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HART3236: BEYOND THE WALL: ART AND CULTURE IN EASTERN EUROPE, 1945
- THE PRESENT
TUTOR: SARAH JAMES
STUDENT: CHARLOTTE TASKER WORDS: 2998
How did issues of gender inform the work of female photographers in the GDR?
there was far more to it than just black and white. There were far more shades of grey...
1

The fashion photographs of Ute Mahler and Sibylle Bergemann published during the 1980s
in the official fashion magazine Sibylle are most obviously to be read as visible
manifestations of the many shades of grey which characterised life in the German Democratic
Republic (GDR) for many East German women. However, if one reads between the lines as
Einhorn suggests East German citizens did, they also allude to the far from black and white
clarity which typified Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) party policies regarding
women and gender equality as well as fashion, photography and therefore fashion
photography.
2
The lack of specific guidelines regarding official media censorship, for which
Stitziel blames the ambiguous ideology of Marxism-Leninism, enabled these two women to
subtly expose and critique reality in the GDR whilst blurring official and unofficial lines
using the medium of photography.
3
The lack of coordination within the party which led to
various contradictory practices and policies, together with the states geographical status as
what Pachmanov terms the grey zone of Europe particularly complicated issues of gender
in East Germany which will be explored in this essay.
4

Fashion in the GDR? Unpacking some misconceptions
It may seem absurd that official womens fashion and its consumption existed in the GDR.
However, whilst on the one hand the SED attempted to disassociate itself from western
capitalist consumerism and in doing so prevent its citizens from accessing fashion images and

1
Warnke, U. Four Times Round The Block: Unlicensed Publications Of Photography In The Late
GDR. eds. In: Geschlossene Gesellschaft. Knstlerische Fotografie in der DDR 1949-1989. eds.
Berlinische Galerie (exh. cat., Berlinische Gallerie) Berlin. 2012., p. 312
2
Einhorn, B. Cinderella goes to Market. Citizenship, Gender and Womens Movements in East Central
Europe. London; New York. 1993., p. 217
3
Stitziel, J. Fashioning Socialism. Clothing, politics and consumer culture in East Germany, Oxford;
New York. 2005., p. 7
4
Pachmanov, M. In? Out? In between? Some notes on the invisibility of a nascent eastern
European feminist and gender discourse in contemporary art theory. In: Gender Check. Femininity
and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe. (exh. cat., The Museum moderne Kunst Stiftung Wien)
Vienna. 2009., pp. 241-248, p. 241
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items, on the contrary, as Stitziel highlights, the state did not completely reject the idea of a
consumerist society but in fact strived to create its own attractive alternative consumerist
model which ultimately failed.
5
Stitziel suggests that the very limited availability of womens
clothing officially endorsed by the state resulted in many women impulse buying.
6
If this
was the case, then by endeavouring to prevent it, the state not only made it possible for
women to practice capitalist consumer habits, but in fact fuelled them to do so. Stitziel
postulates that the regime simultaneously marginalized and acknowledged the importance of
consumer goods, fashion, and women, and in looking to the West as the vision of modernity
created one of the basic tensions in the politics of consumption in the GDR.
7
Stitziel is
implicating that the states flawed ideology led women to behave as capitalist consumers in
line with official guidelines, so if this is the case it can be assumed that they certainly
behaved similarly and probably to a more extreme extent when making unofficial purchases.
It is hard to believe when thinking about East Germany and its close proximity to the West
that citizens, especially women, were unaware of capitalist consumer culture as practiced on
the other side of the Iron curtain. Citizens were able to gain knowledge of western fashion
products as there were always ways to consume western television and obtain western
publications, both of which would inform women as to fashion styles under capitalism and
make them desirable.
8
It does not come as a surprise that East German women would be
unsatisfied with the SEDs ambiguous and failing policies on fashion, especially as many
experienced capitalist consumer culture before Germany was divided. Women were
frustrated when confronted with items they were unable to buy in official stores, and the
states lax enforcement on illegally imported goods, as Stitziel outlines, led to the infiltration
of many West German goods onto the black market to which most women had access.
9
When
looking at the photography of Mahler and Bergemann it is important to bear in mind that
during the 1980s 20-30% of clothing worn by East German women came from the West.
10

