A Cold War magazine labeled The Vogue Of East Berlin finds a new fanbase

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In 1982, photographer Ute Werner received a phone call. A magazine wanted her to shoot an editorial in front of the statue of Vladimir Lenin on Independence Square in Minsk, Ukraine, a neighboring country controlled by the Soviet Union. As one of Berlin’s most prolific documentary photographers, Werner was the perfect choice and three months later the photos were published. But they were not in the news or politics every week. Instead, they appeared in the glossy fashion magazine Sibylle, featuring a young woman with her bare knee protruding in front of the statue of Lenin. Sibylle was soon approached indignantly by East Germany’s governing party, the German Democratic Republic – a bare knee in front of a hero monument was considered inappropriate. To the editors, this was a story as old as time. “The magazine was subject to constant state scrutiny and censorship, but only when it was already on the newsstands,” Ute Mahler tells me, “We always got away with a warning. That Sibylle was tolerated by the state is one of those inexplicable miracles from the GDR era.”

Launched in 1958 from a small office in East Berlin on the famous Stalinallee – renamed Karl-Marx-Allee after the 1989 reunification – founding editor Margot Pfannstiel and legendary German war photographer Sibylle Bergmann fused intellect, culture and glamor for the Soviet woman on the pages of Sibylle. The extreme censorship of photojournalism by the regime ultimately worked in favor of the Berliner duo. With their status as a style magazine allowing them to stay under the radar, they attracted some of the most prominent photographers in Germany, including Arno Fischer and Joachim Gern. Sibylle was quickly a success and within a year became the most widely read women’s publication in the GDR with a circulation of 200,000, three times the circulation and a reputation throughout Europe as East Germany’s Vogue. “There was such a high demand that there were never enough copies to buy,” says Mahler.

Mahler now owns the largest collection of Sibylle magazines and catalogs them together with her husband, the photographer Werner Mahler, as a digital archive. It’s an emotional experience, buying old missing copies of the magazine on Ebay and logging images from a politically charged time brimming with memories. “Sibyle was like an island within the divided island of East Berlin,” says Mahler, “for readers it was the place where they could escape with their dreams”.

Werner started shooting for the magazine the year it launched. “We had a lot of leeway, I always showed the realistic everyday life of the GDR in the background of my fashion stories.”. Her shoots span the series Clothing for pregnant women, “I shot a pregnant model in Berlin’s Bebelplatz”, the same location where the 1933 Nazi Party book burning took place, “surrounded by posters of the Central Committee of the candidates of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.” It was one time when the magazine was censored before printing, “everything political in the picture was cut out,” says Mahler.

It is not difficult to understand why Sibylle was victorious. For women, the Soviet government was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was liberating, with 90 percent of East German women working, compared to 55 percent in the West. But the Soviet approach to the female workforce asked them to work for the greater good of society, not for themselves. This double bind made many in the East want a magazine that was glamorous and ambitious, but also feminist and intellectual. Job titles were realistic in tone, from Berlin street blues until statistical mode, but there was also a lot of glamour. “There were ballrooms!” says Anja Maier, a Berlin-based writer who has been researching Sibylle for the past ten years.

Seven years before Betty Friednan’s 1962 The feminine mystique started a conversation about women’s rights, Sibylle was a feminist text long before the movement reached the public consciousness. “It was very important for Margot Pfannstiel to look at the modern woman who worked hard and was interested in style,” says Mahler. Being a Soviet publication, Sibylle was state-funded and therefore advertising-free. This meant editors didn’t have to peddle unrealistic beauty ideals to please paying beauty and fashion customers like other magazines in Europe and the US. This struck a chord with Berliners. “In such a closed country, we got inspiration and a message about freedom of mind, art, life and feminism,” says Maier.

Sibylle continued to carry this message after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when it was bought by Gong Verlag, which mainly published TV guides. Faced with new pressures to sell advertising every issue, they closed – “That there was no advertising was the magazine’s charm,” says Mahler. Sibylle printed its last issue in 1995. What remains is a treasure trove of images showing the realities of life in the GDR, created by a magazine that predicted women’s continued interest in fashion and substance in times of extreme austerity.

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