The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“But now my outfit is complete”: Weimar Modernism and Irmgard Keun’s Material Girls

Sovay Muriel Hansen
University of Arizona


Irmgard Keun’s novels of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Gilgi: One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), provide evidence for German Modern Girls’ desire to cultivate and articulate public, autonomous selves, through the language of fashion and material goods. This article argues that fashion allows Keun to render this female desire visible and that Keun’s focus on the material world aligns with the new modernist studies’ complication of earlier conceptions of modernism, which emphasized characters’ inner lives.

Keywords desire / Modern Girl / new modernist studies / fashion / Weimar Republic

“Well, if a girl has a lot of good clothes and a fur coat she has something, there’s no getting away from that.”
                                                                                                                     —Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

If modernism has been historically understood in terms of stylistic experimentations and  preoccupations with inner, subjective worlds, these old stereotypes were never true for the modernism of the Weimar Republic.1 Shifts in understanding interwar literature, such as the expanded geographies and stylistic registers of the new modernist studies,2 as well as scholarship on fashion and modern women writers, present the possibility to reappraise the fashion-obsessed Modern Girl characters of Weimar writer Irmgard Keun (1905-1982).3 This article sustains a close reading of fashion and surfaces in Keun’s two best-selling novels Gilgi: One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) to put them in productive alignment with the new modernist studies more broadly, and with recent scholarship on fashion and women writers in particular. Keun’s novels focus on fashion’s central role in expressing women’s desires to remake womanhood in the public sphere in affirmative ways, while also acknowledging that self-authored futures for Keun and her characters are ultimately curtailed by sinister, and eventually fascist, patriarchal forces.

That Keun’s novels focus on the sartorial and the material world is consonant with the sensibility of “New Objectivity” singular to Weimar Germany, which embraces a sober, pro-capitalist view of modernization that finds its full expression in its preoccupation with surfaces. New Objectivity, as Richard McCormick defines it,4

is now a term used by many scholars (especially in Germany) to describe what is actually unique to the culture of the Weimar Republic, as opposed to Expressionism, which dominated the 1910s . . . that uniqueness is epitomized in a new openness to modernity and mass culture by artists and intellectuals. (7)

Weimar’s producers and critics of culture were enamored of this distinctly Weimar-era sensibility towards mass culture and capitalist production; New Objectivist critiques and products were increasingly inundated and characterized by an explosion of visual culture that sought to document the material world and its panoply of stimuli.

New Objective novels attend closely to the representation of objects, something Keun’s novels do in abundance. One of the most formally salient elements of Keun’s novels is the way the narrative perspective, whether third-person narration as in Gilgi or first-person as in Artificial, is hyper-focused on the material world that the protagonists Gilgi and Doris navigate. While this focus on inventorying the world aligns with the aesthetics of New Objectivity, Keun’s novels diverge from the often androcentric and overtly violent, misogynist aesthetic and ethos of many of the movement’s cultural artifacts.5 Although they resonate aesthetically with the cynical and unsentimental sensibilities of New Objectivity, Keun’s novels focus on women’s perspectives. Through them, Keun brings into focus the Modern Girl’s vital relationship to the object world.

In Keun’s novels, fashion and other objects are the material means by which their female protagonists pursue and articulate their desires. “But now my outfit is complete,” working-class protagonist Doris muses, early into The Artificial Silk Girl, adding that “[this] is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition” (5). As Barbara Kosta observes of Modern Girls during the Weimar era:

 [T]hese stylized young women, who took their cue from the flickering images of movie stars and glamour, performed in offices as secretaries, stenographers, typists, and salesgirls . . . this generation stood at the vortex of social change. (271-72)

Modern Girls like Keun’s protagonists Gilgi and Doris subscribe to the modern look they see modeled in this bourgeoning visual culture, becoming conspicuous reminders of changing social mores. The literature—and other cultural artifacts—of the Weimar era shows that fashion was crucial to creating, navigating, and performing the modernized female self on the public stage. In the milieu marked by material scarcity that issued from Germany’s crushing loss in the Great War and followed by the Wall Street crash of 1929, sumptuous items such as fine clothing and expensive ornaments likely appeared even more eye-catching, impressive, and alluring than before. Doris seems to believe that fashion renders a person both distinct and visible in the crowds of the metropolis. In this tumultuous urban setting, Doris’s fixation on fashion and the language it affords her to create new sets of meanings is directly bound up with her desire to create new possibilities for herself.

This desire for independence is the focus of both of Keun’s Modern Girl novels. Gilgi centers on the titular character’s determination to hold down a secure job and to take language classes in order to increase her marketability in the workforce. But when Gilgi falls in love with a dandy, she loses her motivation, becomes pregnant, fails to procure an abortion, and moves to Berlin without her male partner in search of opportunities for herself and her child. The Artificial Silk Girl begins with Doris’s attempts to become an actress. She then steals a fur coat and absconds to Berlin where she envisions her life as a “star.” Financial necessity forces Doris into the demimonde, where she relies on one man after another, skirting homelessness. Despite the protagonists’ distinct class positions, the novels each focus on a woman’s hunger for autonomy and material independence. Gilgi’s and Doris’s respective adventures with men highlight the vulnerability of women who seek agency outside marriage and the home.

Between them, Gilgi and The Artificial Silk Girl offer multidimensional models of the Modern Girl. Whereas Doris is unskilled, uneducated, and working-class, Gilgi is a skilled office worker, well-educated, and petite-bourgeoise. However, both characters are, to a relative extent, financially insecure. Neither woman seeks domestic security or marriage. Instead, they yearn for self-sufficiency, and share a desire for careers that grant a solid footing in the depressed Weimar economy. Yet neither protagonist is immune to patriarchal forces that can quickly deprive a woman of her agency. Each novel ends tenuously, as the protagonists confront the narrow set of possibilities in which their agency can operate. Their precarity is reflective of the late-Weimar political climate, as both novels appear amid the ever-increasing Nazi propaganda that is already stigmatizing women’s desire for independence.