These photographers presented women with styles which both resembled western trends but
could be reproduced at home either with the help of sewing patterns which accompanied the

5
Stitziel, p. 2
6
Stitziel, p. 147
7
Stitziel, p. 4
8
Kowalczyk, I. The ambivalent beauty. In: Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of
Eastern Europe. (exh. cat., The Museum moderne Kunst Stiftung Wien) Vienna. 2009, pp. 38-45., p.
44
9
Stitziel, p. 147
10
Stitziel, p. 153
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publications, or by altering store bought apparel. As a result of this situation which came
about due to the partys inability to control the fashion market, buying, sewing and
consuming unofficial fashion became what Stitziel rightly terms highly politicized acts.
11

The states ambiguous policy regarding fashion styles and consumerism stemmed from
fundamental disagreements amongst party officials as to what constituted fashion and
clothing in the GDR and how it should look. Drre over simplifies the situation by claiming
that the state considered clothes not as fashion, but instead put them into the category of
supplying consumer goods'.
12
Stitziel on the other hand argues that although it was agreed
by all that socialism aimed to fulfil the basic needs of every individual, the definition of
basic needs and as a result whether clothing was a need, simply a basic good, or a luxury, in
other words fashionable items, was highly contested.
13
Whilst some party officials rejected
the notion of fashion altogether, others rejected it as capitalist and celebrated the proletariat
as representative of the German nation, favouring traditional timeless clothing styles such as
Dirndls.
14
Completely contradictorily to both these views, some functionaries even looked to
Paris in the West and sought to promote international haute couture styles within the GDR.
15

This is a stance official political links fostered between the GDR and France as described by
Warnke certainly would have allowed party members to legitimise.
16
Some officials
interpreted haute couture as in-line with Marxist ideals as exclusive models could be
transferred into inexpensive mass producible designs.
17
It is no wonder that these diverse
understandings of Marxist-Leninism prevented the state completely standardising womens
clothing.
As the state lacked any clear policy on fashion, official guidelines regarding fashion
photography were also ambiguous. Leaders of the SED viewed press photography as state
propaganda.
18
Fashion photography however was an exception to the rule that all official

11
Stitziel, p. 164
12
Drre, S. About Strong Women, Home-Made Clothes and Fashion Punks: how fashion in the GDR
could create freedom. http://www.goethe.de/kue/des/prj/mod/thm/en5254130.htm. (accessed 12
December 2012)
13
Stitziel, p. 4
14
Stitziel, pp. 52-3
15
Stitziel, p. 4
16
Warnke, p. 318
17
Stitziel, p. 58
18
Linder. B. Pictorial Contradictions: Press Photography In The GDR. In: Geschlossene Gesellschaft.
Knstlerische Fotografie in der DDR 1949-1989. eds. Berlinische Galerie (exh. cat., Berlinische
Gallerie) Berlin. 2012., p. 323
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photography was to depict what the state understood as reality, as it was not considered to
express an authentic attitude to life.
19
Fashion photographers, despite strict media censorship,
therefore experienced a lot of freedom; they were able to manipulate and work with what
Immisch terms the so called, and very ambiguous, rules.
20
Riches claims that fashion
photography could tell the truth about womens attitude towards the state and their status
within it, whilst pretending to adhere to party ideology.
21
This is true to the extent that unlike
Socialist Realist art it was not required to be overtly political; Bergemann and Mahler were
able to endorse subversive images which as paintings would have fallen into the category of
unofficial art. Stitziel claims that the state intended publications such as Sibylle to encourage
women to form socialist personalities.
22
It is unlikely that officials did not at times question
certain photographs devotion to the states unclear ideology, however it was impossible to
prove nonconformity as meaning was open to interpretation, as was the Marxist-Leninist
ideology. The cut of the suit style coat in figure 1 (Fig. 1.) which emphasises the shoulders is
reminiscent of power dressing, which could however be justified as promoting gender
equality in the workplace, despite the fact that this model is photographed outside, she could
be on her way to or from work. Bergemann and Mahler subversively filled Sybilles pages
with hints as to trends throughout the world, the photographers often drawing their material
from western sources.
23

