A pair of Levi's jeans was worth up to $ 500 on the black market in Germany during the Cold War because they were an icon of American culture.


By CAPosts 21 November, 2020 - 10:00am 46 views

For teens living in Berlin during the Cold War , Levi's blue jeans were more than just a cool pair of pants. They represented a forbidden Western culture, a rebellion and a rock n 'roll, everything purely American that only half the city knew about.

Worst of all, this fashion embodied the antithesis of the Soviet-occupied government of East Germany: capitalism.

So, for decades, the government tried to keep Levi's out of East Germany. But the jeans kept finding their way anyway.

Levi's were the world's first blue jeans. Levi Strauss, a businessman from San Francisco, and Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, obtained a US patent in 1873 for their denim work pants, which became synonymous with the all-American spirit.

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Those symbolic jeans found their way in the middle of a political rift: the clash between capitalism in West Germany and socialism in East Germany

Levi's Smugglers and Youth Culture

After Germany lost World War II, the Allies divided the country. The United States, the United Kingdom and France occupied the western areas, while the Soviet Union occupied the eastern area.

The capital city of Berlin was also divided. After millions of Germans fled from East to West, the Eastern government erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 to physically block Western influence in its section of the city.

But the wall did not keep Western culture completely away from East Germans. They saw Levi's commercials on West German television and heard the Rolling Stones concerts on the other side of the wall.

Historian Gerd Horten grew up in West Germany. As a teenager, he visited the East several times, where his simple jeans and T-shirt attracted attention.

"They were obviously consumer goods, but they were loaded with other meanings to East Germans and East Europeans," he told Business Insider's Charlie Herman. “They were seen as symbols of freedom, of independence, of being cool.”

More than that, the jeans were risky and provocative. Wearing jeans meant you were rejecting pro-Western socialist ideals , a bold move that could affect your ability to study at a university or get an apartment.

East Germany banned the sale of Levi's, so if someone had a pair, it was implying that they had bought them on the black market or that they had had contact with someone on the other side.

Sabine Anton grew up in East Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s and sold dresses she made out of sheets to buy her first pair of jeans. "That cute orange Levi's label said it all," he told Business Insider. “It was almost like you became a member of a club.”

Government-ordered knockoff jeans

A chain of duty-free stores, called Intershops, were the only places where people could legally buy Levi's in East Germany. Western visitors and European sailors would shop there and the money went to the Eastern government to buy machinery and technology

But East Germans were not allowed to shop in these stores. "Here was everything they wanted, but they couldn't get it," Horten said. "They were like little western oases in the East German territories."

Despite government restrictions, western culture still made its way.

Then, in 1971, East Germany got a new leader who tried a different approach. If the citizens got some material goods they wanted, perhaps it would satisfy them enough to keep quiet. So the government allowed East Germans to shop at intershops, undermining its very mission of socialism by relying on capitalism.

Still, Levi's were expensive, so the government began producing its own knockoffs: thick, stiff, uncomfortable blue jeans that no one wanted to wear . "They went to great lengths to copy those Levi's jeans and it just didn't work out," Anton said.

Tear down the Berlin Wall

In the late 1970s, the East German socialist model was not working. His government was desperate for cash and was in billions of dollars in debt. Locally produced goods were of such poor quality that many people bought them in the West. "Creeping capitalism" was taking over the country, The Washington Post reported .

Then the East German government knocked on Levi's doors and requested that some 800,000 pairs of jeans be shipped in time for Christmas shopping. The deal cost $ 9 million, one of several trade deals trying to win back restless citizens who weren't happy with their lives on the east side of the wall.

A pair of Levi's cost 149 East German marks, the equivalent of about $ 295 today. But even for those who were lucky enough to buy a pair, happiness was a glimmer of a failing economy.

On November 9, 1989 , the East German government opened its borders. Citizens could now travel freely to the West, and they did. Thousands of people rushed west and tore down the Berlin Wall.

The Germans huddled on the crumbling concrete to celebrate, and many of them wore blue jeans

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