Keun, who was arguably a German Modern Girl herself, wrote novels that focus on young working women when she herself was in her mid-twenties. Gilgi and The Artificial Silk Girl document the lives of Modern Girls just before the State collapsed, which makes their female protagonist’s relentless pursuits of self-authorship so poignant and chilling to readers today. When the Nazis seized power in 1933, Keun’s books were banned and she fled to the Netherlands, where she continued to publish until Holland was invaded in 1940. Keun then returned to Germany and survived the war in hiding, a fate many Weimar Modern Girls endured. These books, and their author, became Nazi targets because they appeared to endorse decadent and libertine lifestyles—such as sex lives outside of marriage. 

The desire these novels evidence for a self-fashioned female future emerges against the well-known political backdrop of the fourteen-year democracy: the Republic became increasingly chaotic and polarized, with Fascists at one end of the political spectrum and Communists at the other—and many parties between (Marhoefer 14). Alongside Jews, queers, Bolsheviks, avant-garde artists, and other so-called “degenerates” and “non-Germans,” the Modern Girl became a scapegoat for the failure of Germany’s first experiment with democracy, as Lilean Buhl has also discussed in this issue. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, German women’s reproductive capabilities became a fetish of German nationalism, an ideology that forcefully promoted domesticity and maternity as women’s ideal and proper role.

Women’s bodies, therefore, became symbolic sites of the fascist vision of rebirth for the German State—a vision counter to the Modern Girl’s desires for autonomy and agency in public spaces. Women’s “selfish” desire to create public personas and to pursue lives beyond the domestic sphere was held partially responsible for the collapse of the traditional German family and German State, even in the Weimar era—a cliché that was then recycled by the Third Reich. The Modern Girl’s dynamic multidimensionality made her the perfect target of criticism: she was seen as both hot and desirous and cold and machine-like—completely “unnatural” in her dogged pursuit of a life outside of domestic confines.6 This newly representative and seemingly paradoxical female body is part of what Keun attempts to render in Gilgi and Doris: their bodies are the political landscape of their novels.

In fact, the apparent absence of political consciousness in Keun’s protagonists testifies to the very imbrication of women’s bodies with the body politic. In a depressed economic context where even educated women are hard-pressed to find employment outside of sex work, and in which abortions are illegal, the political realm bleeds conspicuously into every corner of women’s lives. What appears, perhaps, a dangerous unawareness is a result of political conditions that force Keun’s protagonists into a constant vigilance of their own bodies and their material needs and wants. Thus, in this political environment, the Modern Girl becomes an icon of modernity—the “surface upon which various ideologies played themselves out” (Kosta 271). As Kosta has observed, the modern German woman, like a cinema screen itself, became a surface onto which society projected its sundry desires and anxieties. In the image of the Modern Girl, the aspirations and concerns of the fledgling and unstable state were reflected. The Modern Girls of the Weimar Republic used style and fashion as signifiers both to themselves and to traditional German culture: among themselves they were defying normative femininity and articulating public personas; to conventional and fascist minds they were an outrage to taste and tradition. The Modern Girl’s style—shorter skirts, more androgynous shapes, the cigarette-as-accessory, and the bubikopf haircut (a short, sharp bob that framed the face)—rejected prior expectations for feminine style in favor of a more athletic, revealing appearance. But the style of the Modern Girl, as the character Doris notes above, was not meant solely to capture positive attention. It also signaled resistance to women’s past social roles.

Even more than merely attracting or repelling onlookers, this style was deployed to indicate a very visible desire to invent new ways of being a German woman. As Mila Ganeva notes, “Weimar fashion helped shape a public sphere within which female practitioners were transformed from objects of male voyeurism into active subjects of the complex, ambivalent, and constantly shifting experience of metropolitan modernity.”7 The Weimar era ushered in, therefore, an entirely new, agentic surface culture, one that women had already been socialized to understand at an elemental level—because of their longstanding role as surfaces upon which men gazed and onto which men projected their values.8 Whereas previous scholarship, by Ganeva and Katharina von Ankum, for example, has focused on fashion and women’s sexual desire in Keun’s novels, this article posits that Keun’s central concern is a mutinous female desire for an autonomous and public self that fights to elude patriarchal control, even if this end is never fully achieved. In both Gilgi and The Artificial Silk Girl, fashion is Keun’s predominant metonym for this female desire. Selling 30,000 copies within the first year in the Weimar Republic alone (Kosta 272), Gilgi possessed wide appeal. In addition to taking an inventory of the materiality of the city streets, the popularity of both of these Modern Girl novels can be attributed, at least in part, to their illumination of the lives of ordinary, single, modern, working women pursuing what they want, and to the realities such women faced in navigating the dazzling but harsh Weimar-era metropolis.

Keun’s focus on material objects—one being the protagonists’ bodies, which they themselves objectify for their own benefit—demonstrates the importance of bodily autonomy to independence. The very first lines of Gilgi illustrate this material focus: “She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi. She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela. The two ‘i’s are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s” (3). In addition to Gilgi’s being introduced—as she is frequently—with objectifying qualifiers like “the girl” that counteract her assertion of unique individual agency, these opening sentences emphasize Gilgi’s vital relationship with objects: a concept (her life) and a signifier (her name) are described as object and body parts, respectively. Gilgi is holding her “life,” which is highly abstract—since it is, of course, not her literal life (her aliveness) but the way in which she lives—in her hands, rendering it, metaphorically, a concrete possession in the external world, a thing that can be studied and regarded. Then, the name “Gilgi” is valued for its material qualities—the i’s represent objects: slim legs and narrow hips. The nickname that she calls herself is a word that looks more like her body, as the is match her slender figure. In this visually-oriented Weimar world, Keun draws attention to visual properties of language on a page, and to the self-consciousness of the protagonist in changing the appearance of her own name in order to exert control over how she is perceived.

