1930 - 1940

1930s Berlin Fashion Photography

Kunstbibliothek, National Museums in Berlin

Discover the visual world of fashion photography of the thirties through the collection of the Kunstbibliothek

The Kunstbibliothek Berlin
The Kunstbibliothek is one of the largest museum libraries dedicated to all facets of art history and cultural studies. Above and beyond this, however, it also boasts valuable collections on the history of architecture, photography, graphic design, fashion, book art, and media art. Together, the library and the various museum collections it contains represent the full spectrum of source material on the history of art.

Fashion Image Collection – Lipperheide Costume Library

The Lipperheide Costume Library is the world’s largest library and collection of graphic works on the history of clothing and fashion. Its origins go back to the private collection of Berlin publishers Franz and Frieda Lipperheide, which they generously donated to the Royal Museums in Berlin (now Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) in 1899. The entire collection now contains about 40,000 books and magazines from the 16th century to the present day, as well as paintings, manuscripts and ca. 100,000 drawings, prints and photographs on fashion, dance and theatre, sports and games, festivities and ceremonies, as well as dining culture, travel and caricature.

Fashion Photography of the 1930s in Berlin
In the Weimar Republic Berlin became Germany’s main centre for the press industry. At the same time, the city had a flourishing fashion industry for the international market. These two industries were making increasing use of photography, and as a result professional fashion photography had become established as a major separate sector by the end of the 1920s. The Kunstbibliothek has more than 2,000 original prints from the Thirties, most of which were used in Berlin fashion magazines. The largest group of these photographs comes from Berlin.

Woman in Ensemble by Jersey Club
Peter Weller, 1936

Selected examples of photographs taken by photographers who lived and worked in Berlin show the various visual languages and lines of development in commercial photography, which mostly tried to follow international models in spite of state control by the rising power of the Nazis.

Fashion in Berlin as an Economic Factor
Berlin and fashion were inseparably linked for around a hundred years. The manufacturing and trading of clothing was one of the major economic factors of the aspiring metropolis. The feature peculiar to Berlin of the “putting-out system”, whereby manufacture and sales took place separately, meant that good quality clothes which clearly followed Paris fashions could be sold for unbeatably low prices.

Department Store Tietz at Leipziger Straße
around 1900

Berlin’s fashion industry had a relatively high proportion of Jewish firms compared with other sectors of the economy. In 1930, between 42 and 70 % of the total of 1,580 firms (manufacture and wholesale) were owned by Jews. After the Nazis took power in 1933 this closely interwoven production and distribution network in the Berlin clothing industry was systematically destroyed. Laws were passed legitimising anti-French and anti-Jewish hate propaganda.

Sports Fashion of the Fashion House „Loewenthal und Levy“

The Reich Association of the German Clothing Industry and the Working Group of German-Aryan Manufacturers of the Clothing Industry (ADEFA) in Berlin were tasked with enforcing conformity (“Gleichschaltung”) in the clothing industry: by 1938 all the Jewish firms had been “aryanised” or closed down, which led to the complete demise of the Berlin fashion industry with the concomitant financial losses in the export trade.

Jacket Dress in Wool, Blouse and Scarf in Silk
Model from the German Fashion Institute, 1934

At the same time, several central institutions were established – the German Fashion Office in 1933, the German Fashion Institute and the German Fashion Service in around 1935 – to control the fashion industry and fill the vacuum. Measured against the economic and artistic position of the Berlin fashion industry prior to 1933, the success of these institutions was only marginal.

Chiffon Dress with Frills, Satin Jacket
Model from the German Fashion Institute, 1934

These official institutions now demanded “German” fashion, without clearly defining what this meant in stylistic terms. Only German fabrics were to be used following their own designs, a demand that completely missed the reality of the internationally-operating fashion industry.

Woman in Coat
Peter Weller, 1936

In sum, the control of the fashion industry by the Nazis was thoroughly disorganised, switching to and fro between domestic trends and international ones. After 1938 the magazines featured several fashion trends at once. Daytime fashions were distinctly more conventional and frequently adopted elements of folk costume, while the cut of coats and dresses was now influenced by military uniforms, with heavy shoulder padding, wide belts and shorter skirt hems giving a stricter silhouette.

