Berlin’s Techno Scene: A Story of Self-Expression Told Through Fashion
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, techno became the sound of Berlin, and it’s still echoed in the notorious nightclubs offering a safe space for self-expression. The clubs emerged just when the German youth were seeking a stage to voice their newfound freedom, and Berlin provided. Up to this date, the meccas of techno preserve their legacy and attract both die-hard locals and international club-goers.
What truly makes the scene unique is the fashion and enthusiasm seen in the eyes of club kids and fostered by the party organizers, who are masterfully orchestrating a night to remember. We spoke with some of those club-time engineers, including club owners, security, bartenders and photographers, to capture the heartbeat of Berlin’s rave scene and move in rhythm with it. They all painted a picture of diversity, inclusivity and freedom of expression, rooted in the culture and history of the city and told through the eyes of fashion.
Unveiling the dress code
There is a general belief that you have to wear all-black to get into Berlin’s clubs and adhere to a certain dress code.
Dimitri Hegemann, the Managing Director of the iconic club Tresor, which has been operating since 1991, talks about the freedom of choice of clothing since its inception: “Tresor strives to be a place for freedom of expression and openness in that regard [fashion] and in any regard. And indeed, I’m always pleased to see people dress creatively in a way that I hope makes them feel expressive and comfortable.”
He then quoted the late monarch Frederick II (1712 - 1786): "Everyone shall be blessed according to his own fancy". According to Dimitri Hegemann, this quote “testifies to a certain openness and tolerance that one would not necessarily expect from a monarch of his time”.
Fashion then becomes a medium for asserting your personal rhetoric within the club space. Smiley + Kat from Baldwin Security, who have been instrumental for the scene in providing security at clubs such as RSO, Tresor and Heideglühen, commented: “A lot of times, the type of fashion serves as a form of uniform reflecting how you choose to express yourself. It is also a way of showing that you are a part of a community or that you want to be a part of it. Of course, we can only speak for the clubs we work at, where self-expression is highlighted.”
Frank Künster, who has been active in the club scene for 31 years, first as a bouncer and now as a club owner of Georgia Bar, and was featured together with Smiley Baldwin in the documentary ‘Berlin Bouncer’, also sees the club space as a realm for creatively marching through freedom of expression.
Having served the doors of Berlin’s iconic techno clubs, including Berghain and KitKat, Frank says that the all-black dress code only applies to Berghain and somewhat to KitKat, where fetishwear naturally comes in black, although that’s changing too.
“Berghain has the strictest door policy due to its worldwide reputation, and that’s why everybody thinks that you should wear all-black at every club in Berlin,” said Frank.
“But the other clubs have other requirements. For example, when you go to Kater Blau, or maybe Sisyphos, or maybe Renate, they require people to express themselves very much like a flower, like a ghost, like a fantasy. In all of these three main clubs, they create a fairytale for the people to express themselves. It’s very colorful. It’s the opposite of Berghain,” continued Frank.
Parvin, who is a regular club-goer, also speaks of Berghain’s exclusivity in terms of fashion. With a reputation to maintain, the club mostly welcomes the classic black wear:
“On Sundays, they’re the strictest with their policy. They’re looking more to the locals, the regulars of Berghain. They want to make sure that what you’re wearing now is your typical style, and they don’t like you dressing up specifically for Berghain, as if to say, ‘This is not a carnival’.”
But the all-black policy traces back to history, and the way to embracing the iconic color is not as straightforward as one may think. Rather, black clubwear emerged due to the fact that when these clubs appeared in abandoned buildings and warehouses back in the ‘90s, often tucked underground, there was barely any light, so the atmosphere dictated the dress code.
Denise Ferrante, who has worked in the Berlin club scene as a bartender for 16 years, including two years at Ost Gut (the former Berghain), another two years at various clubs, and 12 years at Berghain, sheds light on the scene from several years ago:
“Berlin at the beginning of the 2000's was a very different place. The club scene was still relatively underground, even the bigger clubs. There were still a lot of squats and a strong punk/traveler scene; the people moving to Berlin were mainly from around Europe, and they were much more politicized. Clubs were set up in many of the unused dilapidated buildings. Fashion wasn't a 'thing'. In the club, you would have punks, transvestites, rubber and leather fetishists, techno heads, street style and everything in between, all partying together. No posing.”
These clubs emerged amidst a turbulent backdrop, at a time of an anarchy of its own kind that beckoned a much needed respite salvaged in techno music and an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. This set the stage for a mix of nonchalant party wear and incredibly creative outfits, reflecting various subcultures while defying conventional norms.