Another way in which Gilgi cultivates agency is by accounting for her material possessions. To this end, Gilgi is machine-like in her disciplined commitment to earning money, becoming educated, and cultivating a career. Because of Gilgi’s pertinacious pursuit of her career goals, scholars have asserted that Gilgi “does not define herself through objects in her own space,” but rather by the skills that will provide her with a good job (Feldhaus 522). However, the text of the novel does not seem to corroborate a tidy opposition between Gilgi’s aims and objects. In fact, Gilgi—who still officially lives with her parents—also rents a room of her own that she has furnished with a few precious items that she has purchased with her earned money:

She takes a samovar from the cupboard and brews tea . . . and slips into a yellow silk kimono. This little room is where she feels at home. She rented it so that she could work in peace. She pays for it, and it belongs to her. She had the walls hung with brown hessian. She bought the furniture gradually, piece by piece: divan, desk, cupboard, chair. Bought it all entirely with her own earnings. She did overtime to pay for the little Erika-brand typewriter and the gramophone. (16)

While Feldhaus (522) is right to point out that Gilgi sees her identity as a woman bound up with her role as a worker with marketable skills, it is what this work buys her that matters perhaps even more. This private space and the treasured objects that Gilgi pays for with her own money matter a great deal to her identity as an aspiring independent modern woman: “She pays for it, and it belongs to her.” Gilgi’s careful accounting of each item and the repeated emphasis on its being bought with her own hard-earned money reveals that Gilgi’s identity as a working woman is made concrete and visible by her precious possessions.   

Indeed, the description of Gilgi’s room could be seen as the culminating gesture of introduction in a novel that emphasizes the importance of objects to self-authorship. A mere six paragraphs into the novel, the reader is shown Gilgi’s self-objectifying eye: “The girl Gilgi stands in front of the mirror. Fastens a black suede belt firmly around the thick gray woollen sweater . . . and looks at herself with an objective pleasure” (4). Here, Gilgi’s eye for fashion enables her to curate herself as an ensemble of fashionable accessories that produce a pleasurable visual effect. Gilgi inventories her wardrobe just as she inventories the items in her room: “chamois-leather gloves, collars, and silk blouse” (5). It appears that even as she takes her employment and career goals seriously, Gilgi understands that women do not have the putative luxury of simply being valued as workers; on the contrary, her skills are secondary to the surface appearance of her body. Although it is certainly true that Gilgi prizes her education and professional life above almost everything else, Gilgi recognizes that she will be defined by the objects on and around her, especially those that signal her status as a modern, independent woman.

That the material world and fashion have great significance to Gilgi is further accentuated by the nature of her employment—as a steno-typist for a woman’s clothing company. In this position, Gilgi is acutely aware of how her female body appears at the office, since she fields incessant, unwanted sexual advances from her boss. At the same time, Gilgi knows she must perform tolerance of this behavior to stay employed: “She has no desire to start a relationship with Herr Reuter, and she has no desire to mess up her job” (13). In another passage of free indirect discourse we witness Gilgi’s thoughts about how to negotiate the harassment: “Resisting too strongly might perhaps make her appear less harmless than she’d like” (13). Here, even in Gilgi’s interiority, she is focused on how she wants to “appear” to navigate the perils of being a woman in the working world. Gilgi carefully calculates the fine line she must walk in response to her boss’s advances: she must resist him, of course, but not so strongly that he no longer perceives her as a sexual possibility and casts her away entirely. Gilgi is acutely aware of the value and risks associated with her appearance in this fashion-obsessed but male-controlled world.  

For her part, Gilgi eagerly entertains aspirations beyond secretarial work. Specifically, Gilgi contemplates that she

[h]as a talent for designing and making clothes like few others. When the young lady Gilgi goes out in the evening, men’s and women’s heads turn; and if she said she bought her dresses from Damm or Gerstel, people might believe her, although she’s made everything herself. She owns three evening gowns, and none of them cost more than twenty marks. Maybe she’ll open a small fashion studio one day in Paris or Berlin, maybe—maybe—oh, she’s still young, and she’s open to all ways of providing for herself, except as a wife, a film actress, or a beauty queen. (17)

For Gilgi—who is again objectified here as “the young lady”—fashion deserves serious contemplation: it is a means to make one’s living and it gets a woman noticed in public. Clothing is not fatuous or extraneous; it is a tool for achieving goals and is a flexible signifier that facilitates Gilgi’s imagination about her future: “maybe—maybe—oh” and that “she’s open to all ways of providing for herself.” Gilgi uses fashion to curate her public persona and so being poorly dressed is, for Gilgi, a “deadly” mistake: Gilgi declares that “[s]he’d rather string herself up than go around sloppily dressed” (127). If Gilgi’s statement is hyperbolic and humorous, it is nevertheless important to consider the underlying seriousness of dress for women: that there are “deadly” social and economic risks to a single woman going out in public not looking her best.

It is also important to pay attention to—in the above passage—Gilgi’s ruling out of three alternative modes of supporting herself: as a wife, a film actress, and a beauty queen. While Gilgi does not explain why those roles are unappealing to her, it may be inferred that these other occupations all require too much performance and too little skill, while conferring too little agency. It is worth noting Gilgi’s dream is to own her own fashion studio—it would appear, therefore, that she would prefer to command the world of fashion rather than be commanded by it, as an actress or a beauty queen. Gilgi knows how important fashion is to her own identity and to the identities of women in general, but her solution—presumably for both herself and for other Modern Girls—is to take an agentic role in shaping a new identity by shrewdly objectifying herself rather than being objectified by it, by others—and most especially by men.

