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Queering German Studies

Off the Rack

The Production of Fashionable Female Bodies in Early 20th Century Berlin
Philipp Jonke


À la fin du XIXe siècle, la mode à Berlin s’ouvre aux classes moyennes sous l’impulsion de la confection sérielle et de la grande distribution. Le présent article appréhende le lien entre cette ouverture sociale, la production sérielle de vêtements en tailles standardisées, la grande distribution et la présentation des corps féminins en tant que mannequins. Pour ce faire, il met en parallèle l’évolution de la presse de mode du point de vue de son accessibilité et de l’esthétique des illustrations et les modalités de présentation de nouvelles modes dans le secteur de la confection et dans les grands magasins et magasins spécialisés. Il apparaît alors que les acteurs économiques de la mode berlinoise autour de 1900 participent à forger une esthétique qui accentue le corps féminin.

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  • 1 The clothing store (Kaufhaus) Herrmann Gerson located at Werderscher Markt 5 was founded in 1849. P (...)
  • 2 The Berlin racetracks became fashionable events only at the beginning of the 20th century. The fash (...)

1In her book on Berlin fashion industry in the 19th and early 20th century, Brunhilde Dähn (1968: 17) states that the owner of one of Berlin's most famous fashion stores, Herrmann Gerson, asked his female models (Probierdamen) to parade at balls and other social events in each new social season's outfits as early as the 1850s.1 This strategy allowed him to observe the reactions of high society women, his most important customers, while promoting the store’s new collection. This was in line with the practice of Parisian and Berlin fashion designers who asked their models to exhibit new garments at the racetracks at Paris’ Longchamp (Brevik-Zender, 2009; Evans, 2013: 59ff.), and later in Grünewald, on the outskirts of the capital of the German Empire.2 By wearing the new outfits on these occasions, they proposed new silhouettes and showed how they could fit into the social context of the wealthiest women in the capital. But these women were not the only customers of Berlin's fashion houses and clothing stores. The social diversification of the clientele began in the 1830s when the first clothing stores were established in Berlin (Beier-de Haan, 2008: 288ff.; Dähn, 1968: 28f.; Westphal, 1992: 15ff.) and, over the following decades, they gradually offered high quality, mass-produced clothing in standardized sizes (Konfektion) at affordable prices, making Berlin one of the undisputed centres of the 19th century clothing industry. In the 1880s, the pace of this change quickened under the impetus of department stores (Warenhaus; Gerlach, 1988: 16; Briesen, 2013: 20) with their marked prices, no obligation to buy, the use of advertising and lower prices (Lerner, 2015: 31). Serial production and mass distribution brought about a four-pronged change: i) serial garments were gradually accepted by customers; ii) advertisements were aimed at an increasing number of socially diverse customers; iii) fashion became less exclusive; and iv) representations of femininity took on a different form. This article focuses on the last point, in order to analyze the link between serial production, fashion retailing, social diversification and the growing importance of the female body in fashion between 1880 and 1914.

2By focusing on Berlin, where serial production and mass distribution played a leading role, this contribution sheds additional light on the economic origins of femininity in fashion, on the eve of World War I and thus extends, in particular, analyses of modeling focusing on Parisian haute couture (Evans, 2005; Evans, 2013), and related artistic influences. The article therefore compares three parallel changes in Berlin fashion that testify both to social diversification and to forms of presentation that emphasize the body: the evolution of the Berlin fashion press, presentation strategies in serial production, and the emergence of fashion shows in Berlin's department and clothing stores. This research emphasizes that, under the effect of social diversification in fashion at the end of the 19th century, femininity was defined less by the bourgeois lifestyle than by the female body, linked to the commercial strategies of the clothing industry and distribution.

