Clothes and Shoes

Clothing made in the GDR for its citizenry tended to be uninteresting and unattractive. The emphasis was on functionality, not fashion. Clothing items of every variety were not very stylish or colorful; I remember seeing men and women wearing drab gray, green, and beige clothes. Most fashion-conscious women had a special outfit for dress-up occasions like birthday parties, weddings, etc. More often than not, this was a gift from relatives or friends living in West Germany or West Berlin. Or, it might have been purchased in an Exquisit-Laden, special retail shops in the GDR with relatively high-priced clothing and cosmetics from Western European countries or made in the GDR specifically for export to the West. Such “exquisite” merchandise could only be purchased with Western currency in these shops that were owned and operated by the State. Here GDR citizens could find name-brand clothing that was different from the commonplace items sold in the other stores, trendy clothing that would set someone apart from those persons wearing functional, unfashionable clothes.


Fashion-conscious women in the GDR would visit these stores on a regular basis, just to see what new merchandise had been put on display. As a result, it was easy for these women to recognize a dress or outfit that came from an Exquisit shop. Everyone also knew what was for sale in the ordinary clothing and shoe stores, and most people would have preferred to buy higher-quality, more attractive items.

Shoes made in the GDR were not a clothing item that was in high demand. They were sturdy and meant to last, but most of them were ugly, so East Germans preferred shoes that came from the West. I wore shoes that were made or purchased in the US and generally not available in Germany. While strolling down a boulevard like Unter den Linden in East Berlin, I would often observe persons who were walking toward me looking down at my shoes. Everyone was aware that shoes like mine were not available anywhere in the GDR. An East German friend told me, “It’s the shoes, that’s how we can tell right away that you are not from here.”


I should add that there were no clothing sales in the GDR, and individual items were always sold at the same fixed price from north to south and east to west. Sometimes, so-called Exportrückläufe (clothes that had been produced to be sold in the West, but for some reason had been rejected) were sold in regular stores. The trained East German eye could easily spot such items. Lines would form quickly outside the store. People would join the line and ask “What are they selling?” Regardless of what it was, those in line would wait patiently in the hope that the items would not sell out before it was their turn. Even if someone did not need the item, one could use it to trade for something that another person had purchased and did not need. Or, one could give the item to someone as a special gift. Attractive things were always rationed in the GDR. In other words, one could not buy ten T-shirts, just one per person. Couples would stand in the same line, pretending not to know each other, in order to be able to purchase two of the desired object.

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