Berlin fashion was once in demand around the world, but no longer. What happened? by UWE WESTPHAL
Berlin was a fashion capital before
the Nazis seized power. The
boycott of Jewish businesses began
Six years of Nazi dictatorship destroyed 100 years of Berlin fashion tradition.
Fashion is much more than stylish clothing. In 1920s Berlin fashion stood for a certain kind of social life, a lifestyle and the expression of individuality. But that was long ago. Today’s Berlin “fashion shows” financed with taxpayer money receive scant attention in the international media. They’ve become insider-ish get-togethers for a bunch of designers that just can’t cut it in London, Milan or New York. This German fashion fatigue is not the public’s fault. It’s due to a lack of new ideas among designers as well as the absence of the basic schooling that should foster the creation of new ideas. With the death of Karl Lagerfeld in February 2019, the era of German-born fashion designers who were celebrated worldwide came to an end. New talent receives neither public recognition nor support. Even sustainable fashion created in Germany remains a niche product.
How did Berlin fashion, once renowned around the globe, sink so low? As a young journalist, I became a fashion reporter by coincidence. Shortly after I got started, I met older men and women at fashion shows in Paris and London who had previously worked in Berlin as designers, or “fitters” as they were called at the time. Some told me their life stories. Others wrote to me and sent packages with photos, sketches and letterheads from the labels that once employed them in Berlin or that they had run themselves. One of these was Lissy Edler, later Alice Newman, who had studied at the artistically oriented Reimann School in Berlin and made a career as a fashion illustrator. From her, I learned that Berlin fashion was more than affordable everyday clothing. Berlin fashion and Berlin fashion designers have a long history. That history is almost unknown today due to the Berlin fashion industry and its organisations who have done everything in their power from 1948 until today to forget the tradition of Jewish designers.
Lissy Edler, born in 1901, was fascinated by painting, theatre and dance, as well as by the new fashion that arose in the flourishing
city. As a young talent, she was hired by the newspaper B.Z. am Mittag for their daily fashion section. She then became a top designer for large companies like the renowned label Löb & Levy at Krausenstraße 38/39. Lissy Edler left Berlin in 1936,fearing persecution by the Nazis, and fled to London. When the bureaucrats at Berlin’s Ministry of Economics began registering the number of Jewish clothing companies in November 1939, they were satisfied: of what had once been some 2,700 Jewish fashion companies in the heart of Berlin, especially around Hausvogteiplatz, only 40 small firms were left, which were also on the hit list. A century-old tradition of Berlin fashion design had been violently looted and annihilated. Berlin fashion was once in demand, a leading export. It was what had once been some 2,700 Jewish fashion companies in the heart of Berlin, especially around Hausvogteiplatz, only 40 small firms were left, which were also on the hit list. A century-old tradition of Berlin fashion design had been violently looted and annihilated.
Berlin fashion was once in demand, a leading export. It was highly innovative and influenced the culture of the 1920s. Writers, composers, directors, actors and architects were all influenced creatively by the industry, as were the customers. In the 19th century, fashion and fashion stores, new trends and delight in new clothing as the expression of a lifestyle, had been reserved for a small upper class. Berlin’s international flair grew only after the First World War, and fashion played an important role. The exploding number of female office workers in Berlin loved buying new clothes each season - and at low prices. What happened to Berlin fashion after the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933? Why was an industry that was once deemed one of the largest profit centres of German innovation, which had a reputation worldwide and provided some 100,000 jobs, destroyed so thoroughly? And most of all, how is it that today hardly anyone is aware of this cultural achievement and remembers or wants to remember the fashion designers who shaped the once legendary Berlin chic?
Another witness of the era, Ruth Hamburger, a trained tailor, writes about Kristallnacht in 1938: “On 10 November, I had already noticed the unrest in the night but didn’t know anything more about it. Around 11am, several young men came into the workshop
wearing armbands with swastikas. They walked straight through the workshop, insulted everyone there (…) and took unfinished
coats with them. As we looked out of the window, we saw Nazis come out of other buildings on Hausvogteiplatz and set clothing on fire (…) it became clear to me on that day that I couldn’t stay in Berlin any longer.” The Nazis hated everything that once contributed to the appeal of fashion in Berlin. They especially rejected the new image of women that had arisen since 1905. Emancipation and independence contradicted the Nazi ideal of women in the kitchen who served the Volk by bearing numerous “Aryan” children. The commercial freedom for Jews that was achieved in 1812 made it easier for Jewish tailors and businesspeople to found companies in the fast-growing city. Berlin became a flourishing centre of entrepreneurship, comparable with the start-ups of the digital industry today. Jewish textile merchants, tailors and fabric suppliers had, in contrast to traditional businessmen, more industry experience and they were more open to new innovations. International textile companies used new transportation routes to import unusual fabrics. The Jewish clothing manufacturers quickly oriented themselves on the fashion trends of Paris and London.