Fashion Journals Moving Away from the Upper-Class

3At the beginning of the 20th century, changes in the fashion press reflected diversification in the social background of readers interested in the seasonal changes of clothes. Fashion journals are thus an indicator of social changes in Berlin fashion during this period. They fulfilled two functions for readers from different social classes. First, the texts described in detail changes in clothing and the composition of the new outfits, while illustrations provided an accurate depiction of the outfits described. Through texts and illustrations, the journals thereby provided an essential source of information for those who wished to wear fashionable clothes. Secondly, they assisted everyone wishing to make the outfits represented themselves, in particular by selling patterns, which were used especially as a way to access fashionable designs by middle-class women (Heinze, 2000: 72). These two functions became more affordable between 1880 and 1914, since the Berlin fashion journals lowered the costs of their quarterly subscription rates and of their patterns.

4The prices of fashion journal subscriptions and the cost of patterns reveal a gradual inclusion of the middle-classes. On the eve of World War I, two journals provided eloquent examples of these trends. Thus on September 1, 1911, the former supplement to Die Modenwelt, the Illustrierte Frauen-Zeitung, a journal aimed at a rather well-to-do readership (as evidenced by the price of a quarterly subscription of 2.10 marks for 6 issues), announced an expansion of its fashion section, and a price cut in patterns from 50 to 10 pfennigs (Vergrößerung der Illustrierten Frauen-Zeitung, 1911). This editorial decision shows that its new publisher since 1911, the Ullstein Verlag, was trying to make fashion information and patterns accessible to a growing number of women. In this, the publisher was continuing an editorial policy that began with the creation of the fashion journal Die praktische Berlinerin in 1905, aimed at a middle-class female readership (Krempel, 1935: 100). With a quarterly subscription of 1.85 marks for 13 issues and patterns sold at 10 pfennigs, Die praktische Berlinerin probably best represented the opening of Berlin fashion to the middle-classes. Not surprisingly, the periodical insisted on the value of its fashion section, which was always supplemented by a considerable number of affordable patterns at 10 pfennigs each (Was unserem Modenteil größten Wert gibt, 1912).

5This opening up to a less well-off readership was not limited to a reduction in subscription prices and in the cost of patterns, but also went hand in hand with two changes: the first concerned the range of themes addressed by the fashion press, and the second the way in which female figures were represented in fashion illustrations. The fashion journals founded in the late 1850s or 1860s (such as Louis Schäfer’s Der Bazar (Remoortel, 2017) or Franz Lipperheide’s Die Modenwelt) did not thematically group together specific types of clothing, according to appropriate occasions and activities envisaged. By contrast, the new, early 20th century Die Dame, the Illustrierte Frauen-Zeitung and especially Die praktische Berlinerin all provided their readers with a set of references for both the most exclusive occasions and everyday tasks. While Die Modenwelt and Der Bazar offered advice for the social season, balls, special occasions and receptions, the other three titles continued this tradition and expanded their advice to include ‘simple’, ‘practical’ clothing, and even tips for household and professional tasks, illustrating a diversified readership.

6The themes addressed by the fashion press therefore reflect a readership that no longer consisted only of the idle bourgeoisie, but also of a growing number of women from the middle-classes. This diverse readership explained, at least in part, why the aesthetics of fashion illustrations were changing. The illustrations of Der Bazar and Die Modenwelt were often characterized by detailed depictions of bourgeois décor, parks and, more specifically, forms of sociability that showcased the complicity of female figures. The images of balls in Der Bazar provided a good example of this: every year in its first January issue, this periodical featured a double page with illustrations of the latest ballroom outfits that reflected the major interests of female readers in clothing advice and representations of social activities.3 This aesthetic style was intended above all for an affluent readership that recognized itself in the representations of sociable gestures, while discovering a reflection of its lifestyle in the activities depicted. This gradually gave way to another stylization of female figures that pictured women against a neutral background, adopting poses of mannequins that were supposed to highlight garments’ qualities. The link between social diversification and this aesthetic of modeling was reflected in Die praktische Berlinerin's predilection for this style of representation, as shown in a 1905 illustration in which the subject’s blue costume stands out clearly against a single green background.4

7The wider diffusion of new fashions, and the interest in fashion of women from different social classes was unthinkable without the access to the fashionable clothes themselves, guaranteed at the end of the 19th century in Berlin by the serial clothing industry and stores. New practices of clothing presentation developed both in serial production and in retailing. Like the fashion journals, they gradually detached themselves from a socially connoted staging to emphasize the female body. The paralleling of these two sectors, with developments in the fashion press, highlighted the active participation of economic interests in the construction of femininity in fashion.

