The Measures Taken

A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

 

Towards a Communist Couture?

Sartorial Socialism from Huey P Newton to Honecker



Little has happened since 1989 to challenge the view that aesthetically, ‘actually existing socialism’ was one enormous bread queue, its dowdily dressed denizens no doubt dourly shivering in front of a grey concrete building housing a state bureaucracy of some sort. To this Cold War image has been added the peculiar commodity fetishes of Ostalgie, with the ridiculed attempts at consumer goods being put back into production. Judd Stitziel’s study of the East German consumer economy, Fashioning Socialism (Berg, 2007) acknowledges early on that the DDR never managed to create a distinctively socialist aesthetic – instead, via a series of misunderstandings and disavowed misappropriations of Western fashions and styles, there emerged such distinctive objects as the standardised dress, the plattenbauten apartment block and the Trabant. Nonetheless, from the title on down, it makes associative points, or takes literally Party sloganeering, to the effect that a Socialist style was considered necessary or at least possible. The unmentioned inverse, in terms of the intersection of the sartorial and the socialist of the frumpy conformism of the Eastern Bloc is Radical Chic. That is, the moment in the late 60s and early 70s when revolutionaries Cuban or African-American adorned bedsits and halls of residence. It’s customary to take this as having little more theoretical significance than the DDR’s politicised polyester. Radical Chic, best encapsulated in the infatuation with the Black Panther Party, is usually seen as macho, miltaristic or romantic, a fetish disconnected from quotidian, non-spectacular politics.



'We were an unusual sight in Richmond or any other place, dressed in our black leather jackets, wearing black berets and gloves, and carrying shotguns over our shoulders. People would stop and call to us, asking what we were distributing…walking armed through (a mainly black area) was our propaganda’
Huey P Newton

It’s worth briefly investigating the specific justifications made by the Black Panthers themselves for their spectacular aesthetic. That is, ‘a complete Panther uniform – black beret, black slacks, black shoes, black pimp socks or regular socks, shined shoes, blue shirt, and a black turtleneck ’ in Bobby Seale’s description. Curiously, neither Seale’s Seize the Time (1968-70) or Huey P Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide (1973) seem to give much significance to the ‘uniform’. Newton wrote of it as merely another facet of their ‘armed propaganda’: something to make them identifiable on the street, and to add to an imposing force necessary for their ‘patrols’ of ghetto police. It could easily be associated, however, with their explicit project to radicalise the lumpenproletariat. The organisation of a kind of revolutionary organisation of Stagolees by making politics specifically aesthetically attractive to them, taking its cues from their jarring and ostentatious fashions (those ‘pimp socks’), rather than from the earth-toned ‘roots’ prosleytised by ‘jive cultural nationalist intellectuals’. The vicarious thrills that the outfits might have given to their white and/or middle class fellow soixante-huitards was irrelevant. Nonetheless, it’s not altogether surprising that the Party leadership felt the need after a couple of years to ban the wearing of the uniform at anything other than public functions, after it was used merely for posing or intimidation (or rather, as intimidation of the Panthers’ own constituency as opposed to the Police). This was not to be an everyday outfit.



So, other than the end of the political and class spectrum that this derives from, what differentiates the black beret, leather jacket and pimp socks from the black shirt? Wasn’t this another form of (in the Benjamin line that finds its way inevitably into any discussion of fashion theory) the aestheticisation of politics? A ceremonial, militaristic style designed for the easy identification of the street-fighting vanguard? Moving away from this extreme example: is there a performative politics that wouldn’t automatically fall into the trap of exclusive countercultural consumption, where the possession of the correct look stands in for thought and praxis? The alternative, of asceticism or deliberate dressing-down risks denuding politics of any hint of excitement or libidinal charge, leading to precisely the DDR situation of an easy and quick defeat by the commodity desires of consumer capital. That is, the trajectory dramatised by Garbo’s Soviet apparatchik in Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka, exchanging her boiler suit for a glittery frock and pearls at the first shimmering sight of Parisian couture.



These questions don’t tend to be asked in Fashion Theory, nor should one especially expect them to be. Although it would be preposterous to claim that this is not an area worthy of serious theoretical and political work, much of it seems stuck in a particular degeneration of Birmingham School line Cultural Studies. In the late 70s, the likes of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture posited a ‘resistance’ through rituals, and specifically spectacularised dress – a response to particular changes in the socio-political conjuncture at the level of everyday life, affected no doubt by prejudices, deflections and so forth but still, nonetheless, in some way oppositional. What this has effectively become is a discourse where ‘resistances’ of a sort are still offered: through consumption, the capitalist subject resists paternalism, universalism, modernism and of course, a Marxism that would ‘totalise’ them, link their practices to the economy, or most appalling of all, suggest that ideology or even ‘false consciousness’ might just underpin some of these ‘choices’.



