German (un)elegance: Bernhard Roetzel helps debunk a few myths

Adriano DIRNELLI

German (un)elegance: Bernhard Roetzel helps debunk a few myths

When it comes to ranking countries by how well the average man is dressed, Italy undoubtedly ranks #1, while Germany probably ranks close to last! Is the term ‘German elegance’ just another oxymoron, like the phrase ‘military intelligence’ ?

As someone who was married to a German, and as father of two German-speaking boys, I’ve been able travel across Germany as a native would, rather than as a tourist. I can objectively confirm the stereotype about the average German man being awfully dressed. However, there’s more to Germany than meets the eye. Germany may well be the most misunderstood and underestimated travel destination in the Western World today.

As I sojourned there, I began to notice a category of German man that dresses very elegantly. This observation came as a surprise, but as I began to dig deeper into German culture, I realized elegance is still alive and well in Germany–if one knows where to look. 

Today, PG is proud to present a behind-the-scenes look at the seldom-discussed topic of German elegance, with the help of one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, German author Bernhard Roetzel. 

Bernard Roetzel

Bernhard Roetzel has published dozens of books on menswear, including one of the all-time classic guides on men’s elegance titled  ‘Gentleman’, which has been translated all over the world. As an author and style historian, I dare say that Roetzel is to continental European menswear what Alan Flusser is to Anglo-American menswear. 

Adriano Dirnelli

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Dirnelli: What are the myths vs. realities of the widespread stereotype that Germans dress poorly?

Roetzel: The mass of the people in Germany do dress poorly, much like the masses do in most countries nowadays. Italy may be the only exception, but if you notice the men in the poorer parts of Napoli, you can see a lot of bad clothes and lack of style there, too. It is also a prejudice and cliché to say that Germans always dress poorly–[a global attitude] which must be viewed in connection with German history. Although there is the expression of the “ugly German”, well-dressed Germans actually dress either like stylish Italians, or like the sort of [archetypical] well-dressed Englishmen that the Italians and Germans conjure up in their minds. 

Dirnelli: In regard to the relationship of men to their clothing, are there any notable differences in the dressing behaviors of men who live in Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland?  

Roetzel: Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland have very little in common except for the German language. The cultural differences are bigger than those between Englishmen, Scots and the Irish. Nevertheless German, Swiss and Austrians have a similar attitude towards clothes. Well-dressed Austrians tend to be a little more elegant than the Germans, while the Swiss prefer a very low profile. Tailors in Vienna tend to make a very soft jacket with natural shoulders, probably due to influences from Triest.

OF ARISTOCRATS, UPPER CLASS AND FAMILY TRADITION

Dirnelli: The best-dressed Germans I’ve seen up-close appeared to be either aristocrats or upper class. How would you describe the classic look of the German upper-class and aristocracy; and, is there anything ‘typically German’ about their look, which would set their appearance apart from what we can witness in other countries?

Roetzel: The aristocracy shares the same basic values, and tend to hold similar attitudes to life and culture, no matter where they come from in Europe. They care less about ‘nations’ than most other people, because aristocrats are well aware that the physical borders of today didn’t exist a couple of hundred years ago–or even as recently as one century  ago. German aristocrats usually dress in “le style anglais” as described in the ‘Sloane Ranger Handbook’.

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

But they add some spice from the Bavarian and Austrian tradition like Lodencoats, Lodenjanker, Jägerleinen and sometimes even Lederhosen for country wear. German upperclass members with old money dress in a similar way. Educated people with good income but no family tradition usually wear horrible outdoor clothes, which they find to be “practical”.

Dirnelli: Germany is a rich country, but it doesn’t seem that German men are concerned about spending their disposable income on finely tailored clothing, or am I mistaken ?

Roetzel: Your are right. People would rather spend money on their car, house, kitchen, television set, or their smartphone and, of course, on holidays. Only a small minority spends big amounts on clothing.

Dirnelli: So, do you confirm that the average German has an issue about looking well put together? Is Germany a culture in which it’s looked down upon to show that you care about your outfit?

Roetzel: Germans do care a lot about how they look, but the end result is not what you or I may prefer. In general, Germans don’t trust people who are too elegant. For centuries Germans were taught to distrust what was called “welsch”, which is an old term used for everything from the Latin world, including France and Italy. 