Making Clothes and Shaping Bodies

8For the producers of clothes of standardized sizes, the effect produced by a garment once it was worn was of primary importance. Even before the garment was exhibited in a clothing store, a specific stage in the serial production of clothing revealed the attention paid to the female silhouette. Shortly before the start of the fashion season in March or September, Berlin producers presented their new creations to buyers from major German and international stores who came to the German capital to evaluate and order the clothes. Called the Reisezeit (travel time, Loeb, 1906: 31ff.), this stage in the production process of fashionable garments provided the opportunity of submitting designs to a first examination by persons other than the producers. To understand what was at stake here, serial production needs to be placed in the context of the different forms of clothing acquisition in Berlin before World War I.

9At the end of the 19th century, new clothes could be made to measure in a dressmaker’s workshop or by a seamstress paid on a daily basis, making the clothes and adjustments at the client’s home (See Benda, 1899). Finally, a garment could be purchased in a standard size in clothing or department stores. While in the first two cases the garments were adjusted to the client's silhouette, the standardized garments did not exactly fit the consumer's shape. However, the quality and effect of an outfit was judged by its fit, as Manuel Charpy showed for 19th century France (Charpy, 2015: 101f.). An ill-fitting dress was oddly reminiscent of another form of clothing purchase characteristic of the less fortunate classes: buying in second-hand shops, which were a main provider of clothes until the emergence of ready-made garments, as Philippe Perrot (1981: 8; 79f.) has analyzed for France. A short story published in Der Bazar in 1896 recounts with irony this anxiety about fit, by depicting a German middle-class woman buying a ready-made coat in a Berlin clothing store: the client realizes that the outfit does not suit her, even though the saleswomen desperately tries to pull the garment in all directions, to give the illusion of a perfectly cut coat. The only way to convince the client to purchase the coat was to make her believe that the coat’s design was in fact a fashionable trend (Bock, 1896: 68).

10This focus on the right fit explains why, during the Reisezeit, when buyers selected outfits, the appearance of mass-produced garments when worn became a determining criterion. The expert eye of these buyers, called a "commercial gaze" by Caroline Evans (Evans, 2013: 165ff.), was primarily aimed at the woman's body. In order to convince buyers of the effect of the worn outfit, Berlin garment manufacturers asked their saleswomen to wear the new outfits during Reisezeit presentations. The presentation of new outfits was therefore held in the sober surroundings of clothing manufacturers' workshops. The whole environment thus rather evoked the world of production rather than a social gathering, as occurred with Lucile’s London presentations or Parisian presentations (Evans, 2013: 32). The sales strategy of Berlin producers was described in Moritz Loeb's main study of the clothing industry published in 1906:

“Wenn es sich um Mäntel und Kostüme handelt, so müssen diese natürlich von einer Dame angezogen werden, damit der Verkäufer den Sitz und die Machart beurteilen kann. Die Rolle des Probiermamsells spielt das weibliche Verkaufspersonal. Neuerdings hat der erste Vertreter eines führenden Kostüm- und Blusenhauses mit diesem Brauche gebrochen, indem er neben seinem Hausdiener noch eine eigene Probierdame mit auf die Reise nimmt.” (Loeb, 1906: 63)

  • 5 Usually, the colored stars were embroidered on the sleeve, so the size could be identified. It was (...)

