Sibylle: Haute Couture GDR-style

The November/December issue of the GDR's "magazine for fashion and culture", Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

The November/December issue of the GDR’s “magazine for fashion and culture”, Sibylle (photo: R. Newson)

While the notion of an East Bloc fashion magazine may leave one imagining photo spreads of models clad in Mao suits or Thälmann caps, for thirty-three years Sibylle, East Germany’s magazine for “fashion and culture”, made the case (sometimes more convincingly than others) that state socialism and style were not necessarily mutual exclusive concepts.

A Brief History

Founded in 1956 and published by Leipzig-based Verlag für die Frau (roughly translated as “Publishing House for Women”), Sibylle was part of a broader attempt by the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to revamp East Germany’s periodicals so that these reflected the interests of a broader cross section of GDR society. Up to the mid-1950s, many East German magazines could be characterized as having content in which their ideological fealty stood in an inverse relationship to their readability, a quality which made them unattractive to many. In the East German capital of Berlin, this posed a particular problem as more enticing West German publications, with their “dangerous content”, were relatively accessible thanks to the relatively porous border between the two halves of the city. Concerned that they were losing the battle for their citizens’ hearts and minds, East German authorities hoped that the creation of Sibylle, and several other new magazines, would both address the interests of their citizenry and provide new, more palatable ways to communicate the official state ideology. Published six times a year, Sibylle’ had a press run of 200,000 copies and that fact that these were always in great demand suggests that the magazine did indeed manage to satisfy the interests of a large readership.

I have two issues of Sibylle in my collection; one from 1969 and a second from 1982. While there are some differences in the format and design between the two issues, what is most remarkable to me is how consistent the presentation and content of the two issues are despite the 13 years between their appearance. This consistency in presentation and approach is something that one encounters across the socialist, command economy as the absence market competition meant that there was little incentive, or need, to revise and renew products. Looking at the magazine’s contents, it seems appropriate that it shares (albeit inadvertently) its name with Sibyl, an American non-fiction book about a woman with dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personalities) that enjoyed great popularity in the 1970s as  the spectrum of themes and tones presented by the editors is very broad, likely a reflection of their attempts to satisfy both the Party’s ideological expectations and readers’ wishes for a modicum of style and flair.

Regular features in the magazine included topics related to women’s health, diet, exercise and nutrition and profiles of East German visual and performing artists, however, as a magazine dedicated to fashion and culture, it was photo spreads of contemporary fashion which made up the backbone of each issue. Sibylle commissioned some of the GDR’s best photographers for their shoots including Ute Mahler, Elisabeth Meinke, Arno Fischer, Roger Melis and Günter Rössler, “the Helmut Newton of the East” (Spiegel Online, January 2, 2013), and the results in both copies I have are generally quite impressive. The clothes on display are typically products of People’s Own Factories, but the 1982 issue features a spread of the spring and summer collection of the GDR Fashion Institute, the country’s leading fashion design house. Interestingly, in addition to the photo essays, the magazine regularly included patterns for items presented in its pages, a nod perhaps to the relative inaccessibility of some of these clothes?

“Girl 1970”: The New Woman or “You Can Have It All!”
Essay entitled "Girl 1970" from Sibylle 6, 1969 featuring a photo by leading GDR photographer Arno Fischer (photo: R. Newson).

Essay entitled “Girl 1970” from Sibylle 6, 1969 featuring a photo by leading GDR photographer Arno Fischer (photo: R. Newson).

While the emphasis in Sibylle clearly lay with fashion, the prevailing socialist ideology is also showcased throughout. Clear references to the GDR’s Weltanschauung (or world view) appear throughout both issues, but the praises of “real existing socialism” come through loudest in the 1969 issue. The prime example of this is found in an essay entitled “Girl 1970: Reality and Possibility” which takes the 20th anniversary of the GDR’s founding to consider the first generation of women raised in the country. Over the course of six pages, the then 37-year old author comes to the conclusion that the GDR is well on the way to achieving its socialist goals, in large part because it is in the process of creating a new woman who is described as follows:

“The woman of today and tomorrow is . . . one who is economically independent of a man and who has received scientific, technical education. The woman of today and tomorrow is a revolutionary. She takes political responsibility, is ideologically secure and able to give human qualities to the scientific-technical revolution. She is not simply a passenger in the train of our time, but rather stands at the side of her man and helps steer.”