A passage in which Gilgi reluctantly lunches with her boss exemplifies this strategic self-objectification: “The shape of Gilgi’s little breasts is clearly visible under her blue-gray velvet dress, convincing Herr Reuter that Gilgi is ‘the’ woman who understands him” (19). Here, the joke is on both Herr Reuter and Gilgi: this passage clearly describes Gilgi’s body and clothing while also using humor to ironize Herr Reuter’s male gaze and his apprehension of Gilgi. Thus, although the clothing and the narrative provides a detailed outline of Gilgi’s body, this outline is in Gilgi’s command, revealing Gilgi’s sardonic perception of Herr Reuter and inducing the reader into a shared joke at his expense.

To evade her employer’s advances, Gilgi and her bohemian friend Olga devise a plot to use Olga’s appearance to transfer Herr Reuter’s advances to Olga. Olga is yet another iteration of the heterogeneous Modern Girl-type: she’s an adventurous artist who “paints whatever people want . . . When she needs money, she works; when she has money, she travels. Often unaccompanied, sometimes accompanied” (18). In contrast to Gilgi’s goals, Olga’s ambition is only to make just enough money to allow her to travel. Olga’s worldliness and experience handling men will, Gilgi hopes, allow Olga to distract Herr Reuter. Olga arrives at the restaurant dressed in an “expensive Russian squirrel fur on which she has so far paid three installments . . . He notices that other men envy him when they see Olga sitting down at his table” (20-21). Olga and Gilgi are perfectly aware of the kind of effect that a woman in a fur coat produces: the ensemble is eye-catching and signifies a great deal of money spent on one item—and on one singular woman. It is worth emphasizing that Olga went into debt to buy herself the fur coat and therefore sees it as a necessary investment in herself, a tool for accessing men with money who might perhaps fund her travels.

Olga and Gilgi thus attempt to maintain agency by objectifying themselves, playing active roles in manipulating their objectification as the alternative to passivity. Throughout the first part of the novel, Gilgi is highly independent and resides largely independently, in her rented room in which she studies for the various language courses she takes to be more competitive in her job search. But Gilgi’s great error occurs when she stops prioritizing her own space (both physical and mental), when she meets and falls in love with Martin, a dandy who stays at his friends’ flats when they are out of town. Martin possesses highly decadent tastes but no real income, and yet still imagines that “he’d be much more in love with the little one [Gilgi] if he could give her nice clothes and diamonds and soft furs” (106). For Martin, ornamenting Gilgi’s body contributes to falling in love, by making Gilgi into a glamorous object he has some role in helping to design. Gilgi’s mistake is that she stops dictating the terms of her own objectification and loses hold on “her little life,” which was essential to her identity at the beginning of the novel. In relinquishing that vital control to Martin and allowing him to objectify her entirely, Gilgi signs her body over to patriarchal domination. In this way, she loses the crucial power that self-objectification affords the Modern Girl. 

When Gilgi herself eventually slides into unemployed languor as a result of living Martin’s hedonistic life, she recalls Olga’s sound financial advice: “‘first some powder and perfume—then food,’ Olga always says. This statement contains profound wisdom” (127). Olga’s sage mantra, which Gilgi sees as important, is this: a woman must prioritize being attractive and well-groomed, over and above even food. A woman’s appearance is an investment in her future security, whereas food merely keeps her alive in the moment. Food may be bought with one’s leftover change, but powder and perfume require real money. A woman possesses agency so long as she maintains control of her image.

True to his earlier expressed desire to ornament Gilgi with luxurious items, Martin purchases—on credit—a fur coat. Upon receiving the gift, Gilgi is speechless and fearful, as she is well aware of their financial precariousness, but she allows Martin to give her the coat and she wears it for an evening on the town with him. From this point forward in the novel, speechlessness and language failure increasingly plague Gilgi. The longer she remains with Martin, the more her desire for a career dwindles, and the more language and articulation escape her, as she begins to speak and think in fragments.

This inability to communicate is exemplified when Gilgi realizes she is pregnant: she thinks, “I can’t stand it anymore, I want to die—I don’t want it anymore—I don’t want—it disgusts me to be so powerless against my body” (156). What Gilgi cannot tolerate, what makes her want to die, is to be denied authority over her own body by a man—that Martin impregnated her is his final violation of her autonomy and the last she can bear. The em dashes above indicate a failure of expression, as if to convey mental gasps for air and Gilgi’s inability to articulate the pain of her loss of jurisdiction over “her little life.” The vague pronoun “it” makes it unclear what, precisely, Gilgi does not want: Martin? The baby? Both? Gilgi is so distraught over the fact that she will be forced to give birth to a child that she has no available language to express the total extinguishing of self-determination she feels. She thinks in negatives such as “I can’t” and “I don’t want”—the only “positive” desire she expresses is that she wants to die, which was also, in her past life as a working woman, the price of going out in public sloppily dressed. Gilgi’s desperate realization—though she does not take her own life—is that dying provides more agency than living under patriarchy.

To try to regain control over her body, Gilgi attempts to obtain an abortion from a doctor. Even though abortions were illegal in the Weimar Republic, they were still very common.9 The doctor, however, refuses Gilgi. At this point, Gilgi mournfully lectures the doctor about the immorality of abortions’ being illegal:

Listen, Doctor, there’s nothing more immoral and unhygienic and absurd than making a woman give birth to a child which she can’t feed. And there’s absolutely nothing more immoral and absurd than making a woman have a child which she doesn’t want. (141)

Gilgi’s message here is clear: forcing women to give birth robs them of their liberty.

