A pair of blue jeans made in the US was without question the most sought after item of clothing in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s. However, not any brand of jeans would do; Levi’s was considered to be the “genuine” brand, more desirable and prestigious than other historic brands like Lee and Wrangler—the ultimate status symbol. These blue jeans were invented in 1871 by Jacob Davis in partnership with Levi Strauss & Co. Levi Strauss was a Bavarian who emigrated to New York in 1847, then in 1853 made his way to San Francisco where he opened a dry goods business. Davis and Strauss patented the blue-colored denim trousers with copper rivets in 1873, and they went into business together to manufacture blue jeans. Originally designed as work clothes for miners and cowboys, jeans became popular in the 1950s among teenagers in the US. In the 1960s they were a common fashion garment worn by college students and members of the hippie subculture. They continued to be popular and fashionable as casual wear in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the US.
Ulrich Plenzdorf, Berlin prose writer, playwright, and film scenarist, contributed greatly to the jeans mania that swept the GDR in the 1970s. His innovative novel, The New Sufferings of Young W. (1972), made its author famous overnight and became one of the most widely-read, discussed, and reviewed works ever published in the GDR. The stage adaptation caused a sensation in the theaters of the GDR and was performed for many years to full houses in Eastern and Western Europe. The main character is 17-year-old Edgar Wibeau, a model all-GDR boy: disciplined, clean-cut, obedient. But all of a sudden he gets fed up with the restrictiveness of socialist society and the conformity it demands of every citizen. He drops out of school and runs away to Berlin, where he proceeds to do all the things he always wanted to do previously but never could. In a long soliloquy, Edgar expounds on the topic of jeans which symbolize his rebellion and new-found freedom.
Jeans are the greatest pants in the world. For jeans I’d give up all of the synthetic rags in Jumo [a large department store in East Berlin] that always look squeaky clean. For jeans I would give up everything, except maybe for the finest thing. And except for music. I don’t mean just an old Händelsohn Bacholdy. I mean genuine music, people. I didn’t have anything against Bacholdy or the others, but they didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet. Of course I mean real jeans. There’s a whole pile of junk that just pretends to be jeans. If that’s all I could get I’d rather not have any at all. Real jeans, for example, don’t have a zipper in front. There is only one kind of real jeans. A real jeans wearer knows what I mean. That doesn’t mean that everyone who wears real jeans is a real jeans wearer. Most of them don’t even know what they’re wearing. It always killed me when I saw some twenty-five-year-old fogy with jeans on that he’s forced up over his bloated thighs and then belted up tight at the waist. Jeans are supposed to be hip pants. I mean they’re pants that will slip down off your hips if you don’t buy them small enough, and they stay up by friction. You naturally can’t have fat hips and certainly not a fat ass, because otherwise they won’t snap together. People over twenty-five are too dense to grasp that. That is, if they’re card-carrying Communists and beat their wives. I mean, jeans are an attitude and not just pants. Sometimes I think that people shouldn’t be allowed to get older than seventeen—or eighteen. After that they get a job or go to college or join the army and then there’s no reasoning with them anymore. At least I haven’t known any. Maybe nobody understands me. Then you start wearing jeans that you don’t any more have a right to. It’s also great when you’re retired and then wear jeans, with a belly and suspenders. That’s also great.
(Ulrich Plenzdorf, The New Sufferings of Young W., translated by Kenneth P. Wilcox. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973, 13-14.)
On Levi’s official website, the company asserts: “We make the jeans. Jeans make the man.” Nowhere was the latter statement truer than in the GDR, where brands of jeans from the US were not available. I wore Levi’s much of the time when I was in the GDR, often together with a jeans jacket. Perhaps that explains why I was asked many times to purchase jeans for persons in East Berlin, either for them to wear themselves or give to someone else as a very special gift. They would tell me the size and sometimes even the name and location of the clothing store in West Berlin where I would find what they wanted. I already knew, of course, that they preferred the “genuine” brand endorsed by Edgar Wibeau.
Photo: Christian Borchert