11Loeb's text proves that buyers valued the fit and composition of the garment above all: i.e., how garments adapted to women's bodies. As mentioned in this excerpt, at the time Loeb was writing, the strategies of presentation by models were evolving. In the case of the producer described by Loeb, it can be assumed that the female sales staff who usually put on the merchandise had no training in modeling, and had to fulfill other sales tasks when no buyer was visiting the workshop. Conversely, the strategy employed by the renowned house described in this passage suggests that some clothing stores now had staff specifically employed to display merchandise and whose measurements met certain body standards set by the house. The mannequins of these houses probably mastered the gestures of presentation as described by Caroline Evans, in the case of the Parisian houses and the American stores (Evans, 2013: 219ff.). From this point of view, producers of Berlin’s Konfektion actually contributed to the establishment of standardized presentations that no longer depended solely on the forms of sociability of the bourgeois class. On the contrary, its very functioning led to emphasizing an “ideal” size, applicable to all women regardless of their social origin. In terms of sizes, the Berlin typology was divided into stars of different colors, each corresponding to a standard size and also to an age group (Dähn, 1968: 19; Döring and Draude, 2012: 61f.): a yellow star represented the ideal size for young women, while the more generous measurements of mature women were indicated by a white star: the yellow star in fact indicated an ideal body standard in fashion.5 Loeb then highlights:

“‘Gelbstern’ ist jedoch die bevorzugte Dame im Reiche der Mode. Sie normiert die Größe [...]. Zeigt sich uns in der Auslage eines Modewarenhauses eine elegante Jacke mit dem populären Zeichen [der gelbe Stern], so sehen wir das Modell im Geiste erfüllt mit den weichen, schlanken Formen, der graziös gewachsenen Normaldame” (Loeb, 1906: 72).

12This quote shows that the typology of clothing played with the representations of the clients. The body norm imposed itself here beyond social classes and constituted a reference point for all. The allusion to the store windows explains how these clothing sizes reached the customers. Here again, the presentation of serial fashion was changing the representation of women in fashion, particularly through the presentations organized by the major Berlin retailers.

Staging Fashion as a Show

13Like the manufacturers of serial clothing, retailers in Berlin were increasingly organizing fashion presentations with models to highlight the effect of garments. Two different forms of presentation were used, both of which focused on the body, rather than on social status. The first form had the characteristic of being made at the request of a client and, therefore, not being part of fashion’s seasonal calendar. This strategy was reflected in the interior design of clothing and department stores. A photograph of Herrmann Gerson's fitting room illustrates such a presentation, in which a woman was trying on an outfit for a client.6 The photograph shows how a model presented outfits at the request of two clients. In the image, she is posing in front of the clients so that they can judge the garment. This form of presentation of a garment necessarily emphasized silhouette and followed the same logic as the aesthetic change in the fashion press, and the presentations in the workshops of clothing manufacturers. The entire fitting room, designed in small booths along a corridor, reflected the importance of this presentation strategy, in which a client saw the garment worn by another woman with measurements similar to her own.

  • 7 The fashion house Kersten & Tuteur was established in Berlin 1905 (Dähn, 1968: 69). The first store (...)
  • 8 The 1914 issue of Berliner Architekturwelt, digitized by the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, (...)

14At the beginning of the 20th century, the interior design of clothing stores showed the growing importance of this form of daily parades. When the fashion store Kersten und Tuteur7 had its new building constructed by the architect Hermann Muthesius in 1913,8 he added a long fitting room with a curtain that separated the back of the room from the space where the mannequins probably changed clothes. Here, the regular presentations were akin to the fashion shows themselves.

  • 9 The A. Wertheim franchise was probably one of the best known department stores. Moving from Stralsu (...)

