|Chapter Nine: In the Mirror of Fashion
Taken from: Women in the metropolis [electronic resource] : gender and modernity in Weimar culture / edited by Katharina von Ankum. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997.
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Every season brings in its newest creations some secret flag signals of things to come. Those capable of reading them would know in advance about new art movements as well as about new laws, wars, and revolutions.—Without doubt therein lies the greatest attraction oar fashion but also the difficulty of using it productively.
—WALTER BENJAMIN, DAS PASSAGENWERK
"A European chronicler in the year 1999 who wanted to describe the time around 1915 would have to begin as follows: 'It was the time of the pageboy, it was the time of the short skirt, of flesh-colored stockings.' " The date chosen by Hans Janowitz is still a few years away, but his predictions have turned out to be quite accurate. Fashion is mentioned in most accounts of Weimar culture, whether as a fixture in its urban settings, a constant reference point in new designs for living, or a compelling allegory of modernity Many descriptions of the so-called New Woman revolve around fashion, and cultural historians seem to agree that fashion played an important role in defining modern femininity: as a marker of economic status and social ambition, as an expression of female narcissism and beauty, and as the focus of consumerist fantasies and commodified versions of the self. The growing presence of middle-class women in the public sphere and their entry into office- and service-related professions changed traditional gender roles and resulted, among other things, in the demand for less confining modes of dress. With the introduction of Reformkleidung (reform clothes) during the prewar years, fashion emerged as the most visible sign of women's newly gained freedom of movement, literally and figuratively. The production of inexpensive Konfektion (ready-to-wear clothes) and their attractive display in department stores made fashion available to larger groups in society, thus elevating it to a signifier of the modern and the new. No longer the prerogative of a cultured elite, fashion came to be associated with a variety of causes, from the fight for sexual freedom and women's rights to the conservative campaigns against rampant consumerism and the Americanization of Germany. Especially during the stabilization period from 1924 to 1929, when Weimar democracy thrived on the promises of economic stability and technological progress, women's fashions stood at the center of heated debates that used the changing styles to address problems of modernity and articulate its contradictions
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in gendered terms. Such overdetermined readings are not unusual. For as an expression of the zeitgeist, fashion, to quote Eduard Fuchs, "is ruled not by anarchy but by strictest regularity: Its subordinate elements are organically linked to the entire culture and follow its laws. Thus it is a very' accurate expression, in every single part, of all culture and reflects it in the most faithful way."
Fashion is able to represent other spheres because of its own involvement with representation and difference. Its practices and products create a semiotic field where changes in society can be traced through the close study of surface phenomena and where the culture/nature dichotomy can be overcome through a more fluid definition of social and sexual identities. As such a metadiscursive category, fashion was enlisted by Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin in their attempts to develop new critical categories from the experience of everyday life. Inspired by their writings, I propose to look more closely at 1920s women's clothing and explore its cultural and critical relevance through the problem of sexual difference and the eroticism of the commodity. The big city provided the stage where the newest trends could be seen, where style became a matter of almost existential significance, and where the cult of youth and androgyny found its most willing followers. Fashion promised sexual liberation, social mobility, and narcissistic gratification outside the confinements of traditional identity politics. However, women's desire for new self-images also subjected them more strongly to mass-produced fantasies that, with their ever-changing forms, reproduced the old distinctions within a different framework, now based on the rhetoric of functionalism. To understand this dynamic on the level of articulation (i.e., as a signifier) and not confuse it with its implied meanings (i.e., its signified), one needs to approach fashion as a phenomenon that reveals as much as it hides—a phenomenon that simultaneously affirms and subverts the order of things. It is with these implications that I want to reconstruct the discursive formation ruled by the term "fashion" during the Weimar years.
