Resistance and Self-Expression: Fashion's Power in Times of Difference
One needs to look no further than the world we live in today, a world where anything from film, prose, installation, and music act as a mode of dissent, aiming to galvanize, unite, and create a culture in and of itself. Whether it’s a literary boom born from lack of political progress or a radical movement in fine art in response to social unrest, the artistic output during divisive periods capture the particularities of a moment and propel it into the future.
Some the world’s most important and iconic works of art come from times of difference, because when all else is threatened, creativity knows how to survive and thrive. There’s no better place to see this at work than by going back to a particularly divisive time in our past; a time where the city of Berlin was split down the middle. The Berlin Wall left a city, nation, and world divided physically, culturally, ideologically, and politically. Those in East Berlin were ruled under an oppressive regime, while West Germans had the gift of modern day democracy. Freedom in East Berlin came under the guise of sanctions, rules, and regulations, none of which could fully counteract the power of artistic expression—especially when it came to fashion.
Under the rule of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), censorship was aplenty and East Berliners were given strict rules and regulations as to how they were to dress and act. Such guidelines made it so that a simple piece of clothing could represent an act of protest.
Despite the harsh realities of GDR rule, creatives channeled their energy into a fashion scene; and 1980s East Berlin gave birth to an underground movement that completely subverted the institutions of power. Independent fashion designers, models, stylists, and photographers who were eager to escape the grip of the GDR came together to seek out and create new opportunities to express themselves. Calling themselves “the Mob,” they rejected the notion that one had to live in the Western world in order to create. Vibrant and elaborate garments were the antithesis of what the GDR purported. It was fashion that strayed from practical, mass, and utility, instead working as a celebration of individuality and pure imagination.
Fashion shows were hosted in spaces of all kinds—living rooms, empty factories, old churches—and took on an air of pure theatrics. Sexually-driven, punk-like, and reflective of a psyche that was eager to push the walls down, the shows and the designs represented a collective urge to directly defy the world above.
The locations of these underground shows varied, and some are even intact today, serving as a continued space of inspiration for all of those in fashion and beyond. The now derelict Warehaus Am Weinberg, which was the location of NJAL's Zolando Fashion House event, was acutely tied to the GDR fashion world in these subtle acts of resistance.
This state of rigidity and restriction also gave fuel to the punk scene. Much like the underground shows, the punk scene was operated largely in secret. With ripped clothing, hard aesthetics, and patches with slogans that offered up direct critiques of their government, punks ran into trouble with the police and were targeted for government opposition.
From the underground design world to the punk shows that brought crowds into hidden venues, the most visible form of both resistance and expression came in the form of the clothing these East Berliners chose to wear.
Creative limitations did not exist, restrictions just a semblance of the world above. In a city that demanded conformity existed a fashion netherworld where any participant could dress, look, and feel in any manner that they pleased.
Fashion became a form of protest art in its own way—but it’s important to look at its power beyond the confines of East Berlin, and beyond the world of art.
Fashion’s role within this paradigm of art and creation, however, certainly proves to be both polarizing and enlightening. Fashion as artistic expression? Some may scoff. Clinging onto an abstract definition that has molded popular perceptions, many are quick to push fashion design out of the precious realm of the arts and into its own space. And that’s fine. Because fashion brings an entirely different outlook as to what art can represent or mean.
To view, hear, or experience art is to connect with a component of humanity that’s simultaneously inspiring, thought-provoking, empowering, and, most importantly, fleeting. It’s a one-way output for of expression. But here’s the thing: there is a clear difference between reading the words on the page, viewing the brush strokes within a frame, listening to the notes that form melodies, and experiencing a performance that garners praise and actually creating those artistic modalities. That painting may inspire and represent a particular psyche, but the sheer fact that you cannot interact with the piece of art in a tangible manner is what makes fashion all that more powerful.
What fashion does that these other forms of art do not is rely and require active participation from those who both create and consume, thus making those who create and consume key elements of the creation. In those fashion shows across East Berlin, individuals were able to engage in a visceral, physical, and emotional way; they were able to engage in protest and self-expression by creating, wearing, and watching—an art form where the consumer becomes entangled with the creator.
As an application of expression, fashion is constant. It’s a form of expression that transcends the binary between those who create and those who consume, partly due to the fact that it’s so deeply embedded in the culture of the hyper-present. Fashion is artistic expression that occurs on a daily basis; fashion reflects culture, culture reflects fashion. To have one is to have the other.
The hidden catwalks in East Berlin were not just spaces to strut and perform, but also opened up a space where participants could express any sort of individuality. Fashion became a gravitational force that spawned its own cultural ecosystem. Rather than just react and reflect, fashion worked to emulate a feeling and attitude of the time that led to a powerful form of expression.
It wasn’t about creating for a marketplace but rather creating for the sheer purpose of expression. Standardization in the day to day led to a fashion movement that pushed down any sort of sameness. Not aiming to be political becomes a form of political protest.
From Berlin and beyond, fashion continues to function as not only a form of protest art but as a means to creative its own cultural ecosystem, one where individual expression works across the confines of creation.
Fashion is protest, fashion is daily self-expression, fashion is a work of art that transcends and translates far beyond the page, wall, or screen. Fashion is power to change, to be, and to fight.