15In fact, fashion shows, the second form of presentation whereby models showed off new seasonal garments, were based on a presentation principle similar to the on-demand shows, but had the particularity of taking place at fixed times in the calendar of fashion seasons, which were growing in significance with mass distribution (Charpy, 2018: 383). These Berlin fashion shows took the form of an event designed to attract large numbers of clients. The A. Wertheim department store located on Leipziger Straße9 organized one of the first events of this kind in 1904, when it promoted several outfits designed by artists of the Kunstgewerbe. Wertheim chose to have the creations presented by saleswomen who showcased the garments around the store for two weeks. The idea was to exhibit these outfits in front of a growing number of customers, to illustrate that these designs were not just for female artists and a few extravagant women, but that they could suit everyone. In her description of the event for Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, Anna Muthesius says:

“Die Kunst, sich anzuziehen, muss gewissermaßen populär werden. Da ist es denn doppelt zu begrüßen, dass sie einmal auf dem größten und modernsten Marktplatz von Berlin zur Schau gestellt wird – im allumfassenden Warenhaus von Wertheim. […] Wer würde in der eben hereinrauschenden königlichen Erscheinung mit dem schleppenden lila Seiden-Kleide, den in origineller Weise um die Ohren gesteckten reichen braunen Flechten die Kassiererin von Kasse 7 vermuten? […] Gerade aber in der Möglichkeit dieser Beobachtungen, bis zu welcher Wirkung eine Erscheinung durch ein angepasstes Kleid gesteigert werden kann, liegt die Bedeutung dieser Vorführung” (Muthesius, 1904: 442).

  • 10 In his history of the department stores Hermann Tietz and its owner, Nils Busch-Petersen (2013: 32) (...)

16As Muthesius has noted, one advantage of fashion shows was to promote clothes and address different classes through the focus on appearance. While in the 1900s, fashion shows seemed to be mostly occasional events, they became institutionalized in the early 1910s, when many stores held these events at the beginning of a new season. Several articles in the specialized magazine for textiles, clothing production and retailing, Der Konfektionär, reported on these major commercial events. In contrast to the exclusive fashion shows of Parisian designers, the Berlin presentations were similar to the American shows, in which a large number of customers were invited to attend these presentations and were asked to pay an entrance fee. This was, for example, the case of the Hermann Tietz department store, whose products were aimed at the middle classes.10 In 1911, he invited customers to attend the fashion shows held for three days at his Leipziger Straße store. On the first day, an entrance fee of 3 marks had to be paid, and on the other two days it was lowered to 1 mark. The fashion show took place in a long space following the facade overlooking Leipziger Straße itself. The models moved forward slowly to exhibit garments from every angle (Pariser Mannequins bei Hermann Tietz, Leipziger Straße, 1911). These events finally showed that clothing and department stores were spreading new fashions through modeling and were therefore emphasizing the female body.

  • 11 Bonwitt und Littauer was a Berlin fashion house that also created designs for the Prussian court. I (...)

17In sum, the simultaneous changes of the fashion press, of serial clothing production and of mass distribution show that the increasing accentuation of the female body – according to standard and ‘ideal’ sizes – was linked to the social diversification of the clientele initiated with the rise of serial clothing industry and mass distribution in the 1880–1910s. This link is further confirmed by the stores recommended in Berlin fashion journals when they described certain outfits. Thus, Die Modenwelt and Der Bazar invited readers in the 1880s to consult the designs of exclusive fashion houses such as Bonwitt und Littauer,11 for example, and some high-end clothing stores such as Herrmann Gerson. In contrast, Die Dame and the Illustrierte Frauen-Zeitung recommended affordable Berlin department stores such as A. Wertheim and Hermann Tietz.

18It is possible to observe several parallel developments between 1880 and 1914: the tendency of the fashion press to use images with no backgrounds connoting a bourgeois lifestyle; the presentations in garment producers' workshops; and the increasing importance of fashion shows in Berlin's stores. These developments show that the producers and retailers of Berlin's serial fashion were contributing to a changing image of fashionable women, that moved away from the well-to-do bourgeois woman, towards the young woman with an attractive physique. This shift took place in parallel with the social diversification of fashion, which placed physical criteria at the center of the fashion discourse. Finally, these joint movements illustrated how economic considerations were participating in changing the discourse of femininity in fashion.

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Primary sources

Anon. (01.09.1911): Vergrößerung der Illustrierten Frauen-Zeitung, in: Illustrierte Frauen-Zeitung, 38.23, p. 8–9.