Let me begin with an obvious example, the so-called Bubikopf (pageboy). Weimar critics argued passionately over its merits and demerits as if the fate of modernity depended on the length of women's hair. Conservatives saw the disappearance of long hair, the crown of true womanhood, as a sign of cultural decline, and held the inevitable masculinization of women responsible for everything from sexual perversions to social tensions. Erich Fromm's famous 1929 survey of attitudes among workers included the question "Do you like short hair in women?" The reactions were for the most part positive: "Yes, short hair is an advance on 'the good old days.' " Only middle-class men, betraying their conservative attitudes, objected categorically: "No, a woman should make herself beautiful with that which nature has given her." Following the example of Victor Margueritte's 1922 La Garçonne (The Bachelor Girl), novelists used the Bubikopf to describe emancipated young women whose search for self-fulfillment was exciting but, not infrequently, paid for with personal unhappiness. Some writers enlisted the length of women's hair in political struggles. In Willy Bredel's 1933 proletarian novel, Der Eigen-
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tumsparagraph (The Property Clause), two young women attend a Nazi rally and one remarks to the other, "We must not stand out. They have already started keeping tabs on us. Your page boy catches the eye." And this is how Martin Kessel's 1927 novella, Der Spritzenrotor (The Turbo Rotor), opens:
Progressive as she is, Frisca Weill, the strict but fragile Frisca, a teacher by profession and single for forty years, had her hair cut in the fashionable pageboy style, despite her stringy.' hair and gray, stretched skin around the chin. For long hair, she argues, is both a burden and a handicap, is also uneconomical and, already for that reason, pointless.
In addition to its appearance in contemporary novels, the new haircut inspired numerous essays about fashion and modern mass society: Heinrich Mann praised the Bubikopf not only for its practical nature but also for its democratizing effect: "There are things where female worker and society lady think alike," he said about the new styles. For others the growing fashion consciousness illustrated the trend toward standardization. Vicki Baum used the example of the Bubikopf, and of hundreds of thousands of women rushing to the hairdresser, to reflect on a basic contradiction at the heart of fashion, the contradiction between originality and uniformity: "It is fashionable to be original. Thus all modern women are original. Since all of them are original at the same time, none of them actually is."
The Bubikopf first appeared in the United States during the war years. First adopted by movie stars like Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, and Anna May Wong, it became the trademark of the emancipated city woman, known as a flapper or jazz baby. Through Coco Chanel and Isadora Duncan, the new style reached Germany in the early 1920s and soon could be spotted on Berlin's main boulevards and in trendy nightclubs and cafés. Bubikopf wearers included prominent women—most of them brunettes—from all areas of cultural life, including the writer Marieluise Fleisser, the artist Hannah Höch, the dancer Valeska Gert, and film stars like Asta Nielsen, Pola Negri, Tilla Durieux, Aud Egede Nissen, and Mia May. In its basic shape, the Bubikopf or Pagenkopf refers to a straight cut around the head, with the length level with the tips of the ears and the face framed by even sides and distinctive bangs. Later variations exposed the hairline in the back in a style referred to as shingling, which accented the cut's angular shape, or they imitated men's styles by further trimming the hair and adding a part on the side. Known as the Eton crop, the latter was favored by the sculptress Renee Sintenis and the actresses Elisabeth Bergner and Herta Thiele. With the short hair came small, close-fitting, and brimless felt hats like the ubiquitous cloche, which hid much of the wearer's face and emphasized the head's sculptural features. Soft berets also gained in popularity, especially in sportswear, while embroidered or beaded bandeaux were the adornment of choice for evening wear. In the early 1930s, softer, wavy cuts parted on the side gradually replaced the Bubikopf, and the severe masculine look gave way to distinctly feminine styles.
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It is a critical commonplace that periods of great upheaval are often followed by a masculinization of women in dress and manners. The new look, from short hair to silk stockings, celebrated the spirit of the Weimar Republic. To be sure, the straight silhouettes and the simple styles were already popular before the war, namely as part of reform clothing and its campaign against corsets and other forms of disciplining the female body. And hemlines had already begun to rise during the war years in response to growing female employment and shortages in textile production. However, beginning in the postwar years, fashion was increasingly identified with the desire for new lifestyles and identities. Between 1924, the year of the currency reform, and 1929, the year of the stock market crash, mass consumption changed dramatically promising not only satisfaction of basic needs but also participation in symbolic acts. The tastes and styles associated with the stabilization period reflect this development, from the emergence of woman as the modern consumer to the exploitation of emancipatory movements in fashion trends. There is no doubt that the new dress styles had much to offer to the young office workers and sales girls who sought freedom in the big cities, the working-class women with the double burden of family and job, and the wealthy socialites eager to take up tennis, boxing, and motor touring. Now terms like "simplicity," "functionality," and "versatility" began to define clothes in use-oriented terms. Physical fitness became the distinguishing mark of the streamlined, machinelike body. Yet the myth of instrumentality and the obsessive pragmatism also betrayed a continuous anxiety over sexual difference that could not be relieved through any promises of liberation, equality, and casual dressing.
