Red Threads: Selections from The Wende Museum's Textile Collection

The Wende Museum, Culver City, California
May 2012 - February 2013

In the 1950s, the GDR prioritized conservative and functional design over the kind of fashionable textiles that were popular in the West. Later, responding to consumer demand,

East German decision-makers were intent on changing this situation and encouraged young GDR designers and dressmakers to produce good and desirable fashion. Despite significant progress and development of patterns inspired by French haute couture, the textile and garment industries were ultimately unable to meet both the quality and quantity demanded by domestic consumers and international trade-partners alike. Uncoordinated policies led to excessive textile production or insufficient supply. Surplus textiles frequently were exported into nearby socialist markets, such as the Soviet Union, saturating their markets.

As other Eastern European countries began producing higher quality textiles at a lower cost, the GDR government reevaluated its production methods and sought beneficial partnerships, such as with the Hungarian design firm Hungarotex. By the 1960s and into the following decades, East German textiles kept pace with western trends and produced new fabrics such as polyester silk and a nylon-like material which was better known by its GDR brand name, Dederon.

Clothes and accessories in the GDR came under the category of “supplying consumer goods.” The SED did not want clothes to be understood as fashion and forbade the clothing industry to engage in hektische Modewechsel (frenzied fashion changes). Clothing was to be chic, charming and long-lasting and realistically priced, just like household goods, furniture, toys, and tools.

A 1974 national law permitting acquisition of foreign currency gave citizens access to Intershops (duty-free shops), where the selection of goods fulfilled their desire for luxury items like gold jewelry and textiles. The Genex-Geschenkdienst (Genex Gift Service), a similar lucrative business, allowed citizens to purchase hard-to-obtain Eastern items and foreign products through Western contacts. In contrast, mail order clothing catalogs were unsuccessful and stopped being produced in the 1970s due to the regular unavailability of products. Nevertheless, the shortages of materials and an enthusiasm for clothes incited immense creativity. Clothing became an expression of an individual lifestyle and women, inspired by fashion spreads in magazines such as Sybille and Pramo, made their own clothes when such garments were not available in stores.  

The Wende Museum’s fashion and textile collection offers a unique perspective into these industries and the uneven development of consumerism in Cold War-era Eastern Europe. The more than 2,000 textile samples from the 1950s in this collection originate mainly from two locations – the Hungarotex company’s manufacturing factory in Budapest, Hungary, and the Volkseigener Betrieb Zentrales Musterbüro für Druck (VEB Central Design Bureau for Printing) in Greiz, Germany. The collection also includes uniforms, banners, flags, tapestries and bathing suits, among other kinds of clothing, which are complemented by fashion and sewing magazines in the Museum’s periodicals collection.

Sponsored by Thomas E. Backer, PhD