Accordingly, consumption becomes the definitive political act. A typical example like Berg Press’ anthology Fashioning the Body Politic (edited by Wendy Parkins, 2002) holds up shopping as the incommensurable force undermining all ‘totalitarianisms’. An essay here on the sartorial politics of the Falange in Spain effectively puts Franco’s eventual overthrow down to the effects of American consumer capitalism’s alleged unsettling of Fascism’s protectionist autarky. The concluding passage runs: ‘the way in which Falangist women were coming to use the language of clothes suggested an increasingly informed individual choice that subverted political, familial and religious structures in dress, and in so doing, subverted a great deal more’. What is coyly implied is that authority is not subverted by such universalist or allegedly masculine acts as collective action, but by individual choice. Another essay here, on ‘the Black shirt and the Fascist Body’, concentrates on the attempt to suppress ‘individualism’ and ‘bourgeois’ conduct such as freedom and laxity in dress as a fundamental component of a totalitarian aesthetic. After a while of this, for all its scrupulousness, a clear ideological picture emerges; it’s almost a shock when, in a study of contemporary Chinese ‘performance’ of individualism and collectivity you come across a dismissal of the binary carefully set up between emancipatory choice and collectivist oppression.



Another Berg book, Anne Massey’s Hollywood Behind the Screen, effects a similar sleight of hand. A study of, in the main, art deco design and femininity in working class and petit-bourgeois interwar Britain, we have here the familiar situation where, although the proletariat is stripped of any sort of political agency, its particular consumer choices (for Oliver Hill and against Walter Gropius in this case) are a way of contesting class by rejecting what the intellectual middle classes think is good for them. That is, by opting for gemutlichkeit against sachlichkeit, and glamour over greyness, the working class female subject emancipates herself. Authenticity is always considered suspicious in such works, except at the store counter, where suddenly mediation seems to be stripped away. Any situation in which a leftist working class and a leftist intellectual might be in alliance is entirely unimaginable , as is a socialist aesthetic that could carry as much libidinal force as Hollywood.



One of the founding works of Fashion Theory was never so blithe and schematic. Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams (1985) is still enormously valuable in its refusal to either dismiss or valourise sartorial choice and public aesthetic performance. While the Frankfurt School are usually a ubiquitous punching bag, for Wilson critique couldn’t be so easily sidestepped, and a similar dialectical tightrope is walked. While sceptical of any attempt to ‘subvert dominant ideologies using the very mass consumption means that constitute or contribute to (those)ideologies’ there is still some sort of politicised potential in dress and the sartorial spectacle: ‘because fashion, like capitalism itself, is so contradictory, it has at least the potential to challenge the ideologies in which it is itself enmeshed – as can all popular cultural forms, so long, that is, as we have some coherent political position from which to criticise’ . There is the possibility of an estranging cultural shock, not so much on the level of the ostentatious opposition of subcultures, but of the Suffragette smashing windows while bedecked in the height of Edwardian fashion.



‘For Germans in the West, the Wall became a mirror that told them, day in and day out, who was the fairest one of all.’
Peter Schneider

Meanwhile, the popular history has it that, presumably to the cheers of vindicated fashion theorists, consumer desire itself brought down the iron curtain, as mulleted and moustachioed Ossis leapt over the Berlin wall and joyfully exercised their individual choices for The Scorpions and stonewashed denim. While it is never so crass, there are hints of this in Stitziel’s account, though this is on the whole a careful and serious work. Based on an impressively meticulous detailing of the particular pressures, contradictions and accomodations of the DDR’s economy, this would in theory satisfy the ideologues who form the retrospective bane of most fashion theorists: base first, superstructure second. Although his identification of East German practice with a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ theory doesn’t square with the nationalistic, opportunist or on occasion outright desperate appeals to particular consumer desires that are outlined here.

As a ‘command economy’, the DDR should in theory have been entirely unsusceptible to fashion, with its mystique, its irrational cycles, and its satisfaction of non-productive desires. Yet on the contrary, the East German economy, which is painstakingly analysed in the book, is shown as being subject to particular political pressures which virtually forced the governing Socialistische Einheitspartei to attempt various engagements with fashionable dress. First, until 1961 it made increasingly forlorn attempts to compete directly with the West, especially with the heavily subsidised consumer enclave of West Berlin – centred as it was, by geographical luck as much as anything else, on the consumer thoroughfare of the Kurfurstendamm. Second, it had to avoid at any costs a repeat of the June 1953 workers’ uprising, and in the general fashion of ‘actually existing socialism’ (from the NEP to Kadar’s ‘goulash socialism’) social peace was to be achieved via an increased proletarian involvement in purchasing rather than the political process. And third, after the Wall itself went up, leading to a brief attempt at autarky, it still had to convince those caught behind it that they weren’t the ugly sisters of this Cold War settlement, by attempting to construct its own fashion, its own modernism, and its own glamour, in a continued sparring with their equivalents on the other side. However one of the flaws of the DDR economy was its seeming ability to both over and under-produce, so those desires which were courted remained mainly unsatisfied.



