Column: Politics

by Karen Kramer

A Stance, Not A Pair Of Pants: Denim Days In The GDR
The “mornin’ light” in which singer-songwriter, David Dundas “felt alright” when he’d “pull his old blue jeans on” back in 1976 shone from the same sun that woke East Berliners. They too were pulling jeans on, and if they listened to Western radio (as most did), they had a hard time getting the lilt of his song out of their heads. But their jeans were different, and not only because they were probably knock-offs made in “People’s Enterprises.”

By the mid-70s COMECON countries had not only ceased to vilify blue jeans, they had indeed begun triumphantly to produce the garment that, in the 1950s and early 1960s, had been deemed “an expression of American non-culture...the ideological sedition of our youth.”1 After experimenting with blue cotton velvet and allocating a million marks for jean imports from Hungary in the early ’70s, East Germany finally imported Western machines for weaving denim. The transition was symptomatic of an ideological revision, moving from the vehement anti-fascist phase to the milder era of building socialism; jeans were now promoted as “the typical garment of the American working class” that would satisfy “our youth’s quite natural need for practical clothing.”2   In the parlance of the industry that had begun to produce them, they weren’t really jeans; they were the “blue, double-stitched fell-seam pant” or the “rivet pant.” The home brands were Wisent, Shanty, and Boxer—but only Western name-brand jeans served as cult objects. In the East, jean styles shifted, and their stonewashing attempts destroyed the material, so they sent their jeans to Portugal where they were given the final, fading touch.

By the time Dundas memorialized the blue jeans experience in his early work of the don’t-worry-be-happy-genre, German Democratic Republic (GDR) novelist-playwright Ulrich Plenzdorf had made his fame in the East and West with an account of a young East German dropout who worshipped jeans (the real jeans, Levi’s 501 style). Patterned on the tragic storm-and-stress tale by Goethe, The New Sorrows of Young W., protagonist Edgar’s now legendary claim that “jeans are a stance, not a pair of pants” not only gave voice to a sentiment that was widely held by the first generation born in the GDR (or East Germany, in Cold War speak), it also captured a seeming paradox of the global jeans phenomenon: that one of the most successful single means ever devised for generating capital in the textile industry should, by virtue of that very mechanism, become the vehicle for a culture of insubordination.

Blue jeans frequently served as socio-cultural symbols in other East German artistic genres as well, both in the anti-fascist and building socialism periods. The transition from taboo to commonplace was slow and uneven; as late as the 1980s, when jeans were already being produced and sold in the GDR, they were sometimes still forbidden at dances. Especially in DEFA (the state-owned Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) films, the pocket rivet became a metonym for the garment and its highly charged, and shifting, political significance. The jeans rivet is nostalgically coded, a skeuomorph: no longer needed to nail the pant together, it lives on as design. And, more importantly for DEFA film, it was a detail that could be variously flaunted or subtly sub-texted in cinema: flaunted when the wearer of the jeans was a decadent, anti-social(ist); or referenced subtly (enough to slip past the censorship board to reach a more discerning audience of East German film-goers) when it was encoded as a point of legitimate individuality, subjectivity, independent thinking in socialism—asserting that, though jean wearing was of indisputably western origin, it was by no stretch of the imagination a key weapon in geopolitical warfare.

A number of films illustrate the transition of the socio-political meaning of jeans. Die Glatzkopfbande (The Skinhead Gang, 1961), for example, was an East German take on The Wild One, cloning as literally as possible under East German conditions; the key scene shows six rowdy gang members dancing around a campfire chanting “ice cold Coca-Cola” after terrorizing citizens and sabotaging a building site—five of them are wearing genuine Levi’s.  There’s also Das Kaninchen bin ich (The Rabbit is Me, 1965), one of the iconic films created the year that 70 percent of the annual DEFA production was forbidden either during production or after completion, when the temporary thaw that had facilitated the production of unusually critical films after the erection of the Berlin Wall was abruptly called off after hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev came to power in the Soviet Union. In the film, designated rowdy Dieter is unjustly sentenced to several years in prison; when released, he learns that his sister Maria has fallen in love with the judge who, for reasons of careerism, had decided his unnecessarily severe sentence. When he turns his back to the camera shortly before beating his sister, the camera captures the pocket of his Levi’s jeans.  Again, Western rowdyism is referenced, but a primary message of the film is to call into question the legitimacy of that stereotype. Whereas Dieter’s aggressive beating of Maria is deplorable and is filmed as such—the Levi’s pocket marks him with a negative cliché—and the film agitates stridently against that truism and takes on a justice system that defines fractious youths as enemies of the state on the basis of trifles. That message is articulated in a second forbidden film of the same year, Denk bloß nicht, ich heule (Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry), in which a jeans wearing critical-thinker is kicked out of school. By 1968—at which point internal dissent in the U.S., in the form of jeans-wearing student protesters, had reclaimed the image of Americans in blue jeans—jeans no longer tagged Western rowdyism in DEFA film.  In the love story Heißer Sommer (1968), teens wear jeans nonchalantly—and, perhaps most noteworthy, the jeans were made specifically for the film. That wearing jeans was not yet commonplace in the GDR is evidenced by the fact that the teenage actors asked if they could keep the costumes.

The representation of jeans in films of “the first workers’ and farmers’ state on German soil” that followed is a narrative that preserves how the social function of jeans morphed, over time, into its opposite: What had once been tantamount to devils’ duds became first the garb of the positive anti-hero and, finally, the default attire of the land entire. Measured in cinematic flashbacks in films that post-date the country itself, it appears that the GDR may well have been “the jeans-wearing country par excellence.”3

1 Manfred Wekwerth, Erinnern ist Leben, Leipzig 2000, p. 204.

2 ibid.

3 Anne Hahn, “Das jeanstragende Land an sich. Eine Konferenz über amerikanische Kultur in der DDR.” www-satt-org/freizeit/02_02jeans-rock_1.html