| Kate Millar |
BERLIN (AFP) – With her blotted red lipstick, perky coiffed curls and fitted 1940s skirt suit, Constanze Pelzer looks like she’s stepped off a World War II film set.
From head to toe, the 49-year-old German is the picture of 1940s elegance – from the little glasses and striking jewellery to her red sling-backs, her entire outfit is authentic.
But it isn’t a costume.
Despite bringing to mind a painful chapter of German history, Pelzer admires 1940s fashion so much that she wears originals from the era every day and is not alone in her sartorial dedication.
“It’s, at once, the fabrics, the colours, the workmanship, the high quality,” she told AFP at her 1920s-1950s vintage shop, off Berlin’s upscale Kurfuerstendamm shopping avenue.
Hats and other paraphernalia are seen at Constanze Pelzer’s vintage shop “Glencheck” in the Wilmersdorf area of Berlin on May 2. Pelzer’s boutique, which she says had sourced costumes for World War II films such as “The Reader” and “The Monuments Men”, helps make Berlin a magnet for vintage enthusiasts
“I don’t feel at all like I’m in disguise, in this fashion of the past. I just feel right,” she said.
Forties fashion conjures up the full-throttle glamour of Lauren Bacall or other Hollywood sirens.
But the era that saw Europe riven by war after the rise of the Nazis in Germany heralded utilitarian clothes for ordinary women – practical but polite knee-length skirts, wide-leg trousers and a shapelier silhouette.
“Great fashion, but a terrible time too for many people,” added Pelzer, who said she was inspired by the ‘soldiering on’ spirit in which women had defied shortages and devastation to look chic.
Fellow vintage lover Tina Buettner, 40, said that contradictions in 1940s fashion only deepened her fascination.
“I don’t identify myself now with German ideals of the time,” she said, adding that what she loved about 1940s style flew in the face of the Hitler regime’s ‘perfect woman’.
“They didn’t want the sculpted, rouged diva, but rather the wife at the stove, having as many children as possible… in plaits and simple, practical clothes.
“In fact, the opposite of what’s fun about this,” the Berlin resident said.
Both women said 1940s vintage was now an international trend and part of the fun was meeting up with other addicts in Germany and elsewhere at themed dances and dinners.
Cultural historian Mila Ganeva, of Miami University in the US, said 1940s fashion was rich and multifaceted, from the war and post-war periods, to Christian Dior’s cinched, full-skirted “New Look” in 1947.
“It offers a lot, counter to our images of war, hunger, deprivation, material shortages,” she said in a telephone interview.
During the war, German women mostly made their own clothes, recycling tablecloths, uniforms and menswear, she said.
But their imaginations were stoked by the more sophisticated styles of the movie screen, newsreels or magazines, shrewdly tolerated by the Nazis as a morale booster.
“In no period of time was there ever such a spectrum of fashion between the imaginary and the real,” the expert on German film and fashion said.
Like other specialists, Pelzer’s boutique “Glencheck”, which she said had sourced costumes for World War II films such as “The Reader” and “The Monuments Men”, helps make Berlin a magnet for vintage enthusiasts.
And the hunt for original 1940s gear can be fruitful, said Lucia Vicente, who runs vintage tours of shops and historical sites in the German capital that draw an international crowd.
Many customers are motivated by a love of Lindy Hop, a dance craze that spanned the 1940s and beyond.
Practically never-worn clothes and shoes still surface despite the war’s widespread destruction.
“People took everything to the basement, the perfect place to keep everything in good shape,” said Vicente, 34, from Portugal, who runs the “Lissabonbon” vintage cafe.
German fashion historian Birgit Haase said across-the-board vintage has boomed since the late 1980s and, in particular, 1990s in Germany and elsewhere, due to a craving for individuality and sense of authenticity in a globalised world of mass production and marketing.
But she expressed surprise at the choice of 1940s for everyday wear due to its historical echoes in Germany, and for stylistic reasons.
“I find it astonishing to choose a period shaped by dictatorship and then later by shortage as an ideal or inspiration,” Haase, of Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, told AFP.
But Susan Ingram, humanities professor at Canada’s York University, said the black-and-white aesthetic of 1940s films – the last pre-technicolour period – may lend the era a certain appeal in today’s digital age.
Its popularity could also be a backlash against the “current trend of louche celebrity”, she said in an e-mail.
“The 1940s may have been a painful period but they were also incredibly stylish,” said Ingram, editor of the “Urban Chic” series on different cities’ fashion histories and co-author of the Berlin edition. Buettner, whose love of 1940s detail is evident in her immaculate outfits, turns heads when she walks down the street but says reaction is positive.
She takes her devotion a step further – at home she has only vintage furniture, down to the crockery and phone.
“What I’m missing still is a (vintage) car but they’re enormous for Berlin car parks.”