It is decidedly moot whether what are often described as the ideological underpinnings of East German consumerism were in any way a serious expression of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, or a post-facto justification of entirely pragmatic policies. For instance: Stitziel’s discussion of the early attempts of the SED to create a sort of Proletkult fashion points out that the particular garment they settled upon – the Tyrolean Dirndl – was precisely that which was fetishised by Nazism. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, given that the Town Planners of the Stalinallee were borrowing ideas from Albert Speer at the time: it also chimed in with the widespread re-use of what was already left lying around, rather than the creation of new forms, which was left to the West until late in the 1950s. Certainly more unique to ‘actually existing socialism’ was the pantheon of heroes of labour, and a concomitant valourising of work clothing and particular working women, chiming in with the Stalinist disdain for ‘levelling’, encapsulated by the cult of the Stakhanovite. At the same time as this attempt to make a virtue of necessity, there was a marked disdain for Parisian haute couture that is, irrespective of its having been shared by the Third Reich, not particularly dubious. It’s not easy to imagine a socialist version of the dominant form of the time: Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, with its deliberately sexualised and cumbersome return to glamour and/or the kitchen, in reaction to women’s wartime involvement in production.



There was, despite this, a conformist acceptance of what would in the 1920s been regarded as bourgeois, that led to DDR fashion essentially becoming an inferior version of its western competitor. Stitziel points out that ‘officials emphasised the ‘timelessness’ of good taste’, which meant, quoting the magazine Die Frau von Heute in 1946, an avoidance of ‘breath-taking extravagances and daring fashion stupidities’. The brief attempt at a Proletkult, for all its lumpenness, actually held out the possibility of a distinctively proletarian aesthetic, based on the clothing of production, as in the photographs reproduced here of young women, hands on hips, in the ‘work clothes for women farmers’ developed in 1955. However this was soon superseded by a rapproachement with couture, symbolised in a DDR fashion show that ‘started with ‘female farmers’ in work clothes and dirndls and ended with ‘working women’ modelling chic suits and extravagant evening apparel’. So by 1956 socialist haute couture was on the agenda. ‘Special stores’ were opened, something which Stitziel finds to be ideologically inconsistent, but which fits neatly into previous Stalinist practice. The first of these, the Sibylle boutique of 1958, was both a statement that the East could develop its own couture, and, in the boutique’s architecture, its own Modernism, reversing the earlier Socialist Realist positions on both. The phrase ‘international style’ becoming a term of praise rather than a pejorative.



Yet again, these were utterly in hock to Western aesthetics. Sibylle was followed after 1961 by a series of ‘Exquisit’ stores, which were given French names such as ‘Yvonne’, ‘Chic’, ‘Jeanette’ and so forth. These exclusive emporia would purvey, mainly no doubt to the nomenklatura as much as the ‘heroes of labour’, mostly imported Western fashions, partly as reassurance that the building of the Wall wouldn’t affect consumption, and as a way of ‘siphoning off their money quite quickly’, according to a Berlin SED official. Soon enough they were nicknamed ‘Uwubus’, short for ‘Ulbricht’s Profiteering Huts’.The official justifications actually stressed exclusivity and individuality as the raison d’etre of the Exquisit store: this is surely another example of necessity dictating ‘ideology’ rather than vice versa. Meanwhile, fashion for the working class whose state this apparently was would be limited to the DDR’s own production. This ranged from attempts at exclusive goods to the grim, faulty surpluses dumped in the short-lived BIWA (Billige Waren or Cheap Goods) stores from 1957-59, and in season-end sales. Again, this was merely a slightly shoddier version of Western practices.