In late 1804, there were already 100 fashion enterprises in Berlin, including companies owned by Valentin Manheimer, Hermann Gerson, Nathan Israel, and David Leib Levin. These firms were the real inventors of clothing that was manufactured to standardised dimensions and sizes. The serial manufacturing of high-quality, stylish garments amounted to a revolution and corresponded to the quick growth of demand in the century of industrialisation and urbanisation. The customers enjoyed the selection of modern clothing at reasonable prices and couldn’t care less that the clothes were made by Jewish companies. Elegant department stores like Tietz, Gerson, Nathan Israel, and Wertheim emerged at the turn of the 19th century. Even amidst tough international competition, Berlin’s new fashion scene came out on top with its extraordinarily fine clothing, mostly made in
the Parisian tradition. In the 1920s, a new elite of first-class fashion designers like Hansen Bang, Ludwig Lesser, Norbert Jutschenka, Kersten & Tuteur, and Seeler & Cohn definitively supplanted the previous century. The time of corsets, which made it hard for women to breathe and difficult to move, was over. Nobel Peace Prize winner Bertha von Suttner said in 1903: “The corset is a torment; the slavery of fashion is an agony (…).” Casual clothes were now a sign of female emancipation, pants were no longer a privilege reserved for men. The lengths of skirts and dresses shortened, and the waistline fell to the hips. The splendid world of goods in the department stores satisfied people’s yearning for modernity and entertainment, and rapidly changing styles encouraged them to buy new clothes often. Trends were made in Berlin, supported by countless fashion magazines. The writer Franz Hessel was an astute observer of the changing Berlin streetscape in the late 1920s. Taking a jab at Paris, he noted that “a woman in Berlin can measure herself against the elegance of the finest women in Europe.” Fashion became an essential part of cultural and social life. Berlin became the world capital of film, revue, cabaret, theatre and architecture. Fashion designers worked as costume designers. The painter Jeanne Mammen, like the expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was fascinated by the changing fashion world centred around Hausvogteiplatz. In turn, fashion designers took up the motifs of art and produced clothing that had previously been seen only in paintings. A new type of woman arose, the flapper. What began simply as a short haircut transformed into a style that triggered confusion. “Women who look men but who are young girls. Bold, free and a little wicked,” wrote one journalist. Along with the new look, came new dances and the pulsing bars of the gay and lesbian scene. Bauhaus students and teachers founded the style magazine Die Neue Linie. Art stimulated fashion and fashion stimulated art. This was also the case in film. Josef von Sternberg, director of Der Blaue Engel, and the costume designers Varady and Holub created the unmistakable “Marlene Dietrich look”, a mixture of dry charm and men’s suits, coupled with a desirable but threatening severity. There was also the music of Friedrich Holländer, a great admirer of Berlin fashion who loved being inspired by it.
As much as these and other artists enjoyed the hectic, overexcited, fun-loving atmosphere of the fashion studios at Hausvogteiplatz, this period of great artistic achievement wasdespised by the Nazis. Although there was no explicit Nazi style, the still-influential looks of the 1920s were stigmatised as “decadent and Jewish. ”The dispossession and deprivation of rights of Jewish clothing companies between 1933 and 1939, euphemistically called “Aryanisation” and carried out by the state authorities, banks, business leaders, fashion organisations, designers and insurance companies, was the heyday for fashion designers who hadn’t fit in with their Jewish colleagues. About 2,000 Jewish fashion businesses in Berlin were forced into insolvency and bankruptcy, forced to sell their businesses for a fraction of their actual worth. Frequently, they fell into the hands of members or sympathisers of the Nazi party. What happened to the Jewish fashion companies and their property was nothing less than a ruthless, blatant, state-organised raid that benefited a submissive group of German designers who happily converted their antisemitism into cash. These included Heinz Schulze-Varell, Rolf und Herbert Horn, Bertram von Hobe and Förster & Co. Nearly all began new careers after the end of the war in 1945.The authorities seized thousands of sewing machines from former Jewish companies and sent them to forced-labour factories and ghettos adjacent to concentration camps. This suited the new owners just fine. They simply sent their designs and orders to the administrators of camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lodz, and 18 other locations. The peak of Nazi perfidiousness was perhaps reached when slave labourers at “Salon Auschwitz” had to sew designer clothes for the wives of the concentration camp overseers. Labourers unable to cope with working conditions in the labour camps were deported to the extermination camps. This aided the rise of many renowned fashion brands in the post-war period such as Hugo Boss and C&A, as well as businesspeople such as Herbert Tengelmann and Josef Neckermann, all of whom were prominent beneficiaries of forced labour. All of them benefitted from their loyalty to the Nazi regime. Only two years after the end of the war, the newly founded fashion companies in West Berlin attracted the attention of a population hoping for diversion. The clothing modelled at the first fashion shows were sewn from fabric that German soldiers had stolen in Paris, Vienna and Budapest. The unspoken motto of the new companies created by fraudulent wealth in the economic miracle of West Germany was: we can work better in West Berlin without “Jewish competition”. Demands for restitution by the Jewish former owners of companies often failed due to the unwillingness of the successors to present documents proving ownership. One of the most successful fashion designers of the post-war period, Detlev Albers, commented in 1986 that the companies taken away from “the Jews” meant “great fortunes for all post-war fashion careers in Berlin and Düsseldorf.” And it stayed that way. Jewish former owners were denied access to the archives of East Germany that would have made it possible for them to retrieve important documents to prove their property rights. The East German government rejected all claims for reparations. What remains? Anyone who wants a creative career in fashion today heads to Paris, Milan, London, New York or straight to Asia. The move of Berlin Fashion Week to Frankfurt, a city that has never played a role in German fashion, was the nail in the coffin of Berlin’s one-time fashion tradition, a tradition that is kept disturbingly silent. Only a few monuments, at Hausvogteiplatz, at the Foreign Office and at the Ministry of Justice, commemorate the Jewish fashion brands. There is still no well-funded prize for creative young designers that honours, for example, Valentin Manheimer, Herrmann Gerson, or other designers of Berlin’s once glorious fashion industry. Not once has a German fashion company, a trade association, the Fashion Council Germany, a Fashion Week or design school ever commemorated the fate of their Jewish predecessors during the Nazi era. How long can or will the industry want to maintain its cartel of silence?