Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes (1925) is a painting that draws attention to the ambiguous figure of the New Woman in Weimar Germany. The Neue Frau was a complex cultural construct whose independent habits – shopping, enjoying the city’s bustling night-life, working – were seen as a cause for both celebration and anxiety; as signs of progressive civil liberties, as well as of society’s moral degradation. Although a greater number of women engaged in public life than before during this period – in 1925 about a third of the country’s female population was in the workforce – their unprecedented visibility was far from unproblematic. The fashionable female body became a key topic of debates on sexuality, morality and politics, with the New Woman becoming more of an abstracted concept than a social reality as a result. In fact, it is important to point out that although the term was evoked repeatedly, there was not a definitive type of Neue Frau. Rather, the way in which women engaged with modernity was determined by a number of factors such as class, marital status and geography. Nevertheless, a preoccupation with modern typologies is evident in Dix’s painting, whose female protagonists simultaneously refer to the pervasive practice of prostitution while also serving as caricatures of consumerist culture.
The link between prostitution and fashion was frequently made during this period, perhaps most famously articulated by Thomas Wehrling, a Weimar cultural critic. His essay ‘Berlin is Becoming a Whore,’ first published in Das Tage-Buch in 1920, explicitly aligns women’s interest in fashion and entertainment with moral debasement:
‘A generation of females has grown up that has nothing but the merchandising of their physical charms in mind. They sit in the parlors, of which there are a dozen new ones every week; they go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end above the knees, buy Elegant World and the film magazines…The display windows in the delicatessens are filled for these females; they buy furs and shoes at the most-extravagant prices and stream in herds down the Kurfurstendamm on Sunday mornings’.
In many ways, Dix’s painting can be perceived as elaborating on this seemingly new kind of fashionable female behaviour, especially through its central figure, a woman wearing a red cloche hat and veil. Her fashionable appearance, signalled by details such as the cropped Bubikopf hairstyle, may confuse viewers at first, however the prostitute’s provocative stance as she hitches up her skirt explicitly signals her profession. This pose may have been derived from real life as well as from fashion magazines. Prostitutes were forbidden to solicit potential clients verbally therefore they employed gestures and dress codes to communicate their availability to customers. Sartorial details such as a specific colour of laced boots would signal a woman’s ‘specialty.’ This practice may be referenced by another figure in the painting, the heavily made up older woman wearing red leather gloves on the left. Were it not for this subtle, yet erotically charged accessory, her disapproving facial expression and elegant attire would qualify her as a ‘respectable’ bourgeois stroller.
The sense of ambiguity is heightened by an image of a woman’s leg in the background. It is unclear whether the high-heeled limb stepping on a globe appears on a poster or in a shop window. It is possible that the red initials “RM” reference the Reichs Mark, introduced in 1924 to stabilise the German economy. It may also allude to the visibility of women’s legs as a result of shorter hemlines, in revue performances, advertisements for silk stockings or all of the above. It also recalls Wehrling’s description of display windows filled with desirable consumer goods. However in the painting this appears in inverted form, as it is the prostitutes, clad in fashionable articles, who are displayed as merchandise in one of the shopping streets of Weimar Berlin. Furthermore, the conflation of woman as commodity in this case could also have quite a literal source, as it was not uncommon to have mannequins modelling store wares in the display window for a riveted audience. Dix’s painting therefore intentionally compounds aspects of femininity as seen at night, on the street and in media imagery in order to blur the boundaries between woman as consumer and commodity in Weimar Berlin.
For an image of Otto Dix’s Three Prostitutes please click here.
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