Book Review: Berliner Chic

Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion

By Susan Ingram and Katrina Sark

(Intellect, February 2011)

Review by Mila Ganeva

Mila Ganeva is Associate Professor of German Studies at Miami University in Ohio. She has published articles on fashion journalism, fashion photography, mannequins, early German film comedies, and Berlin in film. She is author of the book Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933 (Camden House, 2008).

After a walk through 1920s Berlin, across its busy fashion district and along streets packed with smartly dressed women, Franz Hessel, the city’s most famous flâneur, concluded: “Berlin is well on its way to becoming an elegant city.” Two decades earlier around 1900, another astute interpreter of metropolitan beauty, August Endell, wrote: “The much criticized women’s fashion is almost the only creation [in the city] that is lively and dynamic today, and most joyful to observe.” Indeed, since the late 1800s, fashion has been a persistently bright spot on Berlin’s dramatic, often crisis-ridden historical scene. Fashion has been both a prominent branch of the city’s economy and a spirited everyday practice, but, unfortunately, also one of its best-kept secrets.

While German literary scholars and costume historians have produced numerous fascinating studies on the topic, fashion buffs outside of the German-speaking realm have, rarely paid attention to Berlin as a center of fashion. Susan Ingram and Katrina Sark’s book is thus filling up an important gap in our awareness of fashion in Berlin as a major aesthetic and sociopolitical phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In its scope and ambition, this is a pioneering study in English with a comprehensive approach to the various aspects of public life that have constituted historically Berlin’s distinctive position on the international fashion scene. From the onset, the authors readily admit that Germany’s capital may not be a global fashion center with the stature of Paris, London, Tokyo, New York and Milan, but they claim that Berlin is the “spiritual home of a particular kind of fashion.” They call it “Berliner Chic” and proceed to define the term for us: Berliner Chic is never limited only to the production and display of trendy women’s clothes; it embodies an understated flair reflected in a whole array of cultural and urban practices – from movie going to exhibitions, to clubbing – that have shaped Berlin’s fashion identity at different historical moments in the last century.

Ingram and Sark bring Berlin into the major theoretical discussions about the connections between fashion and modernity, discussions from which the city has been surprisingly missing. More than any other place in Europe, the German metropolis became synonymous with fashion, precisely as a result of the forces of rapid industrialization and modernization setting in around mid-nineteenth century. Unlike Paris, a city known as the center of haute couture, the Prussian capital specialized in the production of Konfektion and conquered the world not with charm, but with exports. Konfektion, the serially manufactured ready-to-wear apparel was affordable and appealing to the mass consumer. Most salons in Berlin were as much geared toward creating their own lines of high-end fashion as they were emulating Paris styles and adjusting them for a mass clientele. Since it was known that the fashion-conscious public liked to take its cues from France, the German companies sent designers to Paris to observe what women were wearing in fashion shows, on the streets, at the races, and in the theatre. Upon their return, expensive haute couture creations were transformed into affordable, mass-produced off-the-rack garments of French flair that were not only sold locally but exported to many countries, including France. By the mid-1920s, after decades of steady expansion, the number of Konfektion businesses in Berlin, most of them Jewish-owned, reached nearly 800. The Berlin fashion industry employed then a third of the city’s work force, sold merchandize in big department stores throughout the country, and exported its goods all over Europe and the Unites States.

Berliner Chic by Ingram and Sark is organized in an unorthodox way, measured by strictly academic criteria, since the authors move boldly across disciplinary boundaries and conventional periodization. Some parts illuminate in a broad sweep and quite extensively historical developments. The first four chapters, for example, tie fashion to the elaborate traditions of collecting and exhibiting, to photography and film, and to historiographic discourses. The last three chapters zoom in on contemporary Berlin that had emerged since the 1980s as a center of alternative pop-culture. Particularly interesting is the chapter “Berlin Calling” that immerses the reader in the world of punk and techno.

It is precisely this hybrid and eclectic (in the best sense of the word) methodology that does justice to the idiosyncratic subject matter – the entwinement of the city’s identity with its fashion practices, in both historical and contemporary perspective. And this is what makes the book enjoyable to the scholar-expert as well as the amateur reader. To the former audience Berliner Chic offers a wealth of theoretical references, a historical framework, and a rich bibliography (albeit no index), and for the latter audience there are plenty of charming anecdotes, engaging stories, and ample photographs. One can imagine the reader actually packing this book before a trip to Berlin and using it quite well as an alternative travel guide to the city’s “high” and “low” cultures, presents and pasts, museums and shops, center and peripheries.

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    June 1, 2011 - 8:50 am

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