The frank discussion of abortion in this novel was, according to historian Cornelie Usborne, quite common in Weimar popular culture (“Rebellious Girls” 322). In fact, Usborne claims that the “abortion narrative” in Gilgi’s story likely contributed to the novel’s popularity because it “managed to engage women readers and spectators emotionally” (335). It is worth noting that Gilgi frames abortion’s moral dilemma around women’s bodily autonomy and the future child’s material security. For Gilgi, at issue here is concern for the material welfare of mother and child rather than for the more nebulous spiritual question of when “life” begins. Gilgli is, as ever, concerned with materiality, with the goods required to live the life she wants.

Ultimately for Gilgi, this new challenge of motherhood in poverty must be faced alone, without Martin, whom she knows has no ability to support a family. But her decision to leave Martin is not only about the child; it is also about shedding Martin’s dead weight so that she can prioritize her life and her self-fashioning. Gilgi has learned that her aspirations and self-control die when she is with Martin and so she elects to leave Cologne for Berlin, where Olga has recently moved, to birth and raise her child and make a living. As Gilgi quickly packs her suitcase she decides to leave behind her fine clothing from her past life: “She runs her hand lightly over the colorful evening dresses in the wardrobe—you can all stay hanging there, I don’t need you—by the time I wear an evening dress again, you’ll be long out of fashion” (200). Gilgi tenderly addresses her dresses as “you,” bidding them farewell—clothing from her life as an independent Modern Girl must remain with Martin—because they represent who she used to be. Gilgi knows that her next chapter as a working single mother will require her to learn how to objectify herself in new ways.

For Gilgi, Berlin holds promise for her future that Cologne simply cannot, although she does not explain why. When Gilgi’s friend Pit asks her why she wants “to go to Berlin, of all places,” Gilgi has no real answer, but her thoughts race: “Yes, why! Gilgi looks at Pit—as if he’d know why! Why does she want to go away, actually? Martin!” (204) What Gilgi knows is that she must escape Martin and that Berlin signifies opportunity for inventing herself afresh. Gilgi reassures Pit that with Olga’s help she will find work because she has “a very strong will” (206). Once away from Martin, Gilgi knows that she will have the resolve to determine her future once again.

Like Gilgi (1931), Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) is a story about a Modern Girl who goes to Berlin in search of work and is one of the final accounts of German life before the Nazis rose to power. And like Gilgi, Doris is a “material girl,” in that she focuses a great deal on the material world and her own appearance to an often humorous extent. The reader laughs at Doris’s obsession with her looks, with fashion, and with her vague desire to be a “star.” This novel is narrated from Doris’s first-person perspective and is done in the cinematic style (kinostil), a mode of narration that mimics the camera lens. This literary style appears to have been quite popular in Weimar and post-Weimar Germany, since Alfred Döblin and Christopher Isherwood also employed this technique in their own writing about the Weimar Republic.10 As a formal trend, kinostil points to the importance of the visual in Weimar and the way that visual culture had begun to influence fiction.

This narrative form lends itself perfectly to Doris’s preoccupation with documenting the world around her: she focuses on narrating and describing the surfaces, appearances, faces, and sounds of the city. Within the first pages of the novel, written (like Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) as if the book is Doris’s journal, she relays: “And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary—that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so” (3). Doris wants to write like a movie—to document the visual experience of her life—because she hopes that her life will soon resemble the glamor and drama of a film. In contrast to respectably middle-class Gilgi’s more quiet, controlled form of self-objectification and aversion to becoming an actress, Doris—her unskilled, uneducated, working-class counterpart—wants to make a living by turning herself into a spectacle.

Living during the time of world-famous German film stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, Doris is image-focused because she knows that glamor and gorgeousness are essentially the only qualities that make a woman (especially an uneducated working-class woman) visible and famous—and thus financially secure and self-sufficient. In fact, Doris’s career goal is to be “a star,” which she repeats throughout the novel. This goal appears eccentric, especially since Doris does not specify what sort of “star” she wishes to be; it comes off as a vague and vain aspiration, albeit one that is familiar to contemporary readers living in the age of social media influencers, who sometimes gain celebrity simply by being attractive and posting photos, no special skills needed. Katharina von Ankum claims that Keun fashions Doris after the American-type female protagonist who makes the “pursuit of wealthy men her exclusive professional goal [which] results from the realization that the patriarchally structured economy severely curtails women’s upward mobility” (162).  But even if the theme of gold digging in Artificial is an American conceit that Keun mimics, centering women’s desires for public selves and making them visible vis-à-vis fashion is a distinctly Weimar-modernist aesthetic. As an uneducated, lower-class woman, Doris sees wealthy men as necessary footholds on a ladder to financially stability. A chic appearance is crucial to Doris’s quest for stardom (her ultimate goal), or at least some degree of financial independence, visibility in the public sphere, and self-actualization, which is what “stardom” seems to represent for her.

In a logical extension of her goal to be a star and recognized for her appearance, Doris prioritizes having a “complete” outfit, rather than employable skills, as key to her success. Doris has an acute sense of fashion and cultivates her unique—but modish—look:

I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green—that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself—tailored with a fox collar—a present from Käsemann. (5)

Doris takes fashion and its sundry details seriously and is even, without any formal education, something of a fashion critic in her own right, as she knows what colors are in season and at what angle a hat should be worn. She knows that meticulously cultivating a perfect outfit and appearance will give her access to social rungs and opportunities normally unavailable to her. If her behavior appears shallow, Doris’s obsessive accounts of her outfits also demonstrate her shrewd understanding of the relationship between women, fashion, and economic security. 

