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How Jeans Became a Symbol of Youth Empowerment During the Cold War

On the morning of Nov. 10, 1989, people around the world woke up to the news that East Germans were suddenly, finally free to travel beyond their country’s closed-off borders. Newspaper front pages were splashed with photos of young people dancing on top of the Berlin Wall, streaming across Checkpoint Charlie, and taking pickaxes to the concrete symbol of the Cold War—many of them, notably, wearing blue jeans.

That the beginning of the end of the Eastern Bloc was ushered in by thousands of denim-clad revelers would no doubt confirm the worst fears of its founders: no barricade could keep out the insidious influence of the West. Marxism was no match for Levi Strauss & Co.

At the time the wall was erected in 1961, jeans were a scarce commodity in Communist Europe. Not only was there no official channel through which to buy Western goods inside the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the so-called “rivet pants” (or niethosen) were seen as dangerous emblems of American excess, and those who wore them risked getting sent home from school or even targeted by the Stasi, the GDR’s notorious secret police.

Even with the 1962 advent of Intershops, the state-run stores that sold foreign goods to tourists as a means to increase the flow of more stable currencies into the country, jeans were unaffordable for most East Germans. At 55 Deutsche Marks per pair, the equivalent of $116 in 2019, they cost almost half the average monthly income in 1962, according to Rebecca Menzel, author of “Jeans in der DDR.”

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Still, as Western culture increasingly permeated the country’s borders, many residents were undeterred by the exorbitant price and found ways to barter for a pair, skirting rules barring GDR citizens from holding foreign currency. “People traded with whatever they had,” said Menzel, “mainly books or antiques, but often there wasn’t much to give but hospitality.”

The proximity of East Berlin to its capitalist neighbor presented a particular challenge for the GDR’s leaders. “The Berlin Wall was the dividing line across Europe, and probably no other Communist Bloc country had easier access to Western television and radio,” said Douglas Gunn, managing director of The Vintage Showroom Ltd. “They knew what the West was wearing, watching, dancing to, how its youth dressed and lived. This can only have highlighted the lack of certain goods and freedoms that the West took for granted.”

In 1972, this fetishization culminated in the play “The New Sorrows of Young W.” by Ulrich Plenzdorf, in which the denim-clad protagonist proclaims that jeans are “an attitude” and “the finest trousers in the world.” According to the German outlet MDR, the production was shown on 17 stages across the GDR.

Even before the wall went up, more than 3 million East Germans had already fled the country, leaving many families divided for decades. Jeans that weren’t smuggled in by visiting foreigners sometimes arrived in “Westpakets,” or care packages sent to East Germans from family outside the country’s borders and taxed by the GDR. The government also capitalized on the collective yen for denim by producing its own “blue cottino” jeans in state-run factories beginning in the mid-1970s—though frequent cotton shortages meant these were made partially from synthetic materials, and could never measure up to coveted styles sold by Wrangler or Levi’s.

According to Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co.’s in-house historian, the pants were sometimes colloquially known as “East jeans” and were a source of great frustration for those who wore them. “East Berliner Joachim Georg Michel called them a ‘parody on jeans’ in a letter he wrote to Levi Strauss & Co. in 1991,” she said. “He described them as ill-fitting and too short with a gap on the backside and a high waist that cut into his stomach.”

Unlike old-timey Trabant cars and Rotkäppchen sparkling wine, the denim of the era doesn’t tend to inspire feelings of “ostalgie” (or nostalgia for the ephemera of the former GDR). Brands like Boxer, Shanty and Wisent are sometimes found at vintage sales, Menzel said, but they are hardly thought of as treasures.

None survived long after the reunification of Germany, as factories were ill equipped to compete with Western brands, and exports to the Soviet Union shriveled. Shanty-Fashion GmbH, formerly known as People’s Enterprise Jugendmode Rosto and once called “the modern beacon of East Germany’s state-owned clothing industry” in a 1990 Sun Sentinel article, shrank its production from 1.5 million pieces in 1989-90 to 60,000 pieces in 1990-91. A factory director told the paper that its costs were simply too high: whereas Wrangler could produce a pair of jeans in 14-18 minutes, it took 24-28 minutes in East Germany.

Denim relents

Eventually, popular pressure won out, and in November 1978, Textilvertretung, the government buying arm of the East German apparel industry, asked Levi Strauss & Co. for a supply of 800,000 pairs of jeans to sell within the country’s borders, Panek said. Later that month, 600,000 jeans were airlifted from the U.S. into the Schoenefeld and Dresden airports, with European inventory supplying the remainder. Despite a hefty markup (at 149 East German marks, the jeans cost the equivalent of about $74 at the time), the demand was such that customers lined up in droves to buy them.

For some Americans, the European appetite for readily available (and, at home, relatively affordable) brands like Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee presented an enticing business opportunity. Vintage denim dealer Eric Schrader of Junkyard Jeans gained his entrée into the industry in the mid-’80s through a college roommate who flipped Levi’s 501s on the European market.

People climbing the Berlin Wall
People climbing the Berlin Wall. Jurgen Schwarz/Imagebroker/REX/Shutterstock

“He would borrow $2,000 from me every month and he would give me $2,500 back at the end of the month. I had no idea what he was doing,” Schrader said. As it turned out, his roommate was buying jeans in bulk and selling them at a markup in Europe, where new Levi’s sold for a premium at retail.

Schrader wanted in, and soon the two were doubling their money, buying hundreds of pairs of jeans from Midwest retailers like J.C. Penney and farming supply stores, where they cost about $19.99 per pair, and shipping them by the boxful to France and Germany. While he was never personally involved in smuggling black-market Levi’s into the East, “that’s where the jeans were the most valuable,” he recalls. “I even remember a story of someone telling me that they traded a pair of jeans for the most expensive caviar and champagne.”

He understood the allure of the classic 501, too: it was the style worn by Bruce Springsteen in the iconic cover photo of his 1984 album “Born in the U.S.A.” and, he says, “it screamed Americana.”

There’s no question that Springsteen’s influence had made its way to East Germany. In July 1988, the rock star played in front of a crowd of 300,000 in East Berlin (with millions more watching on TV), by far the largest of several open-air concerts organized by the GDR in the final years before the fall of the wall. The government hoped to ingratiate itself to the country’s youth and, in turn, discourage them from crowding too close to the wall every time a Western musician could be overheard playing a concert in West Berlin, so it invited artists like Bob Dylan, Bryan Adams and Depeche Mode to perform for East Germans.

Far from quelling the public’s restlessness, however, the performances catalyzed a movement that some historians say ultimately helped bring down the wall. “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down,” Springsteen told the crowd, to thunderous cheers.

To the East Germans masses dancing in their blue jeans, the future looked like freedom.