In answer to the question as to how the new East German woman is able to assume the mantle of greater responsibility within GDR society, the author is clear. First, this is the result of the way in which the East German state has made women’s education a priority and invested to accordingly. The second facilitator of this transformation is the fundamental reorientation in a social relations (here described as “a new relationship between the sexes”) present in the new GDR. These new relations manifest themselves in “the help, respect and affection which East German women are shown by their male partners and Work Collectives”, new realities which leave women free to pursue the new opportunities and responsibilities open to them in socialist society. (“Girl 1970” by Gisela Karau, Sibylle 6 1969, pgs. 16-21)

For some interesting facts on the realities for working women in the GDR, check out this overview taken from News Activist.

Sibylle 69 Girl 1970 montage

Photo montage accompanying “Girl 1970” essay in Sibylle 6 1969.

Reading this text, what struck me were the parallels between the discourse here and the one which I recall as having surrounded the women’s liberation movement in the western world. Denuded of its ideological overgrowth, the vision for women’s roles in GDR society voiced in Sibylle are strikingly similar to those propagated in the West: increased opportunity for self-realization through study leading to greater opportunities in the workplace, all at the side of a loving and supportive (male) partner who will help with the domestic side of things. But of course there were differences in the message. I would argue that the message from the western women’s lib movement was “You can have it all!” (that is, choose to follow this path); reading the Sibylle piece, my impression is that the Party was telling East German women, “You will have it all”. The essay presents a myriad of possibilities and choices open to East German women thanks to the new social and political situation, but none of the scenarios envision women choosing not to board “the train of [our] time” leading to the bright socialist future.” Of course this is completely unsurprising. Ideologically, as we know, holders of the socialist worldview considered the future it promised as something inevitable. Humans would have choices, but remaining outside of the social mainstream would not be one and this thinking is in full evidence in “Girl 1970”.

There are numerous other explicit examples of the GDR’s official ideology on display in these issues, but the Party line is clearly evident through the entire publication. For example, in the 1969 issue, there is a photo spread showcasing fashions using GDR-produced polyester knit fabrics, an echo of the Party’s large scale campaign of the late 50s and early 60s which equated the chemical industry and its products as a key to future prosperity (see above). In the 1982 issue, a photo essay shot in Minsk helps confirm the ideological orientation of the magazine. Looking at this now, (see below) I have the feeling that photographer Ute Mahler was trying to keep the images as ambivalent as possible, although it’s possible that the preposterous concept of conducting a fashion shoot in the rather homely capital of the Belorussian Soviet Republic alone was enough to ensure this effect.

Advertising: You Can(‘t) Have It All!

During the first half of the GDR’s existence, product advertising was not at all uncommon and while it was not as prevalent as was the case in neighboring West Germany, ads were often found in East German newspapers and periodicals. In an economy driven more by supply than demand, the question arises as to what purpose this advertising was intended to serve. One answer is that it was intended to raise the attractiveness of East German-produced products. Many of these were newly established and didn’t enjoy much in the way of brand recognition, so advertising helped familiarize East Germans with the products available to them. I’d also suggest that the ads were part of the Ulbricht-era GDR to compete with the West on its terms, here the promise of a comfortable lifestyle works like Sibylle itself, that is, as evidence that elegance and socialism were mutually compatible notions.

After the rise of Erich Honecker to power in 1971, however, product-oriented advertising essentially disappeared from the East German media, a decision made in light of persistent bottlenecks in consumer good supply. (From website of DDR Museum) Advertising, it was felt, might awaken desires for consumption that the East German economy could not fulfill. Indeed, the advertisements below are all from the 1969 issue of Sibylle; my 1982 issue has none.

P.S. –


Cafe Sibylle - home to a lovely red wine pear torte and a small exhibit on the history of the Allee. Apparently the cafe was named after the GDR's leading fashion magazine.

Cafe Sibylle – home to a lovely red wine pear torte and a small exhibit on the history of the Karl Marx Allee. Apparently the cafe was named after the GDR’s leading fashion magazine.

Cafe Sibylle

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