The pivotal moment of Doris’s story is when she steals a fur coat, which precipitates her flight to Berlin—a place where she thinks she can find success even while on the run as a thief. As with Gilgi’s friend Olga, Doris knows that acquiring a fur coat—even by unsavory means—will allow her to objectify herself to her own benefit. Putting her desire to be a star above all else, this impulsive act is the ultimate instance of Doris’s doing whatever it takes to make herself into the glamorous spectacle she wants to be. Right away, it becomes clear that the coat means much more to Doris than its everyday significance:

And there was this coat—such sweet, soft fur. So fine and gray and shy, I felt like kissing it, that’s how much I loved it. It spoke comfort to me, a guardian angel, protection from heaven. It was genuine squirrel . . . something inside me knew I would never give it back . . .  And the fur coat was attached to my skin like a magnet and they loved each other, and you don’t give up what you love once you have it. (51)

From the moment Doris sees the coat, it takes on a meaning that is completely inflected with her many desires for her life and future: she sees it offering her the protection of a guardian angel and she feels tenderly and even somewhat erotically toward it, wanting to kiss it. The coat even feels fused to her skin, a part of herself. Immediately, the fur stands in for a range of desires that Doris does not directly articulate regarding protection, love, and eroticism.  

Even the last pages of the novel present Doris’s confused interior monologue, in which the dominant theme is her various longings—none of which she can put into clear words. What is evident, though, is that her desires lie beyond what men or a “regular” job can provide. Her “wants” are scattered across the novel’s final page, and are rendered even more disjointed by disruptive em dashes:

        But I don’t want anyone to kiss me. And I’ve had enough of the office—I don’t want to go back to what I had before, because it was no good. I don’t want to work, but I have buoys of cork in my stomach. They won’t let me go down, will they? 
        Dear Ernst. In my thoughts I’m giving you a blue sky, I love you. I want—I want—I don’t know—I want to be with Karl. I want to do everything together with him. If he doesn’t want to—I won’t work, I’d rather go on the Tauentzien and become a star. (Artificial 192)11

The word “want” heavily populates this short passage in which Doris attempts to articulate to herself what she desires in life—this contrasts with the passage in which Gilgi, finding out she is pregnant, is able to speak in negatives only, such as “I don’t want.” Doris knows that she does not want to work at an office but wants to be a star. Mixed into all of these “wants” are past romantic interests, Ernst and Karl, but she has also just said that she does not want to be kissed—she wants the advantages that these men confer but does not want to be the object to their active affection. Instead, in order to articulate to herself her feelings for Ernst, she imagines giving him a “blue sky,” a striking act, as it renders something as enormous and nebulous as the sky a discrete thing, like Gilgi’s “little life,” that can be held in one’s hands.

The Artificial Silk Girl ends with a frenzy of Doris’s competing and ambiguous desires and the last sentence of the novel demonstrates Doris’s ultimate uncertainty about the agency that her appearance offers her: “Perhaps glamor isn’t all that important after all” (192). This final sentence indicates Doris’s ongoing grappling with the value of glamor, the material world, and consumer culture in general. Rather, however, than the novel’s merely rejecting consumer culture as oppressive to women and something about which Doris learns not to care, we witness Doris repeatedly confronting it as irrevocably enmeshed in her existence as a modern woman. In the final sentence of the novel, Doris’s thought that “perhaps glamor isn’t all that important after all” is tinged with humor that pokes fun at the Modern Girl’s obsession with her looks: Doris has spent the entire novel being reminded how important nice material goods are to women’s accessing higher social standing. That Doris would have an epiphany, in the novel’s final sentence, that shirking worldly goods is the answer to her problems is comical, especially since her economic precariousness threatens to leave her homeless on more than one occasion. Even if “glamor” has lost its unambiguous promise for Doris, her fur coat and all the meanings it carries still matter to her. However, Doris’s disillusionment about glamor’s importance is a reminder of the ambivalent agency that self-objectification offers women.  

By the end of The Artificial Silk Girl, Doris still has not returned her stolen coat to its owner, suggesting its absolute value to her, and its centrality to her sense of self. The fur is not something Doris can relinquish, as it gives her an advantageous sort of visibility. Throughout the novel, Keun uses it as a metonym for Doris’s desires, which she cannot quite articulate by any other language than that of fashion. Part of what makes it impossible for Doris to achieve stability (such a job within her abilities or even marriage) is in fact her unapologetic pursuit and expression of her desire for financial independence and a public persona. Both the fur coat and her various male conquests act as metonyms in the novel for Doris’s even more expansive desires to create the life she wants.

However complex Doris’s feelings about what the fur coat means to her, it remains clear that the fur makes her happier than her consistently disappointing relationships with men:

But my mouth was open to his kisses because he was sad. He admired me, which didn’t make me feel good and didn’t make me proud. I was surrounded by my coat, which had more feelings for me than Hubert. (52)

Remarkably, Doris imbues the coat with more emotional availability, and sensuality—indeed, more life!—than Hubert. Doris makes this explicit comparison again, demoting men in general to useless objects that do not satisfy her, in stark contrast to the coat: “I look so elegant in that fur. It’s like an unusual man who makes me beautiful through his love for me . . . The coat wants me and I want it. We have each other” (53-4). Doris at once objectifies herself clad in the coat, while also comparing the fur to an anomalous man who enhances her beauty by loving her well. Doris goes on to describe her erotic and loving attachment to the fur and, puzzlingly, the coat’s requited feelings, and their mutual reliance on one another. The figment of the “unusual” man is eclipsed by the fur to a bewildering extent: it signifies beyond a mere item of clothing. It is Doris’s second skin and, enhancing and supporting her, it speaks to the financially secure future she wishes to create for herself.

Keun’s stories about protagonists who focus so much on objectifying themselves in order to create selves outside of the home provide an important perspective on the German Modern Girl. With all that we now know about the political chaos in which the Nazis took control, it is easy to forget about the very real lives that Modern Girls led, whose daily politics involved strategies to stay alive and to establish their agency in public spaces. Because Keun’s protagonists are portrayed as vain and overly concerned with their and others’ appearances and material possessions, the contemporary reader may be compelled to smirk at their fatuous ignorance. Certainly Keun ironizes these Modern Girls and their situations as well; but Keun’s humor also functions as a critique of the economic system within which the Modern Girl was trapped: although Doris and Gilgi are indeed materialistic, this is because they are wise to the unavoidably important role that clothing, appearance, and materiality play in women’s otherwise uninspiring prospects. The material circumstances of the lives of Modern Girls like Doris and Gilgi comprise their political reality. 