Interpreters of Beauty – Madame Schiaparelli
Die Dame, 1937

But homage continued to be paid to the elegant, fashionable lady in all the fashion magazines and at social occasions for the political elite, allowing an international ideal of beauty to prevail that continued to inspire the wide mass of the population in spite of the best efforts of propaganda.

The Designer Mainbocher and his Model
Die Dame, 1938

Evening fashion was unaffordable for nearly everyone and became ever more glamorous. When war broke out in 1939 the contrast between the fashion photos and people’s real lives became ever more acute. Paris fashion was only affordable for the “elite” and was banned from the fashion magazines for political reasons.

Fashion Photography in Berlin
In around 1930 there were some two dozen photographers specialising in fashion photography in Berlin. There was clearly no lack of buyers; in 1931 80 daily newspapers, some 50 weeklies and more than 40 fashion and women’s magazines were published in Berlin alone. In addition, there were picture agencies, editorial offices of presses based elsewhere and customers in other countries.

Woman in Coat by Hermann Gerson
Ernst Schneider, 1932

The working conditions of press photographers changed significantly after 1933 as a result of the laws passed by the Nazis, which stipulated compulsory membership of the Reich Chamber of Culture. Jewish photographers were excluded. The result was political exploitation and state censorship.

Woman with Necklace and Earrings
Yva, 1930

Fashion photography managed to stay relatively unaffected by restrictive regulations in the early years following 1933. The influential magazines still published French photographs at first and photographs by Jewish photographers from Berlin were still appearing with the correct name credits. By 1938, however, some of the major fashion photographers no longer had any presence in Berlin, such as the photographer Yva, who handed over her studio to her friend Charlotte Weidler in 1936 and was banned from working in 1938.

Style and Visual Languages of Fashion Photography
The Thirties were a thrilling period of upheaval in which commercial photography was influenced by the artistic visual ideas of Surrealism, New Objectivity and New Vision.

Woman in Dress with Hat
Imre von Santho, 1936

German fashion photography adopted design innovations from the artistic avant-garde, but in a more moderate form and with a time lag. “Gleichschaltung” and censorship by the Nazis drastically restricted the development of individual artistic styles, however.

Woman in Ensemble by Hermann Gerson
Studio Becker & Maass, 1938

Together, fashion and photography weave a sophisticated interplay between constructed reality and an artistic visual world full of unfulfilled – and mostly unfulfillable – dreams. A fashion photograph is always more than just a picture of an item of clothing.

Imre von Santho, 1939

While the primary intention of fashion photography is the advertising of products using the portrayal of a visual idea, the moods it creates evoke illusory fantasies, making it complicit itself in the creation of fashion style.

The Actress Maly Delschaft with Hat by Gurau-Friedrichs
Studio Marion (Anny Fuchs), 1932

Since its beginnings fashion photography has used certain themes for realising visual ideas and these are still largely followed today: pictures in the tradition of portrait and star photography were very popular, as these photos of hats from the Studio Marion show.

The Actress Maly Delschaft with Hat
Studio Marion (Anny Fuchs), 1931

Close-up and eye contact allow the viewer an intimate communication with the actress Maly Delschaft. The atmospheric lighting is reminiscent of the style of Adolphe de Meyers and alludes to the picture compositions of glamour photography which lend the subject an aura of unapproachability.

Woman in Jacket by Bernath
Peter Weller, 1936

Other visual themes became established in fashion photography in the Twenties and continued to be influential in the following decade.

Woman in Ski Suit
Studio Becker & Maass, 1937

Women were now frequently shown in domestic or social situations, in nature or in sporting activities, and sometimes even in professional life or travelling.

Woman in Dress by Paula Behmer
Imre von Santho, 1936

It should be mentioned that all photographs are posed and great attention was paid to the precisely detailed construction of a “pseudo real” studio or open-air portrayal.

Woman in Ensemble by W. & G. Neumann
Yva, 1930

In the Thirties, many German photographers still preferred to work in the studio, creating neutral, abstract studio situations structured with few props.

Woman in Day Dress
Studio Becker & Maass, 1938

The back of a chair, a carefully arranged backdrop, plants, pedestals and low walls defined the space for the picture and allowed photo models to take various poses and body positions.

Two Women in Sun-frocks on a Landing Stage
Peter Weller, 1936

A few younger photographers turned decidedly to open-air photography in Berlin’s urban space.