In general, women's wear during the Weimar years was characterized by short hemlines that showed off legs in flesh-colored silk stockings and low waistlines that emphasized tubular forms; previously cherished features such as a small waist or large bust were suppressed. With the disappearance of form-conscious shapes came unstructured bodices and brassieres, which made the fit, slender body an even greater necessity. The androgynous look challenged traditional notions of female beauty, but also forced more voluptuous women to flatten out their curves with the help of girdles and corsets. The jumper dress, in its basic shape or in modifications like the tunic, dominated daytime fashions and convinced through clear lines, tubular silhouettes, and soft fabrics. The basic outfit chosen by most office workers consisted of a sporty jumper blouse, often worn with a vest or cardigan, a straight or pleated skirt, and medium-high pumps with straps or ankle boots. New or improved fabrics like jerseys, knits, and, most important, artificial silk—rayon, as it was called after 1926—brought greater comfort and mobility, while modern textile design, in its preference for colorful geometrical prints, added a playful, creative touch.
Evening wear, however, remained glamorous and ultrafeminine, with low-cut gowns, sleek silhouettes, and accessories like ostrich feathers, fox stoles, and artificial flowers. Satins, taffeta, chiffons, and silks highlighted the generous cuts of the gowns and conveyed a sense of luxury that had been exorcised from the func-
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tional world of daytime fashion. Joined by famous film stars and the wives of war profiteers, high-society women continued to follow the change of seasons that, in subsequent years, brought Turkish harem pants, Egyptian headgear, Chinese pajamas, and Spanish shawls. The fact that French couturiers at one point tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the short skirt reveals the growing influence of celebrities as unofficial fashion leaders. The vanguard function of this new leisure class can be seen in the growing popularity of casual wear, which, through the understatement in the choice of fabrics and cuts, offered an illusion of democratic culture while preserving its exclusiveness; hence the popularity of cardigans and trousers modeled on distinctly British class sports like tennis and golf.
The relationship between fashion and role-playing came to the fore in the changed attitude toward makeup. Until the war, only prostitutes and demimondaines wore makeup during the day Respectable middle-class women may have used face powder but typically found rouge and mascara too unnatural, too closely linked to the specter of sexuality. Fromm's survey indicates that the resistance to the New Woman was most pronounced in matters of makeup, with the image of red painted lips uniting different social groups against the threat of a liberated femininity. Younger women nonetheless welcomed the new products introduced by cosmetics firms like Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor. Two basic styles predominated, the sporty, tanned look that limited the use of makeup to foundation and rouge and the pale look for the evening, with plucked and penciled eyebrows, dark eye shadow, bright red lips, and heavy perfumes like Mitsuko and Shalimar. Both aspects of fashion, dress and makeup, treated sexuality as a spectacle and identity as a construction. Yet whereas the one expanded gender definitions to include images of androgyny, the other dramatized older assumptions about female beauty and eroticism through its use of the mask. This division of labor helped to ease anxieties about possible gender transgressions and confirmed the link between woman and culture, while at the same time acknowledging her physicality.
At this point, it might be useful to look at two images that not only depict Weimar fashions but also participate in the construction of fashion as the apotheosis of modern life. My first example is August Sander's famous photograph of a secretary at a radio station. Working on his project "People of the Twentieth Century" throughout the 1920s, Sander portrayed several representatives of the New Woman (fig. 9.1). If it is true that, in the words of Friedrich Theodor Vischer, "the degree of self-mirroring that characterizes the physiognomy [of fashion] is modern, is a fruit of the sharpening in reflexivity" since the Enlightenment, then one should be able to find traces of this process in images specifically designated as modern. And indeed, Sander's radio secretary conveys a strong sense of ironic detachment that manifests itself in her reliance on the attributes of fashion. She acts out the tensions between the search for other images of femininity and woman's inevitable objectification by fashion as a commodity. Removed from her work environment, the woman is photographed against a neutral backdrop. The division
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Image not available.
August Sander, Radiosekretärin (Radio Secretary) (1931).
Reprinted courtesy of Schirmer-Mosel Verlag, Munich.
between the bright wall on the left and the dark curtain on the right creates spatial depth and heightens the sense of ambivalence in the woman's self-presentation, from the cigarette in her right hand to her skeptical gaze. Seated on a chair, she turns her upper body and face toward the camera while her crossed upper legs remain on the side. This strained body position bears witness to the compromises between provocation and reserve that inform so many fashion statements. Repeating the chiaroscuro effect of the backdrop, shadows highlight the woman's angular cheeks and jawbone and show off her sharp profile. A small cud softens the severity of the shortly cropped hair. Similar effects—of tension and of compromise—structure the juxtaposition of her fair complexion with the shiny blackness
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of her hair and dress. The simplicity of the collarless, black satin jumper finds a counterpart in the stylized floral embroidery on the front; the cut of the dress suggests that it ends well above the knee. With her slender frame, flat chest, delicate hands, and chiseled face, the radio secretary personifies the physical ideal of the androgyne.
