We were poor and happy. And my mother was jobless but prolific. She woke every day between four and five in the morning, made coffee and began to work. That is: to sew. She did this for several hours a day, hunched over the machine’s dim yellow glow or splayed on the floor slicing swaths of fabric on a ragged cardboard cutting surface, her reading glasses perched at the end of her nose. She rolled her eyes at the type of women who frequented JoAnn’s, bored housewives who might fill their downtime embroidering pillows or – the hobby whose value it has taken her years to recognise – quilting. She often described those women as ‘beige,’ in other words, stripped of colour and couture.
I felt like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
For individuals in East Berlin, using fashion for self-expression risked being seen as subversive. As such, attire was purely practical: garments were designed to be functional and durable. Material shortages meant that those individuals choosing to sew their own garments had to be resourceful, with some opting to deconstruct pre-loved garments in order to make new outfits. Despite the German Fashion Institute’s efforts to maintain control, creative fashion was happening on both sides of the wall, with a niche counter-culture movement spanning the early 1980s to November 1989 with the unification of the city. During this time an innovative community of designers who were living in virtual isolation from the outside world, began to create cutting edge couture from found materials and industrial textiles, offering freedom within the bell jar of a socialist state.