Frank Künster reminisces about his experience at Tresor back in 1991 when the club first opened:
“I remember especially that they actually had no light inside the club; there was only a stethoscope. If you consider it in a philosophical way, when you’re in the dark, you don’t need to wear colors.
“The whole club scene changed somehow. We have these open-air parties, so many festivals; everybody is out in the light, in the bright sun, in nature, so this is echoed in the fashion in a way.”
Another type of light that’s restricted in those safe spaces is that of the camera flashlight. Most clubs have a no-photos policy, prohibiting individuals from exposing the club-goers and violating their privacy.
Yet, some of the clubs work with in-house photographers who are capturing the spectacular outfits while showcasing respect and requesting consent. At KitKat, photographer Elad Itzkin is commemorating the club experience, and his favorite is the Human Colors party on Thursday night. There, a bodypainter creates otherworldly glow-in-the dark art to illuminate ravers’ outfits and spirit, bringing more light and color to the scene.
“As a photographer, I always prefer to see colorful, sexy and unique outfits, as they photograph much better than just all-black sexy lingerie,” said Elad.
He also gives a piece of advice to those who want to experience clubbing at KitKat: “Do your research on which party you are going to, because each evening is a different line of parties and might have a specific dress code.”
Indeed, themed parties have illuminated the tunnel of dark dressing to allow club-goers to be more creative with their outfits.
Frank Künster said: “I remember parties in Renate where people were required to express themselves in a crazy way to match the theme. They were dressed as a swan, a ghost, a tree, or a robot.
“One of the best parties I’ve ever been to is ‘House of Lunacy’ at Renate. It’s super crazy, super cool, and super sexy. It happens every second month.”
Parvin, a raver, also has his personal favorite among the array of themed parties in Berlin: “At KitKat, they host the Carnival Bizarre party, where you can see people who have really put effort into their outfits, and they’re looking very vibrant and colorful.”
But regardless of the leeway to more color and extravagance, one “should still meet the expectations of the club space”, while incorporating intricate elements into their outfits. “People are wearing only one or two statement pieces - a striking make-up look, a head piece, colorful high heels or boots, or colorful underwear,” continued Parvin.
Nevertheless, the scene is definitely embracing more creative fashion and proving the ‘all-black’ stereotype wrong, charting a new headway for Berlin’s club scene. On August 14, 2023, KitKat posted on their Instagram account the following:
“Creative black fetish wear / outfits are obviously welcome, but we don’t want all guests to show up in basic all-black outfits (harness + shorts) or underwear.
“Dress to impress - wear a colorful outfit - be creative or stay home.”
“...Fabulous, glamorous, glittery, magical or fetishistic” are some of the key concepts to incorporate into your outfit, according to the club.
Self-expression and safety: a bondage that excites
One of the most colorful and expressive communities of people that meet all of the above criteria is the LGBTQ+ community. With their extravagant outfits and unbound dancefloor behavior, they are welcomed into Berlin’s rave scene, which was largely shaped by individuals from the community.
“When people look queer, we estimate that they are much more willing to express themselves in a different way and bring diversity. Because you want to create a little bit of drama and incite people to express themselves as much as they can. And queer people can do that. They can inspire other people to do so too,” commented Frank Künster.
In order to preserve the welfare of club-goers, rave clubs, and specifically queer parties, put a big emphasis on safety. There, you can unveil all your true colors, knowing that you are safeguarded by the door policy and the people who are curating the night, from the bouncers to the bartenders to the managing directors.
“The queer parties happen once a month. FLINTA parties, queer parties, and Femme to the Front nights, all ensure that queer people have a safe environment to express their femininity. They really care about that, so they would check if the person fits overall: are you queer, are you feminine, lesbian, gay, trans. If you look like a straight man, even though you’re gay but have this stereotypical straight man attitude, they may still not let you in because they can’t risk having someone who has homophobic views inside,” said Parvin.
Safety has indeed become a priority at Berlin’s clubs, and it’s important for the scene in general.
Smiley + Kat from Baldwin Security, commented: “Our role is not defined by anything else other than providing a safe space for our diverse guests (a safe space = safe to self express) and to be there in times of need. Also, if a guest does not fit the party, we aim to deny access in a kind and courteous way. It is our nice, respectful and welcoming manner that has earned us a positive reputation among our clients.”
Denise Ferrante, former bartender at Ost Gut, Berghain and other clubs, also talks about the importance of safety:
“Not all people understand the notion of 'safe space', because they are stuck in particularly sexist and not necessarily open-minded social constructs. In order for people to be able to express themselves without feeling threatened or harassed, a strict door policy is needed. No one should feel pressured into doing anything that they do not want to or feel harassed for being themselves or for dressing or dancing in a certain way.