Otto Dix's 1926 portrait of the writer Sylvia von Harden relies on very similar visual markers of ambivalence, including the same contorted body position, the provocative look toward the onlooker, and the use of a cigarette as a distancing device. The writer is seated on a chair, with a cocktail glass and a monogrammed cigarette case on the marble table in front of her. Under Dix's scrutinizing gaze, von Harden becomes a caricature of the New Woman, complete with monocle and Eton crop. With the reddish backdrop evoking the excesses of the brothel, the short red plaid jumper gives her skin an unnatural color. Her silk stockings form creases around the knees. Von Harden's face, from the parted lips to the dark circles around her eyes, suggests boredom, arrogance, and despair; the elongated fingers make her look sickly. The woman seems tragically caught in her own scenarios of self-presentation. With these implications, Dix's portrait of von Harden resembles his critical portraits of German philistines but also adds a distinct element of misogyny to stage a vengeful drama of modern femininity.
The correspondences between fashion, femininity, and modernity remain a theoretical construct if they are not linked to the dramatic changes in clothing manufacture and consumer culture that made fashion so central to the realignment of cultural practices after World War I. Werner Sombart has used terms like "collectivization of consumption," "uniformization of taste," and "urbanization of demand" to demarcate the field in which fashion began to mediate between the cult of individualism and the inescapable trend toward uniformity and standardization. With a view toward new markets, the fashion industry in the prewar years had begun to differentiate its products, making them both more available and affordable. While the haute couture continued to offer expensive, custom-tailored designs, more and more companies specialized in prêt-à-porter, with their manufacture-based system a good compromise between cost and quality. They introduced industrial methods into the fabrication of the so-called Konfektion sold in large department stores like Wertheim and Tietz. Product differentiation was necessary to attract new customers, especially among members of the lower middle class who often realized their personal and social ambitions through fashion as a substitute.
The intense preoccupation with fashion reflected dramatic changes in consumer behavior. Products were sought out to satisfy narcissistic desires, and the act of shopping was experienced as an intoxicating celebration of the self. Displayed in the temples of consumer culture and scrutinized on the pages of the feuilleton, fashion—here to be understood both as an object and as a quality' inherent in the object—epitomized the spectacle of the commodity and its promises of instant gratification and permanent self-transformation. With clothes as the most visible
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status symbol in the anonymous urban crowd, novelty and originality' became more important than usefulness or durability In the big cities, styles appeared and disappeared with increasing speed, and while the urban middle classes became fully conversant in the idioms of fashion, the old upper classes withdrew from the frantic celebration of the new and sought refuge in quality and tradition. As a mode of distinction that brought everything under its spell, fashion, however, continued to extend its influence into other areas of daily life, from furniture and interior design to table manners, cultural tastes, and political opinions.
The modern metropolis provided a stage for the display of women's fashions. As the center of the fashion industry and the illustrated press, as the city of the emancipated woman and the artistic avant-gardes, Berlin started new trends and was alternately glorified and vilified as an embodiment of the modern. On Kurfurstendamm and Tauentzienstrasse, the latest fashions were exhibited in the windows of department stores and exclusive shops for luxury goods. The spectacle of the commodity attracted the wealthy socialite and the fashion-conscious secretary, the modern flaneuse and, in the words of Curt Moreck, the "Tauentziengirl" who strolled on the boulevards to see and be seen, thus making the rituals of fashion an important part of public life in the big city. Through the cinema and the illustrated press, fashion became an inescapable presence in everyday life and constantly redefined everything along its shifting lines of demarcation. Mass publications like the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung showed snapshots of beautiful celebrities at the gala premieres of Berlin's first-run cinemas and at benefits organized by exclusive tennis clubs. Der Bazar , the leading fashion journal, reported regularly about international fashion shows and emerging designers. As the most popular women's magazine, Die Dame offered practical advice about everything from flirting to driving and printed informative articles about fashion, lifestyles, and the arts; it also advertised the popular Ullstein paper patterns. On and off the screen, film stars like Lya de Putti and Mia May influenced the female audience—from their tastes in men to their choice of cars. "The Berlin woman enjoys elegance and luxury, in the flickers—instead of a chinchilla, she buys a movie ticket and studies the gowns of the fashion house of Flatow-Schädler/Mosse in Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse, der Spieler ," noted one journalist derisively.