Woman in Ensemble by Jersey Club und Child in Ensemble by Mignon
Peter Weller, 1936

Using the new, smaller cameras and fast lenses they were able to take photographs of travel and street clothes in life-like situations.

Woman in Woollen Coat in Front of the Reichssportfeld
Peter Weller, 1936

The new Olympic Stadium was a very popular background for photos after 1936.

Karin Stilke in Beach Wear
Imre von Santho, 1937

Following the international trend, the design element of the low horizon combined with the “worm’s eye view” was frequently used from 1935 to give photographs a perspective from below and make models appear taller with exaggeratedly monumental proportions.

Woman in Coat
Rolf-Werner Nehrdich, 1940

The neo-classical picture elements deployed in photography internationally and in Germany from the mid-Thirties were used to similar effect, with draped evening gowns and narrowly-cut daytime wardrobes.

Woman in Evening Gown
Studio Becker & Maass, 1938

The most popular of these elements were broken columns in the background or framing the picture, suggesting greatness, giving the model optical stability and creating an impression of heroic distance.

Woman with White Hat by Gurau-Friedrichs
Imre von Santho, 1936

Undoubtedly one of the most innovative Berlin fashion photographers was Imre von Santho, whose work was only rediscovered at the turn of the millennium. His compositions are visually perfectly structured and are notable for their inventive arrangements – backlit against the illuminated background, this toque hat appears especially light.

Woman in Evening Gown by Schulze-Bibernell
Imre von Santho, 1936

The surrealistic clouded mirror gives this gold lamé evening dress with train by Schulze-Bibernell an other-worldly appearance.

Woman in Jacket by Jerlaine
Imre von Santho, 1938

This striped jersey jacket is taken for example with a very low shot against the clear edges of a balustrade.

Woman in Dress by Charlotte Walther
Peter Weller, 1937

Other photographers prefer to put people in the foreground. Peter Weller and Rolf-Werner Nehrdich show their young models as vital people with natural emotions such as joy, pride and pensiveness.

Woman in Ensemble by Schury
Rolf-Werner Nehrdich, 1940

These photographers address the viewer very immediately, allowing us to be part of the atmosphere of the photograph.

Woman in Ensemble by Block & Simon
Studio Becker & Maass, 1935

The female types portrayed by the studio Becker & Maass by contrast are quite different. To our eyes today they seem rather conventional and lacking in personality. Their poses are impeccably professional, but their eyes are lifeless and mostly look past the viewer.

Woman in Jacket and Knickerbockers by Skihütte
Studio Becker & Maass, 1935

In some of these photographs we can almost detect a closeness to the “folksy” ideal type of woman so dear to the Nazis.

Woman in Dress and Cape by M. Gerstel
Imre von Santho, 1937

The pictures in this exhibition show that even after 1933 there continued to be great diversity in the visual language of Berlin’s fashion photography. The officially-propagated “German style” only slowly gained dominance in fashion and women’s magazines.

Two Women in Coats
Yva, 1933

But if we were to look for a “national” style in the German photography of the Thirties, this would most probably be found in the cleverly-lit studio compositions that were so popular. Especially Lilli Niebuhr and Yva used differentiated technical possibilities to structure their pictures with light.

Thus, for example, using bright side lighting to emphasise the contours of dresses.

Woman in Bathing Suit "Capri" by Vollmoeller-A.G.
Yva, 1934

The background is brought to life by the shadows cast by backlit gratings.

Woman in Linen Coat by Jähnig
Yva, 1937

Expressive hard shadows duplicate the silhouette, at the same time creating extra spatial depth.

Hilde Wolff in Coat by Max Weissler and with Hat by Benno Leeser
Studio Becker & Maass, 1932

The fashion photography of the New Objectivity movement in the Twenties is perfected and developed further in these pictures; the textile surfaces of the clothes are brought to life and picture details draw us as viewers in closer to the models and allow us to participate directly in what is happening in the picture. If we are still able to understand this visual language today, then we can rightly refer to this as art fashion photography.

Kunstbibliothek, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Adelheid Rasche in: Die Modefotografie in Berlin in den Dreissiger Jahren, Silvana Editoriale, Milan 2001

Concept: Adelheid Rasche

Editing / Realisation: Merle Walter

Translation: Catherine Hales and Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google