During the 1920s German metropolitan centres experienced an influx of women entering the workforce. This social shift was spurred on by machine age rationalisation in the workplace and the social impacts of World War I. A new female white-collar workforce emerged, their heroine was the idealised die Neue Frau (the New Woman). With the glittering prize of financial independence on the horizon die Neue Frau found work in factory assembly lines, offices and telephone exchange centres . With financial independence came greater social and sexual freedom. Die Neue Frau frequented nightclubs, cafes and cabarets. She was a pleasure seeker upsetting the traditional image of the domestically focused German woman .
Otto Dix captured the spirit of die Neue Frau in his painting of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden. She’s masculinised with a cropped boyish hair style. She’s sexy too, notice that stocking slipping down her leg. She’s a formidable character puffing away on cigarettes no doubt purchased with her own newly generated disposable income. Sylvia epitomises a Weimar Era theme of appropriation which saw the borrowing of masculine signifiers like clothing and hairstyles to express female empowerment .
Die Neue Frau was an elusive ideal though, a utopian heroine. She paradoxically existed within a society that sought to maintain traditional family structure and patriarchal control. It was a look that captured an unobtainable ideal. Her image was sold to women through advertising, literature and film even though the underpinning social imperative was increasingly devalued .
So why does die Neue Frau, a spectre of would-be female revolution, still pop up in contemporary fashion?
Marc Jacobs reportedly drew influence from the paintings of Otto Dix for his ready-to-wear Marc by Marc Jacobs Fall 2013 collection . It is indeed a palette informed by oil paint. Rich, deep and decadent.
Echoing the “working girl” call of die Neue Frau, Jacobs has created sleek secretarial fantasies. However Jacobs’ Frau is easily digestible. Gone are the edgy and boyish bobs of Dix’s time, instead Jacobs’ styles his models with fluffy, feminine vintage hair. Reminiscent of the 1970s revival of 1940s chic, think Jerry Hall in a Roxy Music video clip . In a playful twist Jacobs’ army of slinky secretaries are out in the “workforce” while the boys seem to live a life of leisure, lounging around in black, red and blue satin pyjama suits .
Perhaps a truer reflection of the ideal and plight of die Neue Frau can be seen in the Marc by Marc Jacobs Resort 2015 collection. This collection sees a masculinising of the female body through elements of fetishized uniforms and work wear. British designers Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier cite the Mercury 13, otherwise known as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, as an influence on the collection . Like die Neue Frau, the Mercury 13 never got their chance, after being trained by NASA in the early 1960s their program was cancelled . Bartley sums it up, “they were competent women who were put back into the kitchen” .
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