Mila Ganeva. Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933. Screen Cultures: German Film and the Visual. Rochester: Camden House, 2008. xi + 240 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-205-5.
Reviewed by Adam C. Stanley (Department of Social Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Platteville)
Published on H-German (August, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Flâneuse, Mannequin, and Movie Star
In this fascinating and well-researched volume, Mila Ganeva argues that during the Weimar years, fashion provided a realm in which women could actively participate in defining and shaping modernity in specifically feminine terms, rather than just as passive objects of a male gaze or in terms of projected cultural meanings. Fashion was central to Weimar modernity, and served as a vehicle for women's self-expression by granting them a point of entry into the public sphere via activities such as writing and modeling.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, "Discourses on Fashion," Ganeva focuses on the Weimar illustrated press, examining the ways in which female writers appropriated concepts of modernity and defined them in ways that reflected the realities of women's daily lives. Ganeva explores how female fashion journalists represented a combination of the flâneur and the New Woman (neue Frau). In the (male) cultural imagination, the flâneur was a man who freely roamed and observed throughout the public spaces of the metropolis, while the New Woman was depicted discursively as the embodiment of the threat associated with women in modernity; she led an independent lifestyle outside the traditional norms of home and hearth, and was instantly recognizable by her short hair and functional wardrobe, both of which de-emphasized her "natural" feminine physical features. Ganeva shows that in their writings on fashion in the illustrated press, Weimar fashion journalists demonstrated that they were not mere imitators of the male flâneur, but instead created a space for defining the meaning and impact of modernity in the context of women's everyday lives and experiences. In this manner, women were able to break through and undermine cultural ideologies that viewed them as mere objects of representation in a male-dominated culture. Women established a place for themselves as purveyors and active observers of fashion in their own right.
"Displays of Fashion," the second part of the volume, turns to other venues of women's self-expression vis-à-vis modernity, namely film, fashion shows, and fictional literature. Ganeva discusses the role played by Weimar actresses in setting fashion trends through their on-screen wardrobes (because actresses usually chose their own clothes and accessories to wear in films), and the importance of fashion to films, as evidenced by the "fashion farce" genre of the Weimar era. Such fashion-oriented films frequently included extended sequences of fashion shows, allowing the audience to view within the film a popular method for dissemination of fashion styles in society. Indeed, Ganeva then turns to those shows themselves, studying the mannequins who modeled clothing at fashion shows and in shop windows. While used in reference to the inanimate figures on which clothes were draped, the term "mannequin" was also applied to women who demonstrated clothing styles as well, either for individual clients at a store or for wider audiences. This section of the book is especially compelling, as Ganeva thoroughly elucidates the origins of both types of mannequin, and effectively explores the history of women involved in this line of employment. The book's final chapter analyzes the popular novel Gilgi (1931), written by Irmgard Keun, and in so doing returns to the connections between the flâneur and the New Woman. In Keun's tale, fashion allows the story's protagonist to transcend the stereotypical images of women and modernity in society, and to understand modernity on her terms from a specifically feminine perspective based on women's own daily experiences.
As the paragraphs above suggest, Women in Weimar Fashion is quite interdisciplinary in nature. Readers in fields such as art history, film studies, German studies, history, literary criticism, and women's and gender studies will find the book relevant and significant. It represents an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship across several disciplines that deals with fashion cultures in twentieth-century Germany. What stands out as particularly appealing is Ganeva's ability to infuse the text with women's voices and to make clear women's independent agency in contributing to cultures of fashion and modernity in the Weimar era. Rather than relying merely on the discursive ideologies of male-dominated publications and outlets, Ganeva's extensive work into how female fashion journalists, shop-window mannequins, and creative writers, among others, understood and imagined their relationship to modernity through fashion is genuinely impressive, and her analysis of the complex issues at hand is adroit and persuasive throughout the text.
Researchers and academics will find much to appreciate in Ganeva's work. It reflects a persistent and edifying engagement with the scholarly literature, above and beyond what is usually found in a monograph, which establishes an excellent context for situating the book within the existing literature. Moreover, Ganeva's epilogue includes a pithy but noteworthy section on related areas of study still in need of serious investigation, among them the role of men's fashions and masculinity after World War I, as well as the impact of the Nazi seizure of power on discourses of fashion. Of similar value for scholars is Ganeva's habit of including in her endnotes the original German text for quotations given in translation in the body of the chapter. Ganeva's translated quotations are unproblematic, but specialists will clearly appreciate and benefit from the ability to read and evaluate the evidence in its original language.
While Ganeva's prose will not present any major problems for scholars (who will not be deterred, for instance, by the constant appearance of German terms in the main text), this is not a book for beginners, and as such its audience will likely remain limited to graduate students and faculty. In addition, the book's potential use by a lay readership or its incorporation into an undergraduate classroom will be hindered severely by its steep price; one can hope that a paperback edition is in the offing, so that the book becomes more affordable for the broad ranks of the professoriate.
In sum, this important and innovative work, while not suitable for those below the graduate level, makes a significant contribution to the emerging literatures of fashion and modernity with respect to gender.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Adam C. Stanley. Review of Ganeva, Mila, Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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