While high fashion continued to cultivate its international orientation, its significance within Weimar culture cannot be separated from the reemerging nationalisms and the remapping of Europe after World War I. Before the war, the leadership role of Parisian couturiers—and of London clothiers, in the case of men's wear—had been undisputed. Confronted with growing mass markets, the French developed better marketing strategies (e.g., Jean Patou's cosmetics line) and introduced new styles geared toward the independent modern woman (e.g., Coco Chanel's garçonne style). Textile design found inspiration in modern painting and took to heart the call of the avant-garde for a transformation of all aspects of modern life. Such creative efforts found an unlikely' ally in the textile industry, which, through the introduction of manufactured fibers like rayon (since 1910) and
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acetate (since 1924) and the improvement of imitation materials ranging from artificial pearls to fake leather, made many of these ideas available to the average consumer. Last but not least, the 1920S saw the rise of Americanism as the main paradigm of mass culture. American fashions not only redefined the meaning of fashion through their antielitist pretensions, a contradiction essential to its appeal, and their deliberate allusions to the world of work and sports. They also used the new mass media for launching new trends, thereby replacing the old downward model of dissemination (i.e., of fashion trends started by the social elites and then adopted by the masses) with a more complicated system of product tie-ins as well as cross-cultural references.
In trying to balance international perspectives and national developments, the fashion industry' in Berlin was especially affected by the shift toward the Right and the rise of anti-Semitism. Concentrated around the Hausvogteiplatz in the city's east, clothing manufacture had thrived in Berlin since the nineteenth century and included everything from exclusive fashion houses to countless specialty shops and sweatshops. Although there were many Jewish firms in Berlin, Hermann Gerson and Nathan Israel being the largest ones, their numbers have been grossly exaggerated by the Nazis in their attempt to "Aryanize" this traditional center of the German fashion industry. The campaigns against foreign influences also extended to stylistic choices. During the war, anti-French feelings had elevated the choice of German designers to a patriotic act. In the years following, French couture was increasingly associated with the kind of aristocratic culture against which the representatives of the Weimar Republic formulated their vision of a democratic mass culture. With the Dawes Plan, American culture emerged as the preferred model because it united the cult of functionalism with the promises of social equally. It streamlined the female body to make it both more sexual and less feminine. And it glorified the commodity as a means to personal fulfillment as well as a compensation for the inevitable failures of such plans. The enthusiastic reception of things American was part of a globalization of mass culture that erased regional differences and celebrated mass-produced goods as the perfect union of social and aesthetic concerns. Not surprisingly, conservative and right-wing critics used fashion to describe the dangers of a homogeneous international culture. Modern styles, in their view, originated in a conspiracy of French couturiers and Jewish Konfektionäre against Germany's indigenous traditions. Calling for a return to folk costume, some wanted to reintroduce regional and ethnic elements into a largely metropolitan phenomenon and appealed to women to reject androgyny for the authentic look of motherhood—without much success. The world economic crisis in 1929, not the rise of fascism, prepared the ground for the return to more feminine styles—styles, to be sure, that, after the Nazi takeover of the German fashion industry, distinguished themselves only through their complete lack of originality.
To what degree fashion and, by implication, modern notions of beauty relied on national stereotypes can be seen in Elsa Maria Bud's Bravo, Musch! (1931). The novel focuses on the experiences of a young woman, a medical student at the
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University of Berlin, who supports herself by working part-time as a fashion model. During a fashion show in the Netherlands, she charms the audience through her naturalness, a key concept in 1920s fashions. The apotheosis of the "liberated lady" brings together all the relevant female and national stereotypes.
With the many changing images the sympathies of the audience gradually became apparent: One of the guest models, a French girl, has a wildly spirited manner; she bounces around as if on springs, she rushes by, more like a harlequin than a girl, a redhead with a snub nose, very pretty actually Mabel's boyish swinging around delights several times; then she disappears in the crowd. Antje has the sympathies of the Dutch ladies who even in the new times have not lost their traditional heaviness. Musch is as she always is. Spontaneously, she presents each dress in the style in which it looks the best. She is brash, reserved, is melancholy or sober; at all times there is a dark gleam of desire and excitement in her gray eyes.
As to be expected, the program ends with the crowning of the German girl as the most beautiful model.
