Sometimes fictional characters are not fictional at all. They are clearly based on someone real. Even properly fictional characters usually have some element of a real person in them. The genesis of the character Magda in my novel The Leipzig Affair was an idiosyncratic behavioural detail I observed in a friend of mine whom I met at Leipzig University.
The person in question was a man, not a woman, but I thought his attitude to one aspect of life in the GDR – clothing – was a perfect starting point for the character I wanted Magda to be: bold, defiant and a bit troubled. My friend – we’ll call him “Johann”, with quote marks like in Stasi reports, though that was not his name – made all his own clothes.
East German clothes were a bit of a joke, both among westerners and people from other Ostbloc countries. East German shoes, in particular, were the object of ridicule from Vladivostok to Vienna.
It was a highly sensitive topic for “DDR Bürger”, as the regime relentlessly styled its citizens. I remember the utter shock I felt when I learnt that the West German language assistant at St Andrews University had greeted East German exchange students arriving at Leuchars train station with the immortal words: “I knew you immediately by your shoes.”
No! I buried my head in my hands. The exchange programme would now surely collapse.
There was also a kind of clothes apartheid in the GDR that went beyond the divisions based on wealth that exist everywhere. If you had relatives in the west they might send you Levi’s and other treats. Or they might send you Deutschmarks, which you could spend in the Intershop, where western goods were stocked. If you didn’t have “Westverwandte”, you were stuck with what was on offer in Centrum and Konsument, the East German department stores.
Sibylle, the Vogue of the east, was not about selling clothes –
it was about fleeing the republic by aesthetic means
In theory, the high-end shop Exquisit provided better quality, more fashionable clothing to those who didn’t have access to Deutschmarks, but its prices were beyond many people’s reach. And if you call a shop Exquisit, you can’t really expect it to be edgy, can you?
“Johann” circumvented all this by not buying any clothes or shoes in East German shops. He had a sewing machine at home, which he used to run up his own shirts and trousers, and his footwear consisted of canvas shoes and boots, bought, I believe, on trips to Hungary and Bulgaria.
Making your own clothes was common in East Germany. In this video interview, people who worked at Sibylle, a women’s fashion magazine dubbed the “Vogue of the east”, explain that if you wanted to have the clothes that appeared on its beautifully photographed pages (some of which can be seen here), you pretty much had to make them yourself. Sibylle was not really about selling clothes. It was about providing inspiration – what the journalist Ulf Poschardt has described it as “Republikflucht mit äesthetischen Mitteln”, fleeing the republic by aesthetic means.
“Johann”‘s position, however, was extreme. He wouldn’t buy any clothes in the East German shops. It was a form of aesthetic rebellion, this absolute refusal to consume what his society offered. It made a big impression on me, because although was an entirely personal rebellion, it required a great deal of commitment, and so I co-opted it for Magda:
“Clothes are special to you,” the second person narrator says of her in The Leipzig Affair. “They’ve always been your escape, your rebellion. Everyone in the Workers’ and Farmers’ state has to have somewhere private to go, and this is where you go. It’s your very own version of internal emigration: you do not wear their clothes.”
Magda’s attitude to clothes is different from “Johann”‘s in one respect, however. She wants to get her hands on a pair West-Jeans. I’m pretty sure “Johann” wouldn’t have worn West-Jeans. Much as he despised the East German regime, he hated West Germany even more. When the 1986 World Cup started, I asked him if he’d be supporting West Germany. “Als Letzte,” he replied – last choice.
This hostile attitude towards the west and West Germany in particular, was common among East German “regime critics” and it’s there in Magda too. There probably were East Germans who thought West Germany was glitzy and wonderful, but I have to say didn’t meet any of them in Leipzig. Most of the people I met wanted a better and freer society that was still socialist.
And although there were plenty of big problems in the GDR, many of the frustrations people felt on a day-to-day basis were to do with small things. Like clothes. Perhaps because those kinds of details crush individuality.
In The Leipzig Affair, Magda has to start wearing the clothes in the shops in order to appear to fit in. She has to do a lot of other things too, but “dressing for the new role you’ve adopted as a politically reliable and diligent student at the Karl Marx University Leipzig is the hardest part for you, the part you struggle with the most. It’s one thing to act like you want to conform, quite another to dress like it.”
It’s hard because it’s about so much more than clothes. Like Sibylle readers and my friend “Johann”, Magda has been fleeing the republic – and asserting her personality – by aesthetic means.