But, as Doris’s and Gilgi’s unstable lives make clear, the modicum of agency that fashion offers the Modern Girl is always precarious. The epigraph with which this article begins is illustrative of this ambivalent autonomy: “Well, if a girl has a lot of good clothes and a fur coat she has something, there’s no getting away from that” (Rhys 45). Jean Rhys’s sentence, which could easily be mistaken for a line from Keun’s novels, suggests that fine clothing provides the working-class London heroine with “something” crucial but unnamable. The fur coat functions as a placeholder, as if its value either goes without saying or cannot be otherwise articulated. In Rhys’s interwar English milieu, clothing is currency for women who have little else, but is also currency that “there’s no getting away from”—suggesting that the sartorial offers a contingent, unfree freedom.

This ambivalent relationship between the modern woman’s self-making and fashion documented in Keun’s Modern Girl novels suggests a productive alignment of her work with an expanded range of modernist writing worldwide that has focused on women, materiality, and fashion. Studies such as Vike Plock’s 2017 Modernism, Fashion, and Interwar Women Writers, Elizabeth Sheehan’s 2018 Modernism à la Mode, Jessica Burstein’s 2012 Cold Modernism, and Celia Marshik’s 2017 At the Mercy of Their Clothes collectively suggest that modernist writers clearly grappled with fashion’s role in constructing modern female agency, while also implying fashion’s negative facets as part of modernity, such as facilitating increased conformity and exclusion. Sheehan’s and Plock’s studies, for example, both emphasize the very real social and political power that fashion conferred upon those who learned to wield its semiotic language, for good and bad. As Plock puts it, fashion “decisively organises the individual’s position in social configurations through the process of assimilation and differentiation” (2). Asking what such “stylized objects can do” (Sheehan 2)—both to and for women—is a query of many modernist texts.

Grappling with the double bind women face in using fashion to create the self, in a 1927 Die Dame article, “People of Today,” Austrian writer Vicki Baum tells the story of a Modern Girl, Ypsi, who obsessively reinvents her appearance in order to remain fashionable:12

Naturally Ypsi participates in the fashion, and since she began she has been dreaming what others have already dreamed for her. Ypsi has a great desire: she would like to be original. And a great fear: she could come off unmodern. (665)

In Baum’s view, the modern woman is obsessed with refashioning herself into a simulacrum of the neue Frau. Ypsi’s great desire is to be “original,” but Baum identifies the irony of this impossible task: Ypsi mimics others in cultivating her unique look. And, Ypsi’s desire to create an original, modern self by way of fashion is accompanied by her “great fear” of appearing unmodish. In her subscribing to fashion trends, Ypsi’s dreams—her aspirations for herself—are portrayed by Baum as circumscribed by what society “dreams for her”; here Baum asks whether clothing actually offers Ypsi the key to her “great desire.”

Ultimately, both Doris and Gilgi refuse to curb their own great desires for financial independence and public selves. Modern Girls always insist “on the autonomy of [their] own desires,” as Richard McCormick has rightly said of Doris (133). Both novels conclude with their protagonists in train stations about to board, still in hot pursuit of what they want—if far more warily—and wearily. Importantly, in the end, Keun’s heroines are on the move. That Keun’s novels close with Gilgi and Doris chasing the independent futures they envision for themselves is chilling from the perspective of twenty-first century readers looking back, since the Nazis came to power the year after The Artificial Silk Girl was published, and since Keun’s spectacular career—in Germany at least—was also stopped in its tracks. Any space that Modern Girls had carved out to allow for dynamism or movement was revoked.

Under the fascist regime, the women of Weimar Germany were largely banished to the domestic space to be used as cogs in the Nazi machine or imprisoned for refusing to conform—for rebelling against the metaphorical and literal uniform. In order to survive, women were compelled to blend in, to be unoriginal, unmodern, and invisible: the greatest fear of Ypsi, Gilgi, and Doris. Like Keun herself, those who spoke out against this conformity, or dreamed of more for their lives, were blotted out or forced into exile. The collapse of Germany’s first experiment with democracy was also the end of—or a long pause in—the German Modern Girl’s invention of herself. The Modern Girls of Weimar Germany were, however, spectacularly visible in their own day; a hundred years later, it is long past time that they (including Modern Girl writers like Keun herself), and their material desires and traces, were made visible again.

1. One well-known example of this early characterization of modernism is Gyorgy Lukács’s critique of the movement as a dangerously solipsistic alternative to realism. Lukács claims that modernist aesthetics spends too much time in the subjective reality of characters, rather than in the shared reality of the social world. See Lukács's chapter "Ideology of Modernism" in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

2. Mao and Walkowitz explain the parameters of a new modernist studies, which includes “at least two significant enterprises: one that reconsiders the definitions, locations, and producers of ‘modernism’ and another that applies new approaches and methodologies to ‘modernist’ works” (1). New modernist studies extend the field’s British focus to a more global one, redefining modernism to embrace “all writing published in the first half of the twentieth century—thereby transforming the term from an evaluative and stylistic designation to a neutral and temporal one” (1-2). New modernist studies, therefore, maintains a commitment to crossing theoretical, media, and national borders to conceive of the field more accurately.

3. In the field of German Studies, the nomenclature for the modern woman of the early 20th century is often, though not always, neue Frau, which translates as “New Woman,” a term that in Anglophone circles refers to a figure from the pre-World War I era rather than the interwar period to which the term neue Frau refers. The researchers contributing to the project The Modern Girl around the World (2008) distinguish the “Modern Girl” from the “New Woman” to denote the modern woman figure of the interwar years. In the German context, then, the “Modern Girl” is the neue Frau.