“The door policy also extends to behavior once you are inside the club. The bar crew also keeps an eye on what's happening and tries to make sure all guests are feeling safe.
“The idea is to try and create a type of utopia of free expression.”
Despite Berlin’s long-held reputation of an open and inclusive city where everyone can express themselves freely, the scene has become more heterogeneous, hence individuals might not necessarily feel as liberated walking around the city. Yet things are different when one enters the club and changes their attire. The outfit transformation serves as a transition through the gateway of freedom to embody their true selves.
“I always bring my clothes with me and change inside, because I don’t feel safe walking around the streets almost naked. Generally, I don’t feel safe to be too queer. Most of the kids you see in Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain wear a lot of accessories, make-up, high-heels or a skirt (I’m talking about the guys), and they have tattoos. They are really brave; they have the courage to venture out as their authentic selves. Usually, they go in the queue already flaunting an amazing outfit, even though they’re also changing inside. But for me, I always wear a simple, all-black outfit, and I still get in. Then I change once inside,” said club-goer Parvin
In that regard, the club becomes this mecca of self-expression, where the fun is safeguarded. It's crucial to maintain strict regulations, not only to address harmful behavior but also to determine the type of people who enter the club and the atmosphere they collectively paint. In this context, the bouncer plays a pivotal role.
“I see myself as a curator of the night. I consider myself as an artist, and as I’m curating the night, I’m building social sculptures. That was always a part of the lectures I held at different cities about Berlin’s subculture,” said bouncer and club owner Frank Künster.
“Social sculptures are formed when you’ve influenced the people who are with you in that special point of the night in a way that they behave differently, as they would not in other conditions. I influence them by showing them that it’s completely okay to express themselves however they want and not be ashamed to be their true selves. That’s a very important part.”
When it comes to deciding who enters the club, a determining factor is the vibe of the person and how it complements the spirit of the party: the bouncers are trying to create a synergy between the club space, the music, and the people.
“It's not about how you dress, it's about how you feel in it. Wear what you feel most comfortable with. Techno culture is about tolerance. Bring joy, good vibes, respect each other, be nice, be yourself,” commented Thomas Hoffmann, Director at Tresor Records.
“At Tresor, there is no dress code or preferred style at our door. We don't want uniformed robots, but free spirits who dress nonchalantly and feel comfortable that way,” added Hilka Dirks, Creative Lead at Kraftwerk Berlin.
Club-goer Parvin has also noticed that getting into Berlin’s clubs depends less on what you wear and more on how you carry yourself in it:
“You should have the attitude of wearing this outfit, and mostly, they look at how nervous you are. Usually, if you’re really confident and you look neither too excited nor too nervous, giving off an ‘I don’t give a shit if you let me in or not’, or ‘I’m really tired of waiting in the queue, so I don’t care’ kind of attitude, then they will let you in.”
After working in the club space for 31 years, Frank Künster has developed the ability “to read people in a positive way. I think I’m a good bouncer because I love human beings in general”.
Following conversations with people in the queue and understanding how much effort they’ve put in their outfits and behavior, Frank “can read them and feel their vibrations. If they fit in the crowd, they can go in, no matter what they wear”.
Smiley + Kat from Baldwin Security also agree: “Fashion is a big part of self-expression, just like language, body language, hair styles, etc.In our role as Security or as someone who curates the party, fashion and other points can help us determine if the guest fits the community. Nevertheless, we try very hard to see the person and not reduce our decision-making to clothing.”
Frank continued: “I noticed that nowadays, people are much more fashionable than they were before. Berlin was not fashionable at all 25 years ago, because nobody cared. But now, we are in the international business scene. People I know go to parties in Miami, New York, Bali, so they dress in a different way. It’s just a fact that they do,” continued Frank.
“In my place [Georgia Bar], 99% of the people are really decently dressed, because we are somehow a little bit high-class.
“When I go to Berghain or KitKat or Kater Blau, or all the other clubs, I think the most impressive dress is going totally naked. Wearing only perfume and shoes.”
Berlin’s techno scene emerged from the ashes of the old paradigm and continues to stand as a beacon of artistic freedom and unbridled expression.
As gatekeepers of this immersive realm, bouncers, club owners, bartenders and photographers curate nights where creativity and freedom flourish. As the scene continues to evolve, fashion stands as a tracemark along the tapestry of countless club nights that commemorate the rave experience and Berlin’s elaborate history.