Anon. (06.10.1912): Was unserem Modenteil größten Wert gibt, in: Die Praktische Berlinerin, 9.1 , p. 9.

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Bock, Annie (1896): Wie die Berlinerin einkauft, in: Der Bazar, 42.6, p. 68.

E.H.: Die Dame bei den großen Frühjahrsrennen, in: Die Dame, 39.15 (01.05.1912), p. 12.

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Brevik-Zender, Heidi (2009): Tracking Fashions. Risking It All at the Hippodrome de Longchamp, in: John Potvin (ed.), The Places and Spaces of Fashion, 1800–2007, New York, p. 20–33.

Briesen, Detlef (2013): Die Debatte um das Warenhaus. Vom deutschen Kaiserreich bis zur Bundesrepublik Deutschland, in: Godela Weiss-Sussex and Ulrike Zitzlsperger (ed.), Das Berliner Warenhaus. Geschichte une Diskurse, Frankfurt/Main, p. 17–32.

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1 The clothing store (Kaufhaus) Herrmann Gerson located at Werderscher Markt 5 was founded in 1849. Philipp Freudenberg became the owner of the store in 1891. From the second half of the 19th century until the 1930s, Herrmann Gerson was one of Berlin’s most renowned stores for fashionable clothes. Gesa Kessemeier (2013, 2016) collected the remaining fragments of the store and its owners’ history to write the story of this Berlin brand.

2 The Berlin racetracks became fashionable events only at the beginning of the 20th century. The fashion journal Die Dame recalls: “Die deutsche Flaneurin auf dem Turf ist eine neue Erscheinung. Erst seitdem in Berlin die große Grünewald-Rennbahn entstanden ist, ist in deutschen Frauen das Interesse geweckt worden, auf dem grünen Rasen Toilettenstudien zu treiben” (Die Dame bei den großen Frühjahrsrennen, 1912).

3 The Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Düsseldorf has digitized the issues of Der Bazar from 1857 to 1898. The ball illustrations are mostly featured in the first issue of each year: (last visited on 31.08.2020).

4 The illustration can be found on Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek: (last visited on 31.08.2020).

5 Usually, the colored stars were embroidered on the sleeve, so the size could be identified. It was a rather common strategy to embroider a distinctive sign or number, especially in the case of copyright deposits.

6 The photograph’s digitized version can be found on Wikicommons: (last visited on 31.08.2020). It was actually also reprinted in the 39.16 issue of Die Dame published on May 15th, 1912.

7 The fashion house Kersten & Tuteur was established in Berlin 1905 (Dähn, 1968: 69). The first store was located in the main center of Berlin Konfektion, the Hausvogteiplatz, at Werderstraße 3–4, then moving in 1913 to the newly built store at Leipziger Straße 36.

8 The 1914 issue of Berliner Architekturwelt, digitized by the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, features a series of photographs of the new Kersten und Tuteur building. The fitting room is shown on page 153: (last visited on 31.08.2020).

9 The A. Wertheim franchise was probably one of the best known department stores. Moving from Stralsund, it was established in Berlin 1885. The new building on Leipziger Straße was designed by the architect Alfred Messel, and dated back to 1896, and became the symbol of high-end retailing, as noted by Göhre (1907) in his classic, contemporary study of Berlin department stores.

10 In his history of the department stores Hermann Tietz and its owner, Nils Busch-Petersen (2013: 32) recounts that Oscar Tietz decided to concentrate on middle-class clientele after facing financial difficulties in 1901 and noting that the more high-end store built in 1900 on Leipziger Straße was not profitable.

11 Bonwitt und Littauer was a Berlin fashion house that also created designs for the Prussian court. In 1893, it closed due to bankruptcy. The name is still known today through the reference in Fontane’s novel Frau Jenny Treibel.

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Philipp Jonke, « Off the Rack »Trajectoires [En ligne], 14 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2021, consulté le 23 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Philipp Jonke

Docteur en études germaniques, Université Lumière Lyon 2, UMR 5317 IHRIM

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