When I say they were beauties, I don’t mean the tall, super-slim, super-cool models on the catwalk at Frieda Weyer’s fashion show at Berlin Fashion Week last Wednesday. Weyer’s bridal and evening dresses were indeed superb, and a pleasant change from the usual casual street clothing Berliners’ wear on all occasions (even to the opera). But my fascination is for “Sibylle – Modefotografien 1962-1994”, a new book of fashion photography from the former East Germany, released with an accompanying Berlin exhibition just in time for fashion week. The women in these photographs captured a vision of the country that allowed for independent, emancipated, self-possessed and, yes, beautiful women (many of them models plucked from the street). It was a magazine that hinted at a world of possibility beyond the one that we knew.
Named for the prophetess in Greek mythology, Sibylle was an up-market magazine of art and fashion, published six times a year for decades. It was a trend-setter, the "Vogue of the East", despite its modest circulation of 200,000. Copies were limited in part because of the country’s shortage of raw materials, including paper, and the fact that its contents were considered somewhat provocative and avant garde, and so were politically suppressed. But the magazine's rarity had the effect of making it more precious. My mother managed to get a subscription, and I would proudly brandish copies of Sibylle on my train journeys from home to East Berlin, where I was a student in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The book presents a charming collection of the best fashion photos—some previously unpublished, owing to censorship—taken by Sibylle photographers before the magazine shut down in early 1995. I recently met Ute Mahler, one of these photographers, now a professor of photography at Hamburg’s College of Applied Sciences. She told me of a run-in she had with official censors in 1982, when they disliked her photograph of a pregnant model on a square in East Berlin in front of an array of portraits of politburo members. Sibylle's photographers were meant to depict everyday life in their photos, but Mahler's inclusion of this parade of politicians, who looked like puppets on a string, had to be cut. (The book shows the original one on page 95).
Other photographs were more subtle in their commentary, and so evaded such censorship. Models were often seen posing before grey concrete blocks of flats or rotten buildings, which sent a slyly subversive message to readers clever enough to read between the lines. “Today we have almost unlearned to read between the lines since everything can be said, written or shown directly”, Mahler says. "We had to improvise a lot, my house and my garden often served as a photo shooting location, our models were often amateurs—young students and young working mothers—representing the emancipated young East German woman. Although we displayed costumes you could not buy in the shops, our [especially female] readers appreciated the inspiration for new trends and for a special attitude to life.”
I was definitely inspired. And natural beauty never fades, as this fine book confirms.
"Sibylle: Modefotografie und Frauenbilder in der DDR" runs at the Haus der Brandeburgisch-Preussischen Geschichte in Potsdam, until August 22nd