4. Richard McCormick conceives of “New Objectivity” capaciously, as a “widespread sensibility” particular to the Weimar Republic, rather than a particular aesthetic, artistic school, movement, or alignment with a political ideology (43). McCormick uses “New Objectivity” in “its broadest sense, to characterize a cultural sensibility that connects a wide variety of social, political, and artistic attitudes and endeavors in Weimar culture. It was a period in which the “isms”—Expressionism, romantic and anti-capitalism, revolutionary socialism, indeed any utopianism—seemed exhausted, and accommodation with capitalist modernization seemed the only pragmatic option” (43).

5. See the art of Otto Dix and George Grosz, or Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz (1929), as examples of New Objective artistic pieces that showcase violence against women’s bodies. Marie Tatar provides a chilling and fascinating account of the prevalence of images of violated female corpses in interwar art. Tatar’s analysis proves that women’s bodies were looked at in horror as objects beginning to become animate in the public sphere, a phenomenon that was feared like an invasion from an alien species. In all, the murder of women—which has always been prevalent—became more visible in Weimar Germany. 

6. For a famous visual example of this dichotomy, see Fritz Lang’s 1927 Expressionist film Metropolis. The main female character, Maria, turns into an automaton who is at once a seductive femme fatale and a hardened machine—a dangerous corrupting force to the men around her.

7. Ganeva 2. The Weimar Republic had a unique relationship to the growing postwar fashion industry: a striking statistic Ganeva cites is that twenty-five percent of the average income in Weimar Germany was spent on clothing (4). This statistic alone offers one explanation for why fashion, for the first time, became a hotly debated topic in public forums. Berlin also had a famous and booming ready-to-wear garment economy. Here was an environment of mass-produced fashion that employed over a third of the city’s workforce (Ganeva 4).

8. This generative claim—that Weimar has a “surface culture” in which women have some modicum of newfound agency—is also supported by Janet Ward’s work. Ward claims that Weimar modernism created a cult of the surface. Ward analyzes Weimar’s obsession with visual culture’s surfaces—architectural, cinematic, consumerist—and argues that “Weimar design initiated our current state of saturation regarding the visual codes of consumerism” (3). For Ward, Weimar Germany is the historical moment in which “surface values first ascended to the determinants of taste, activity, and occupation,” and in which the lines between high and low cultures began to blur (2). The category and concept of “Weimar modernism” is not used outside of Ward’s book, but the term is immensely useful for my purposes because it supports my argument that Keun and the Weimar Republic enacted modernism by turning to the material world to articulate ideas for which there was insufficient language, such as women’s desires for increasingly public selves.

9. For more on the widespread “dirty abortions” in the Weimar Republic, see Usborne.

10. See Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), both of which engage in the kinostil method of documenting and commenting on what is seen and heard in the external world of Weimar Berlin.

11. The Tauentzein Palast was opened in Berlin as a performance art theater and was later turned into a cinema before closing in 1930.

12. Die Dame: Illustierte Fraue Zeitung (1911-1943) which roughly translates to “The Lady: Illustrated Women’s Paper,” was a popular illustrated women’s magazine of the Weimar Republic. This lifestyle magazine catered to modern women. It contains essays, illustrations, photographs, and advertisements – with a distinct focus on fashion. The original version of Baum’s essay, “Leute von heute,” appeared in the November 27, 1927 issue of Die Dame.

Works Cited

Ankum, Katharina von. “Material Girls: Consumer Culture and the ‘New Woman’ in Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Irmgard Keun's Das Kunstseidene Mädchen.” Colloquia Germanica, vol. 27, no. 2, 1994, pp. 159–172.

Baum, Vicki. “People of Today” (1927). The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, et al. U of California P, 1994. Pp. 664-665.

Burstein, Jessica. Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art. Pennsylvania State UP, 2012.

Döblin, Alfred. Berlin Alexanderplatz.1929. Translated by Michael Hofmann, New York Review of Books, 2008.

Feldhaus, Julia. “Not without My Mommy: The New Woman’s Mother Figure in Irmgard Keun’s Novels Gilgi—Eine Von Uns (1931) and Das Kunstseidene Mädchen (1932).” Monatshefte, vol. 108, no. 4, 2016, pp. 510–534.

Ganeva, Mila. Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933. Camden House, 2008.

Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. 1939. New Directions, 2012.   

Keun, Irmgard. The Artificial Silk Girl. 1932. Translated by Katharina von Ankum. Other Press, 2002.

---. Gilgi, One of Us. 1931.Translated by Geoff Wilkes. Melville House Publishing, 2013.

Kosta, Barbara. “Unruly Daughters and Modernity: Keun, Irmgard Gilgi, Eine Von Uns.” German Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 3, 1995, pp. 271–286.

Lukács, Gyorgy. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. Merlin Press, 1963.

Mao, Douglas and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, editors. Bad Modernisms, Duke UP, 2006.

Marshik, Celia. At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture. Columbia UP, 2016.

Marhoefer, Laurie. Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis. U of Toronto P, 2015.

McCormick, Richard. Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity Film, Literature, and “New Objectivity.” Palgrave Macmillan 2001.

Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang. Kino International, 1927.

Plock, Vike Martina. Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers. Edinburgh UP, 2017.

Rhys, Jean. Voyage in the Dark. 1934. Norton, 1982.

Sheehan, Elizabeth M. Modernism à la Mode. Cornell UP, 2018.

Tatar, Maria. Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Princeton UP, 1995.

Usborne, Cornelie. Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany. Berghahn Books, 2007.

---. “Rebellious Girls and Pitiable Women: Abortion Narratives in Weimar Popular Culture.” German History, vol. 23, no. 3, 2005, pp. 321–338.

Ward, Janet. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. U of California P, 2001.

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