers. Double piercings on the lower lip or a single piercing of the septum were common sights among young Berliners: the look was at once rebellious and, due to the paired piercing, ascetical.

In his latest book, Berlin: Imagine a City, travel writer Rory Maclean analyses the complex and frequently tortuous history of Berlin through the lives of twenty-three of its former inhabitants from the Middle Ages into modernity. He describes how the city’s past caused Frederick II to exchange the pursuit of wisdom for war;[iii] chemist Fritz Halber to preference state loyalty over the love of his wife, who shot herself when his gases were first used during the First World War;[iv] Marlene Dietrich to be renounced by the city of her birth because her cinematic performances exposed truths too painful for Berliners, and other Germans, to confront.[v] Maclean seeks to explain, on both a personal and historical level, the city’s grizzled and grey appearance, its apparent conformity and stoicism, on the one hand, and its enduring appeal and ‘underground’ allure, on the other. He suggests the demeanour of Berliners has been socialised through the city’s short (it has no Roman remains, unlike most European capitals) and brutal (it has been invaded, razed, rebuilt and divided) history. If the experience of The Thirty Years’ War and Habsburg ruled conditioned Berliners (and Germans, more generally) to obey at a relatively early stage in the city’s (and country’s) development, political disruption and wartime deprivation instilled a ‘Devil May Care’ spirit that manifests itself, subtlety, in laconic displays of individuality.

As I waited at Schöneberg airport to return to London and watched passengers alight from the aircraft that I would soon be boarding, I struggled to identify the likely nationality of the people: were they English, German, American? But as I looked, and applied the knowledge that I had gained from previous days of sartorial study, those whom I suspected to be Berliners stood out more clearly. On the face of it, Berlin dress is as ordinary and mediocre as Theodor Fontane once considered its people, but as ever in fashion, first looks are deceptive.

[i] R. Maclean, Berlin: Imagine A City (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014), 172.

[ii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London: Pimlico, 2002), 352.

[iii] Maclean, Berlin, 41-51.

[iv] Ibid., 134-49.

[v] Ibid., 199-215.

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