It was in the context of white-collar culture that fashion became an entirely new way of looking at the world. In his famous study on Die Angestellten (The White-Collar Workers, 1929), Kracauer links this phenomenon to the "moral-pink skin color" that captured their mentality in a physical attribute. The emphasis on a pleasant appearance in the workplace, he notes, made modern fashion and body culture an effective weapon in the streamlining of a workforce that would eventually have to come to terms with its own going out of style. Whereas Kracauer emphasizes the need for distinguishing oneself, if only for purposes of self-promotion, his contemporary Max Rössiger speaks of the employees' strong need for "social mimicry." Adopting middle-class personas, Rössiger argues, the white-collar workers hope to escape both the fate of proletarization and the equalizing forces of mass society. Alice Rühle-Gerstel even uses a fabric to describe the precarious class position of white-collar workers, calling them a "fifty percent silk profession, fifty percent silk like their soul and their mind."
Though motivated by the desire for a precise analysis of class, the identification of white-collar culture with artifice and deception is marred by highly problematic distinctions between surface and essence, falseness and authenticity. What fashion reveals to these critics, and what makes it so attractive to certain segments of Weimar society, is precisely its ability to grant social status through the mere display of its attributes. That this promise can never be fulfilled is almost part of the attraction, for it leaves open other possibilities. Mass culture makes sure that everyone can participate in the illusion of selfhood through consumption, and democracy provides the images that endow the products with meaning. From that perspective, the turn to fashion among white-collar workers must be regarded as a progressive move. It was a decision against the confinements of identity, against the normative effects of physiognomy and against the ethics of belonging. Fashion to them represented the most effective way of translating social ambitions into
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aesthetics terms. In their study of masquerading and posturing, Weimar's most perceptive cultural critics would detect the first signs of a homogeneous middle-class society in which differences were reduced to a mere game. But fashion also showed them ways of overcoming the limitations of the cult of identity with its problematic assumptions about body, gender, and the self.
In articles about the corrupting influence of fashion consciousness on white-collar culture, women were regularly mentioned as the main culprits. Just as the diatribes against white-collar workers highlighted their "feminine" characteristics (e.g., the lack of class consciousness, the greater susceptibility to outside influences), negative portrayals of modern women focused on their "masculine" qualities—notwithstanding the fact that both groups were to a large degree identical. Rosa Mayreder rejected such gender essentialism in favor of a sober analysis of the changing social conditions experienced by the New Woman.
She does not want to wear masculine clothes but clothes appropriate to her lifestyle, her athletic tendencies, and the modern means of transportation. She hardens her body against external forces because she wants to live without male protection. From there develops that naturally slender body . . . [and] clothing [that] automatically adopts the forms found in men's clothing. . . . The woman does not become masculine. She merely becomes an independent being.
Because of its assault on gender as a normative category, fashion allowed its detractors to express anxieties about women's emancipation, their entrance into the workplace, and changes in sexual behavior. In accordance with the widespread notion that female identity resides in the body, the look of 1920s fashions was often used to "explain" the myth of the New Woman, and vice versa—with the effect that both could then be dismissed as passing fancies and products of media hype. Again it was clothing that seemed to bring out the "pathology" of the female body, from the rejection of motherhood to the embrace of homosexuality. Traditionally invoked to celebrate femininity, the artifice of fashion was blamed for severing the bond between woman and nature and turning her body into an instrument of egotistical self-actualization. Hence Moreck's warning: "When the modern woman ... strives fanatically toward equality with the man and uses the means of fashion to demonstrate her masculinization by suppressing the female and imitating the male secondary sexual characteristics, the sexual instinct is bound to be irritated and enter the dangerous field of perversion."