Bergemann and Mahler appeared conformist as far as the state was concerned by legitimately
avoiding propagandistic imagery which they felt did not represent the true situation of
women in the GDR. It is for this reason that not only does the Berlin wall never feature in any
of their photography as this would have upset officials, but neither do any overt references to
socialism. Mahler did not allow her models to laugh as she believed this brought them too
close to the official propagandistic GDR image happy women, commenting that women in
East Germany were in-fact discontent with the regime.
24
(Fig. 1.) Bergemanns models rarely
smile either and she chose to shoot women in the street the way they behave and the way

19
Immisch, T.O. Montage, Experiment, Form. In: Geschlossene Gesellschaft. Knstlerische
Fotografie in der DDR 1949-1989. eds. Berlinische Galerie (exh. cat., Berlinische Gallerie) Berlin.
2012., p. 305 and pp. 308-9
20
Immisch, p. 309
21
Riches, H. Exact seeing in Afterimage 36, 6 (2009): 31-32
22
Stitziel, p. 55-56
23
Drre, np
24
Drre, np
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they dress, observed quite normally.
25
Bergemanns model therefore sits on a bench hunched
over smoking in a manly fashion (Fig. 2.) This intention is problematic though, as not only
was normality in the GDR a contentious issue as Fulbrook addresses, but real East German
women in public were likely to be performing as good citizens for the state, just as fashion
models are in reality also staged as opposed to being caught unawares.
26

The working mother: Women as both producers and consumers in the GDR
The state simultaneously strove to officially promote gender equality in the world of work,
but also undermined it by driving women to employ their officially learnt sewing skills
unofficially. On the one hand, women were valued as employees and were often well
qualified.
27
Most of them however worked in the heavily female dominated textile industry as
opposed to taking on traditionally male dominated roles.
28
So whilst East German women
were consumers of fashion they were also its producers, just as Bergemann and Mahler as
female photographers produced images of women for women. The model in figure 3 (fig. 3)
wears high heels and a simple, tightly fit dress, therefore suitable for mass production, which
at the same time emphasises her female figure. In being set against the backdrop of a factory,
the image suggests that she is not only consuming these garments but is also their producer,
thus enabling readers of Sibylle to identify with her as a typical East German woman. Low
living costs in the GDR made it possible for these photographers to work for their own goals
without having to think in commercial terms, just as women working in textile factories
acquired the skills to produce their own unofficial clothing at home, and avoiding
standardized state fashions as far as possible.
29

The truth about gender equality in the GDR
It is a misconception to assume that the state considered women as equal to other women, let
alone men, in the GDR. Not every woman in East Germany did work, and those who did, did
not earn equal wages.
30
As Einhorn rightly states, the situation of women in the GDR was

25
Linder, p. 324
26
Fulbrook, M. Behind the Wall: Perfectly Normal Lives in the GDR? [DVD] 2007
27
Einhorn, p.117
28
Einhorn, p. 270 highlights that in the years 1985-90 66.9% of workers in the textile industry were
female, whereas in traditionally male jobs such as construction women only made 17.2% of the
workforce
29
Stitziel, p. 149 states that only 33% of womens clothing in the GDR was store bought as women
preferred having clothes made individually which were more fashionable
30
Stitziel, p. 151
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ambiguous.
31
Despite the fact that women in the GDR as both producers and consumers were
to a certain extent emancipated and did not have to choose between domestic and
professional commitments, to be successful in both realms was tiresome and rendered the
lives of women more strenuous than those of men who were only expected to work. The
SEDs policies on gender equality were contradictory. Women enjoyed fully paid pregnancy
and maternity leave, free contraception, abortion, paid leave and cheap childcare services.
32