COUNTRY WEAR

Dirnelli: What can you tell us about the widespread use of traditional country wear? I have noticed than in Germany and Austria it is considered completely acceptable to mix traditional clothing with a shirt and tie — for example, you can see that look on almost every street corner in Munich…

Roetzel: The history of traditional Bavarian clothes is closely linked to the Austrian tradition in the regions neighboring Germany. There was a movement to adopt the clothes of country people in Germany and Austria during the “Sommerfrisch” like the English started to wear tweeds and tartans as sportswear and country wear in the 19th century. Even Germans from the Rhineland or Prussia dressed up in Lodenjoppe (a short jacket) and Lederhosen during their summer vacation in the Alps, which was ridiculed by caricaturists. Traditional German shooting clothes like the green Lodenmantel, Lodencapes (called “Wetterfleck” or “Lodenkotze”) and  Lodenjoppen are all based on Bavarian and Austrian “Tracht”, which is a regional costume. It is worn today mixed with English shooting clothes, but only by a minority of style conscious hunters. 

Schneider Rundschau 30er Sportanzug

Schneider 30er Rundschau

BESPOKE TAILORING

Dirnelli: You’ve written a book about German bespoke tailors — what do we need to know about the bespoke tailoring tradition in Germany ? How would you compare the German bespoke style and approach to what we see in other tailoring traditions?

Roetzel: We must remember that every country in the western world had a big tailoring tradition until ready-to-wear and made-to-measure started to take over. Germany used to have a very developed and refined clothing industry. German makers supplied quality stores everywhere in Europe between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of WWII (with interruptions during and after WWI), including the best department stores in Paris. Germany had some of the most developed industries, it built some of the best ships, machines of all kinds, and consumer & luxury goods of all sorts. Therefore, it’s no wonder that German tailoring also worked on a very high level. Technically, German tailors have always ranked among the best, but with regard to cloth and style the English were leading. In general German tailors had very good cutting systems. German tailors always aimed to follow fashion, which has made their clothes less timeless. But we must remember that, compared to today, tailored clothes were worn by many more men up until WWII. 

Dirnelli: You mentioned the German bespoke cutting system — how does it differ from other tailoring traditions ?

Roetzel: In the 19th century, tailors everywhere in the world tried to come up with foolproof cutting systems in order to reduce the number of fittings. We have all read about the dozen or so fitting that were customary in London in the days of Beau Brummell.

Most cutting systems are based on the idea that the cut and the measurements of a garment will derive from a few measures like the height, the chest or the waist circumference, using formulas and tables. This would enable the tailor to come up quickly with the cut for the various types of garments. The inventors of the cutting systems wanted to make money by teaching their system, selling books and magazines, cutting lectures and selling “updates” in order to adapt to new fashions. The most popular German system is from M. Müller & Sohn. This bespoke house was founded in 1891 by the master tailor and head cutter Michael Müller (1852-1914). He founded a school named “Deutsche Bekleidungsakademie”. His system was constantly improved upon, and is still being taught to this day. It is in fact used internationally not only by tailors, but also in  the ready-to-wear industry. Most tailors in Germany and Austria use it, which leads to a certain uniformity.

Big tailoring houses adapted this system to their needs, or used their owns systems, like Knize for example. Michael Possanner in Vienna (see jackets below) was trained at Knize and uses their system, which results in a look that is different from other tailors in Vienna such as Netousek, who the uses Müller & Son system.

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

Traditioneller Herrenschneider - Michael Possanner

Cutting systems are almost a science, and some collectors own dozens and dozens of books about this subject. Italian and English tailors usually use other systems, which result in their so-called ‘house style’. If you go to Anderson & Sheppard or A. Caraceni, you will get a suit that is based on their way of cutting, which also leads to a garment that it is not really individual. In-house cutting systems or cutting styles have the advantage of securing a certain standard and a pre-defined look. Italian tailors in general are less good at cutting. They very often use pattern blocks or prefab patterns from the ready-to-wear industry that they adapt to their needs. They really rely on the fittings, unless they have a good system of their own. French tailors are more precise than the Italians, a bit more like the Germans, while English tailors very often use block patterns.

Dirnelli: Is bespoke tailoring dying in Germany, or are you seeing a new generation of bespoke apprentices coming up the ranks?

Roetzel: I spoke to a cloth merchant in Paris last week and was amazed when they said there are maybe only 20 good bespoke tailors left in France today. I have noticed a big interest in bespoke tailoring in Germany, both from young customers and from men and women who want to make it their profession. We still have about ten good old firms, and maybe 30 more tailors who work on a high level. But they will never deliver an Italian or English suit. Most German bespoke tailors aim to make a product that looks like a modern ready-to-wear suit, although it is handmade. Because of our history, we don’t refer to the 1930s as much as the English or the Italians do, although German tailors made elegant clothes in those days too.

Below : Shirtmaker Gino Venturini (Vienna), Bespoke tailor  Heinz-Josef Radermacher (Düsseldorf) and Bespoke tailor Volkmar Arnulf (Potsdam).