Even fashion styles inspired by the aesthetics of Taylorization used these formal elements for rehearsing the drama of modern eroticism, without necessarily paying attention to their original function. Whereas unproductivity was the image conveyed by women's fashion at the end of the nineteenth century, the postwar identification of fashion with work, whether real or imaginary, invariably introduced the question of gender transgressions. The dynamic between the eroticizing of the functional and the functionalization of the erotic is nowhere more evident than in the public reactions to the Garçonne style. Characterized by her
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masculine attire and short haircut, the Garçonne appropriated the look of the other sex and, in so doing, challenged existing notions of sexual difference, often with the explicit goal of scandalizing her surroundings. While the athletic look signified health and leisure, the Garçonne emphasized the performative and aesthetic aspects of sexuality. The flirtation with masculinity involved a playful staging of identities that was predicated on the full achievement of gender equality, and, given the imaginary nature of such assumptions, often highly ironical and self-reflexive in its effect. Public anxieties about a thus liberated female sexuality found a convenient stereotype in the lesbian "butch" and the rituals of a homosexual subculture where, so it seemed, gender was reduced to a choice of costumes. Tailored suits and ties first appeared in Berlin's lesbian subculture and artistic circles before they were popularized by Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s to become part of the myth of Weimar decadence. Renée Sintenis's appearances on Kurfürstendamm, complete with top coat, girlfriend, and fox terrier, played into such perceptions, as did the spectacle of transvestism displayed to a thrill-seeking international audience in famous bars like Berlin's Eldorado. The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung even organized a contest under the title "What in the world do you say about Miss Mia?" and invited readers to contribute funny captions for the image of a young woman with short hair and tailored suit. Submissions included "Sachlichkeit (objectivity) transformed into Sächlichkeit (neuterness)," "Clothes don't make the man; what counts are the naked facts," and, as a variation on a German folk song, "Say who may the little man be?" These humorous comments on male identity of course, raise the question of to what degree the perceived masculinization of women also addressed unacknowledged homosexual tendencies in men.
The widespread fascination with the Garçonne, whether as a fashion phenomenon or the embodiment of lesbianism, draws attention to the close relationship between women's fashion and the female body. While late nineteenth-century styles imposed their forms on a passive, malleable body, modern dress required slender bodies that could support soft, unstructured outfits. The modern body gave life to the functional clothes; by the same token, clothes became the means to its self-actualization. As an ideal, the femme enfant or, to use the terminology of the times, the Girl [sic ] possessed a slim, almost angular body with narrow hips, small breasts, and long legs. The deemphasizing of all secondary sex characteristics, especially of bust and buttocks, betrays a fixation on youth and a symbolic rejection of the maternal as the most oppressive element in traditional gender roles. Achieving and maintaining this kind of body shape required rigorous dieting, various kinds of massages and medical baths, and, of course, regular exercise; cosmetic surgery was discussed controversially in many literary journals. The popularity of swimming, skiing, tennis, and even boxing further confirms the influence of Anglo-American body consciousness and its equation of beauty with health. While the athletic body of American provenance, complete with blond hair and tanned skin, became the physical ideal of the successful and the ambitious, young city dwellers with no opportunities or no desire for social advancement cultivated
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the look of the night: dark eyes, pale skin, and almost anorectic bodies. Like the femme fragile of the turn of the century, this female stereotype was often associated with sexual excess and drug use. Confirming such associations, the well-known Berlin designer Valentin Manheimer even created a special "cocaine outfit."
A recurring theme in fashion journals, novels, and films was the beauty of women's legs; adjectives commonly used include "long," "muscular, "slender," "strong," and "lean." After years of shame associated with woman's legs, the provocative display of calves and knees caused some concern among contemporaries. In accordance with the rhetoric of functionality, defenders of the short skirt pointed to the gain in mobility. But these benefits, of course, were paid for with a lack of proper protection during the cold months and the unavoidable runs in silk stockings. More than anything, the emphasis on women's legs betrayed a fetishistic interest in the female body that, to invoke Freud's analysis of fetishism, introduced the question of lack. As is well known, fashion always emphasizes particular body parts that are considered sexually attractive. The fashion historian J. C. Flugel has examined these shifts for the time period in question: "The fashions of the last few years have thus been based upon a certain upward displacement of modesty, an accentuation of the body rather than of clothes, an idealization of youth rather than of maturity, and a displacement of erotic value from the trunk to the limbs." Flugel links this idealization of youth, and hence immaturity, to the threat of the emancipated woman or, to phrase it in psychoanalytic terms, the denial of female castration through the fixation on legs, shoes, and stockings.