However, despite these rights they remained subservient to men and the patriarchal state; as
Kowalczyk, agodzka and Zierkiewicz discuss, the gender model of socialism was based on
the heterosexual family for which only women were responsible; women were only equal to
men in front of the law.
33
In figure 4 (Fig. 4) such pseudo equality is highlighted; the white
casual domestic clothing of the single model in the foreground is juxtaposed against the
black, smart work suits of several portraits of male figures in the background. She appears
incongruous to the street setting, as if she and her outfit which resembles a nightgown have
been pulled right out of the private domestic realm, more specifically, the bedroom, and
placed physically into a male dominated public sphere.
Feminism in the GDR
In the 1980s women in the GDR began to think of themselves for the first time as feminists
and questioned this pseudo gender equality.
34
As party policies became increasingly
incongruous women became increasingly critical of the state, criticism which manifest itself
visually in the fashion photography of Bergemann and Mahler. The models in their images
are portrayed as attractive objects of desire which appeal to the male gaze. The partys
paradoxical understanding of womens role in society complicates how these models perform
their gender. In figure 3 (Fig. 3) the models posture suggests confidence and independent
and her smart clothes imply she is ready to commence work. In figure 5 (Fig. 5) however, by
wearing tight clothing which exposes lots of flesh, the contour of the models body is
emphasised and eroticised by her passive position on the bed. Such images officially
highlight gender differences, but were not banned by the state, probably for the simple reason
that they did overtly criticise the political regime. This image proves that women were not

31
Einhorn, p. 1
32
Einhorn, p. 113
33
Anger of Bojana Pejid. An interview by the occasion of Gender Check Exhibition at the Warsaw's
Zacheta Gallery. Izabela Kowalczyk, Dorota agodzka, Edyta Zierkiewicz.
http://www.obieg.pl/artmix/18402. (accessed 12 December 2012), np
34
Pachmanov, p. 243
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considered only as working mothers by the party, but also objects of the male gaze and
therefore subservient to men.
Female beauty in the GDR
Official notion of beauty in the GDR were ambiguous as the state offered no archetypal
female models to which East German women should aspire. On the one hand being a thin
working mother was undesirable as it meant the body was not of optimal use for the
collective socialist cause.
35
However, as the official model in Bergemanns image proves
(Fig. 6), the state did not have an aversion to officially promoting unnatural slimness as the
norm and the infrequence of images of larger, stronger women, actually marginalized them.
As women in the GDR were aware of global fashions they themselves strived to be as pretty
and chic as their western counterparts.
36
State policy allowed for very diverse interpretations
of acceptable notions of socialist beauty, as the only requirement was that women were not to
become Americanised, cheap, very sexual or extremely fashionable.
37
As a result,
Bergemann and Mahler were able to depict their models not as working mothers in either
the world of work or the domestic sphere but instead as desirable muses in apolitical settings,
for example in a fairground (Fig. 7). Despite the simple manly cut of this models apparel,
this models is slim body hiding beneath is obvious, she also wears make-up and has had her
hair styled. Simultaneously endorsing western ideals of female beauty in an official context,
this photograph proves that ideas of beauty in the East and West were very similar and not
just as a result of the states inability to enforce any strict policy.
WAS ANYTHING BLACK OR WHITE IN THE GDR?
In terms of the images themselves, Bergemann and Mahers fashion photographs certainly
did contain clear instances of black and white as well as shades of grey. The same cannot be
said in a metaphorical sense for the SEDs policies on women, fashion and gender in the
GDR, which were very contradictory. Points of contention within the party which led to
ambiguous policies did, however, allowed women such as Bergemann and Mahler as well as
East German readers of Sibylle to take advantage of loopholes in the system whilst criticising
the system itself. As a result women were able to access and produce images of western
fashion, emulate certain styles, and in many cases even enjoy authentic items themselves. In

35
Kowalczyk, p. 39
36
Kix, M. INTERVIEW with Sybille Bergemann. http://www.vice.com/read/berlin-the-fashion-
queen-of-the-gdr. (accessed 12 December 2012), np
37
Stitziel, p. 58
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beautifying themselves and rendering themselves to a certain extent objects of desire, women
also prevented men from viewing them as equals. Considering, however, that state policy
prevented genuine gender equality ever being realised anyway, this can be interpreted more
as an embrace of western fashion culture and in turn a criticism of the socialist regime. That
the idea of state patriarchy survived despite the intentions of communist ideology does,
however, remain clear.
38






