German Shirt Maker Venturini

Heinz-Josef Radermacher

Volkmar Arnulf

BESPOKE SHOES

Dirnelli: What about bespoke shoemaking in Germany ? Was it influenced by the well-established Hungarian shoemaking tradition, via the historical ties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? 

Roetzel: No. German aristocrats and other rich people always had a strong penchant for Austria, and Vienna in particular. It was a matter of prestige to have a shoemaker or a tailor in Vienna. German movie stars of the 1930s like Willy Fritsch or Hans Albers loved Knize for example, and shoemakers like Nagy or Scheer had many customers from Germany.

Brauner Oxford Scheer

Today you will find more good bespoke shoemakers in Austria, although the country is much smaller than Germany. We do have a small number of good bespoke shoemakers in Germany nevertheless. 

Hungary has a long tradition of shoemaking but we must remember that Hungary was rather independet within the Austrian Empire, and that there was a language gap. Many Hungarians spoke German, and not a few Austrians spoke at least some Hungarian, but customers from Germany rather frequented Viennese shoemakers.

Many shoemakers from Hungary worked in Vienna like the famous Nagy. His shoes were worn by the rich and many aristocrats; his successor was Materna. Heimito von Doderer had shoes made by Nagy (when he had the money) and also Bruno Kreisky. After 1989, Hungarian shoemakers tried to revitalize the good image that they had before the Berlin Wall, and some are quite successful, like Vass for example.

One of the most famous bespoke shoemakers of pre-reunification Germany was Hungarian trained Harai, whose son is still rather active, despite the fact that he is based North of Hamburg in the extremely boring town of Neumünster. Harai’s handmade ready-to-wear collection was beautiful, and it was available at Prange in Hamburg. The extremely elegant Berthold Beitz was one of his customers. He was in fact something like the German Gianni Agnelli. The German brand Apollo also had a production in Hungary, just like Heinrich Dinckelacker has today. I personally do not like Hungarian lasts, I prefer the Viennese last or English lasts.

POLITICIANS WHO ARE SENSITIVE TO ‘DRESSING UP’

Dirnelli: Because there is today a specifically German defiance towards populist politicians — for historical reasons linked to the Third Reich — there seems to be a modern-day tradition that any respectable German politician must never be too well-dressed, for fear of being branded a populist, and suspected of trying to hypnotize voters, like in the darkest days of History. For example, there was institutional defiance towards Guttenberg because he just looked too good, therefore some people feared he might be the new terrifyingly charismatic and populist future leader of Germany. Do you confirm such speculation, and if so, could you expand on the relationship of German leaders to clothing, if it’s indeed true that they willingly don’t want to look ‘too good’? 

Roetzel: In the late 19th and early 20th century, most politicians wore decent, tailored clothes, no matter if they were socialist or conservative. After WWI and the resulting changes in society, the attitude towards clothes changed on the continent. The Monarchies as leaders of style had disappeared but their standards were still important. Hitler used clothes very cleverly, and dressed perfectly for every occasion. His party uniform appealed to members of the “Stahlhelm” who were mainly former soldiers of WWI. When Hitler met with people from the upper classes like Winifred Wagner, he wore well cut flannel suits in the morning and evening tails for concerts. Most sources mention his clothes as being always right.

After 1945, uniforms were extremely unpopular with most Germans. Konrad Adenauer dressed in a rather old-fashioned and modest way, but he always wore quality clothes and his famous Homburg hat with dark suits (this type of hat was called “Unternehmerhut” which means “entrepreneur hat”), and top hats with tails or morning dress. All German Bundeskanzler kept a low profile until Gerhard Schröder turned up. Before he was elected he said in interviews that he loved Swiss watches, cigars and handmade shoes and suits. He was customer of the best German outfitter Heinrich’s in Hannover (which is the shop where Michael Jondral was apprentice and later manager and partner). When Schröder was photographed in a cashmere overcoat people were shocked, and the name “Kaschmirkanzler” was created.

Germans don’t like their politicians to wear expensive clothes, especially not the politicians from the leftist SPD. But they never minded Richard von Weizsäcker looking very well dressed in his bespoke suits (made by a tailor in Bonn) or Walter Scheel who was seen almost as a dandy. Guttenberg was forgiven his smart slim fit suits and his slicked back hair, even his wealth was not unpopular (which is unusual). Guttenberg will never be a populist leader because he is member of the CSU which is a conversative but christian party (whatever that means). He has changed his hairstyle to look less upper class, but he is still perceived as an aristocrat. In generel German politicians are expected to look like an accountant.

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Dirnelli Instagram.

Opening picture and all jackets by bespoke tailor Michael Possanner (Vienna).