The power of women's fashion to illuminate Weimar culture as a whole is predicated on the assumption that fashion, in playing with social and sexual identities and in embracing transitoriness and ambivalence, can be read as an allegory of modernity. Simmel was one of the first to look at fashion as a theatricalization of social processes and to describe it as a mediation between the need for imitation, and hence social adaptation, and the need for differentiation, and hence individualism. The main function of fashion, he argues, is to unite and separate, to define one social group and distinguish it from all others. The more societies emphasize difference, the more they rely on such systems of demarcation. Simmel goes on to explain how fashion embraces change through its insistence on novelty; how it turns transitoriness—that is, the eventual disappearance or co-optation of new styles—into an aesthetic principle; and how it comes to symbolize the present, and therefore the modern. If things are perceived as fashionable because of their ephemeral status, then fashion consciousness is always guided by an acute awareness of temporality. The conditions under which Weimar women gained equality and the precarious circumstances under which they enjoyed the benefits of fashion confirm this link between social experiences and aesthetic choices. If the essence of stylization lies in compromise, defined by Simmel as "this delusion of individual poignancy, this generalization beyond the uniqueness of the personality," then 1920s styles thrived because they reinvented the personal as the general. Fashion gave expression to a psychological conflict experienced by many female
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white-collar workers: to leave behind their class origins and, at the same time, to make up for these transgressions through their uniform appearance. According to Simmel, the vacillation between social obedience and individual differentiation, between domination and submission, made fashion particularly attractive for those without power but with a strong need for asserting their individuality. Women's allegedly greater susceptibility to fashion, as well as their stricter adherence to social norms, is for him directly linked to an experience of ongoing discrimination that makes them more outer-determined and, therefore, more alike. His conclusion that "fashion gives woman a compensation for her lack of position in a class based on a calling or profession" captures accurately the dilemmas faced by women in the Weimar Republic.
Simmel's brilliant analysis of fashion as an integral part of modern culture also sheds light on its discursive functions. For him, urbanism, modernity, and, one might add, femininity are inextricably linked to the emergence of fashion as a new cultural paradigm. Hence his conclusion that it "may almost be considered a sign of the increased power of fashion, that it has overstepped the bounds of its original domain, which comprised only personal externals, and has acquired an increasing influence over taste, over theoretical convictions, and even over the moral foundations of life." Fashion assumes these roles, Simmel concludes his reassessment of modernity in the spirit of fashion, while "the great, permanent, unquestionable convictions are continually losing strength, as a consequence of which the transitory and vacillating elements of life acquire more room for the display of their activity." Unlike the traditional arts, fashion responds almost instantaneously to changes in the public sphere and contributes to the heightened level of sensory stimulation described already in Simmel's groundbreaking essay of 1903, "The Metropolis and Mental Life." In a world where nothing is fixed and everything is always new, fashion dissolves the old distinctions between the sexes and the classes—but only to introduce new ones based on its own definition of boundaries.
In the context of Weimar culture, the function of what Joan Finkelstein has called the "fashioned self" must be described as one of rehearsing and reenacting the changing social and sexual boundaries. As has been suggested by the sociological studies of Fromm and Kracauer, one important aspect of Weimar fashion, apart from the play with gender roles, was its ability to transgress class boundaries. The possibility to improve or maintain one's social status through the means of clothing points to a growing porosity of class-related categories. In the preference for functionalist clothes, these two contradictory positions found equal articulation: the belief that complete identification with the Taylor system, that the conflation of body and machine, would bring greater freedom and mobility; and the suspicion that the aestheticizing of the working body amounted only to a more insidious system of exploitation. While the promise of a new social identity was instantly available in the department stores and on the movie screens, the fleeting nature of fashion implicated the white-collar workers more deeply in the circulation of commodities.
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Not surprisingly, the styles of the 1920s frequently reconfigured social and sexual identities. Sexual roles were redefined through social categories, and social conflicts were expressed in sexual terms. For the most part, such processes involved the appropriation of male attire and its representative functions. Yet the erosion of femininity as a norm also opened up the possibility of using typically feminine clothes as a defense against accusations of masculinization or associations with feminism and lesbianism. In both cases, fashion functioned as a mask that, to quote Simmel, "conceals the real features and can furnish this service only by means of a wholly uncompromising separation of the feelings and the externals of life." In this relationship of femininity and masquerade, 1920s fashions emphasized and, at the same time, distracted from the actual accomplishments of female emancipation. Precisely because the short hair and short skirt symbolized the spirit of revolt, they could be used in the new promotional strategies that turned terms like "beauty" and "freedom" into qualities of the commodity. Precisely because the new fashions still defined woman through the body, she could realize her desires under the disguise of traditional images and become aware of the artificiality of gender roles. That is why Weimar fashions always involved the staging of ambivalences. It foregrounded the promises and the betrayals of modernity itself and, through that association, became a powerful tool of self-reflection. Kracauer once defended the need for distraction in modern mass society by claiming that the "emphasis on the external has the advantage of being sincere . It is not externality that poses a threat to truth. Truth is threatened only by the naive affirmation of cultural values that have become unreal." As I hope to have shown, his call "for a kind of distraction which exposes disintegration instead of masking it" also applies to fashion.