38
Bhler, C. Gender Matters. In: Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern
Europe. (exh. cat., The Museum moderne Kunst Stiftung Wien) Vienna. 2009., pp.13-18, p.22
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Bibliography:
Anger of Bojana Peji. An interview by the occasion of Gender Check Exhibition at the
Warsaw's Zacheta Gallery. Izabela Kowalczyk, Dorota agodzka, Edyta Zierkiewicz.
http://www.obieg.pl/artmix/18402. (accessed 12 December 2012).
Bergemann, S. Sibylle Bergemann: "Fashion, GDR 1972-1988".
http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/283?fp=3&photographer=2&fi=22. (accessed 12 December
2012).
Bhler, C. Gender Matters. In: Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of
Eastern Europe. (exh. cat., The Museum moderne Kunst Stiftung Wien) Vienna. 2009,
pp.13-18.
Drre, S. About Strong Women, Home-Made Clothes and Fashion Punks: how fashion in
the GDR could create freedom. http://www.goethe.de/kue/des/prj/mod/thm/en5254130.htm.
(accessed 12 December 2012).
Einhorn, B. Cinderella goes to Market. Citizenship, Gender and Womens Movements in East
Central Europe. London; New York. 1993.
Fulbrook, M. Behind the Wall: Perfectly Normal Lives in the GDR? [DVD] 2007.
Immisch, T.O. Montage, Experiment, Form. In: Geschlossene Gesellschaft. Knstlerische
Fotografie in der DDR 1949-1989. eds. Berlinische Galerie (exh. cat., Berlinische Gallerie)
Berlin. 2012.
Kix, M. INTERVIEW with Sybille Bergemann. http://www.vice.com/read/berlin-the-
fashion-queen-of-the-gdr. (accessed 12 December 2012).
Kowalczyk, I. The ambivalent beauty. In: Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the
Art of Eastern Europe. (exh. cat., Museum moderne Kunst Stiftung Wien) Vienna. 2009, pp.
38-45.
Linder. B. Pictorial Contradictions: Press Photography In The GDR. In: Geschlossene
Gesellschaft. Knstlerische Fotografie in der DDR 1949-1989. eds. Berlinische Galerie (exh.
cat., Berlinische Gallerie) Berlin. 2012.
Mahler, U. Ute Mahler: "Fashion in the GDR".
http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29 (accessed 12 December
2012).
Pachmanov, M. In? Out? In between? Some notes on the invisibility of a nascent eastern
European feminist and gender discourse in contemporary art theory. In: Gender Check.
Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe. (exh. cat., Museum moderne
Kunst Stiftung Wien) Vienna. 2009, pp. 241-248.
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Riches, H. Exact seeing in Afterimage 36, 6 (2009): 31-32.
Stitziel, J. Fashioning Socialism. Clothing, politics and consumer culture in East Germany,
Oxford; New York. 2005.
Warnke, U. Four Times Round The Block: Unlicensed Publications Of Photography In The
Late GDR. eds. In: Geschlossene Gesellschaft. Knstlerische Fotografie in der DDR 1949-
1989. eds. Berlinische Galerie (exh. cat., Berlinische Gallerie) Berlin. 2012.





















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Images:

Fig. 1. Mahler, U. Fashion photo for the women's magazine "Sibylle", Berlin-Marzahn, GDR.
1982. Photograph. http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29
(accessed 12 December 2012).
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Fig. 2. Bergemann, S. Fashion, GDR. 1984. Photograph.
http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/283?fp=3&photographer=2&fi=22. (accessed 12 December
2012).
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Fig. 3 Mahler, U. Birgit Karbjinski, fashion photography, East Berlin, GDR. 1984.
Photograph. http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29 (accessed 12
December 2012).

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Fig. 4. Mahler, U. Fashion photo for "Sibylle" (fashion periodical of the GDR), Berlin, GDR.
1982. Photograph. http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29
(accessed 12 December 2012).
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Fig. 5 Mahler, U. Fashion photo for the fashion magazine "Sibylle", Lehnitz, Brandenburg,
GDR. 1987. Photograph. http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29
(accessed 12 December 2012).
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Fig. 6. Bergemann, S. Julia Koberstein (left), model, Berlin, GDR. 1984. Photograph.
http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/283?fp=3&photographer=2&fi=22. (accessed 12 December
2012).
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Fig. 7. Mahler, U. Fashion photo for "Sibylle" (fashion periodical of the GDR), Berlin, GDR.
1988. Photograph. http://www.ostkreuz.de/feature/64?fp=4&photographer=8&fi=29.
(accessed 12 December 2012).