‘My room was covered in Communist posters. We used to dye our clothes grey!’
Vic Godard on Subway Sect

However in the architectural experiments in this period, the return to the international style actually created some structures instantly recognisable as ‘Eastern’, if perhaps not socialist. The early 60s work of architects like Kaiser or Henselmann in East Berlin for instance exhibited an intriguing ‘getting wrong’ of their antecedents, with their patterns and murals on the Miesian grid. It would be interesting to know if in fashion a similar process occurred, yet Stitziel is quiet on this. There is one extraordinary illustration of a standardised dress & jacket plan, intended for mass production, along the lines of the Plattenbauten prefab construction techniques that were then being pioneered: Stitziel cites the baukastenprinzip or ‘building blocks principle’. The standard leaves room for all kinds of extraneous ideas to played out within the grid, and this odd alignment has perhaps some sort of socialistic potential – a mass form, accessible to all, with possibilities for ‘dotting the I’ as one commentator rather patronisingly had it. Also unsurprisingly absent from the account is a discussion of how DDR style actually had a currency in the post-punk West, when all things ‘Eastern Bloc’ and alienated were chic, its ‘greyness’ fetishised as a kind of parallel universe to Western consumerism. Joy Division, David Bowie’s Low, Joseph Beuys’ 1980 installation of DDR consumer goods, Economic Values : all of which rehearsed the recent Ostalgie vogue long before the DDR fell.

‘What writer of science fiction would have ‘imagined’ this ‘reality’ of East German factories-simulacra, factories that re-employ all the unemployed to fill all the roles and the posts of the traditional production process but that don’t produce anything, whose activity is consumed in a game of orders, of competition, of writing, of book-keeping, between one factory and another, inside a vast network?…one of these factories even ‘really’ failed, putting its own unemployed out of work a second time.’ Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation



Whether this was ever really able to compete with the more sexualised, diverse and politically charged clothes not infrequently sent over the border was a moot point. And that the aesthetic gender politics of the DDR were as conformist as those in Adenauer’s BRD is unsurprising. Much was made for a time of communist couturiers’ accomodation of the ‘stronger’ woman in their designs, rather than anathematising them as the West is still prone to do. Even this attempt at an egalitarian version of fashion was within the limits set by capitalist versions of consumption: ‘implicitly and often explicitly, the ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ body remained thin, even under socialism. As suggested by mottoes like ‘full-figured, yet nevertheless chic’…’ So the models for the ranges aimed at the vollschlank were usually middle aged and the clothes were difficult to obtain, much to the protest of women who had been briefly convinced that the rhetoric was serious. The quotations Stitziel has unearthed are interesting, in that they record what he describes as a consumerist ‘pseudo-public sphere’: the encouragment of consumer feedback, comments and even dissension. This on one hand would serve to factor desire into a notoriously unresponsive mode of production, and on the other create a space into which, through consumer choice, an otherwise foreclosed political subjectivity could be diverted. Irrespective of whether consumer discontent brought down the DDR, this was a discourse actively encouraged by the Party leadership.



Even the baukastenprinzip had as, for all its occasional uniqueness, as much potential for a quite astonishing lack of imagination (with unintentionally surreal results) as it did for the sartorially socialistic. This is, after all, a country which responded to overproduction by establishing factories which produced nothing . A vulgarised theory of commodity fetishism enabled a straightforward puritanism, something that occasionally resembled the attempts to try and purify the thing-world under Brezhnev by the obliteration of objects. That is, the theory of razveshchestvlenie, or ‘deartefactualisation’ . What was missing was any conception of the possibility of a socialist object, something which was uncoincidentally the major preoccupation of theorists before nonconformity had been purged from 'Marxist-Leninist’ aesthetics. The object, or Veschch was the major fixation of Constructivists in their forays into industrial production. Perhaps the most successful of these were, in fact, the mid-1920s state-produced dress designs by Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova of the LEF Group.



Their fabrics were as mass-produced and cheap as the DDR’s prefab couture and standardisation was made a virtue – yet the designs were also jarring, bright, exciting and unlike anything being produced in the West at the time. And they were commercially successful: ‘without knowing it, all Moscow was wearing fabrics which Popova had designed’ . Theoretically, this was opposed to fashion in the sense of mystique and irrationalism, but not in the sense of style. The more experimental designs that didn’t make it into production, meanwhile, stressed a sexualised androgyny in the cut, coexisting with the abstractions on the surface, questioning all the certainties that lay behind the aesthetics of ‘actually existing socialism’. Christina Kiaer’s gloss on Stepanova’s fashion theories notes that ‘clothes would fall out of use, not because they start to look funny when the market generates novel fashions, but rather because the conditions of byt (everyday life) will have changed, necessitating new forms of clothing’ . This, precisely is why the DDR were unable to develop a socialist aesthetics and a socialist desire: because for them, byt had not fundamentally changed, and could not. Any Marxist theory of Fashion must harness change not to the market’s meaningless cycles, but to change in its fullest, most disruptive sense.

Comments:
First class, really. You should think about publishing this. I lived in Berlin for years and find your views hit the nail on the head.
 
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