Dress-down Friday: Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach

At this reform-minded time of year, we take a look at the utilitarian slash messianic wardrobe reforms of German artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach.

Diefenbach was shaping up to be just an averagely bohemian scenester in 1880s Munich when he reached an epiphany about the course and form of his life. In 1882 he retreated, Moses-like, to the mountain of Hohenpeißenberg and descended, in similarly Mosaic fashion, with a new creed.

He was soon pronouncing the virtues of free love and the vice of cigarettes, preaching temperance and vegetarianism to a city sodden with beer and swollen with wurst. But it was Diefenbach’s approach to dress which most alarmed Wilhelmine Germany. All about him good Bavarian burghers attended to their business in frock coats and the kind of women’s dresses which would have satisfied most definitions of torture had they been imposed by an invading force rather than convention. Diefenbach, meanwhile, trod the cobbles in sandals with long hair, bushy beard and capacious robes all flowing freely in the breeze.

With other free spirits such as Franziska zu Reventlow, he made the progressive district of Schwabing his stage. But the rigour of his vision intimidated even his fellow bohemians and the voluminously cowled Diefenbach was subject to derision in avant-garde periodicals, distinguished from the invective of the average Münchner on the strasse only by the pretentiousness of its prose.

Diefenbach wasn’t alone in his fundamental rethink of the modern wardrobe – the British Reform Dress movement was gaining ground around the same time. But Diefenbach went much further, bemoaning the “plague of clothing” which imprisoned bodies yearning for sunlight. He accepted no binding of the body, striding provocatively hatless, brazenly commando under his billowing cloak (this, mind, in Germany’s coldest city).  He used his art to parody the clothing of his age, showing apes dressed in typical bourgeois fashions. Meanwhile his most ambitious work, the monumental frieze Per aspera ad astra, was crowded with the cherubic forms of his own children whom he allowed to run naked. For the logical end point of his trajectory of thought was, naturally enough, naturism.

Predictably, Diefenbach had numerous run-ins with authority. He was rejected from the venerable Pinakothek museum in 1884 because his duds apparently represented an “irreconcilable contradiction” to the institution’s standards. The following year his public appearances, at which he preached his radical lifestyle reforms, were banned by the police.

Schwabing may have been more socially advanced than the rest of the Bavarian capital, but it offered scarcely more protection for one so exotic than the more bourgeois parts of the city. Diefenbach, suffused with messianic fervour, led his followers to a new promised land (which, by a stroke of luck, was located in nearby Austria). Along with his herd of naked children were disciples like Gusto Gräser and Hugo Höppener, named “Fidus” for his loyalty. Diefenbach would preach the word of Christ (minus the tenets of Christianity) before a giant crucifix, his freestyle spirituality and progressive lifestyle a prophetic forerunner of the 1960s. But his conception of himself as a benevolent patriarch looked even further ahead to the bastard children of Aquarius, the lost souls who drifted into cults. Diefenbach’s fanatical ordering of his followers’ lives had a smack of Jim Jones and like Rajneesh, he didn’t deny himself worldly pleasures while urging the ascetic self-denial of desert saints on his followers.

Diefenbach’s utopia eventually succumbed to drear reality, as utopias always do. But we’re fortunate that his life stages and forward-thinking outfits were richly documented. Here is a selection of images from the exhibition “Besser sterben, als meine Ideale verleugnen!” (“Better to die than deny my ideals!”):

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  1. Wow. I don’t know how you find these strange flowers, but as subjects of your posts, they never cease to pique one’s interest, to amuse, and to occasionally inspire.

  2. I love the photo of everyone with flowers in their hair

  3. Linda Hollander

    James, you outdo yourself with each entry! This is so retro…spective of my pals in the 60s, my persoanl heyday. However, we were in California; it was warm!!

    I just love nut jobs, though. Keep up the good work!


    • You can really see why the look didn’t really take off in Central Europe, can’t you?

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Len

      Nut jobs??? The only nut jobs are those who follow convention out of weakness or sloth. And when they reach the end they discover they’ve never really lived their own lives. Now that is sad.

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  7. hans altena

    Unfortunately I had to spend some days on Capri this year to celebrate something with a close friend and her circle of ‘angels without wings’; and to compensate for the terrible snobish caspitalistic and vulgar touristic atmosphere there which had invaded her once beatific island she led me to a cloisterlike place where the paintings of this strange German bird from paradise that you described were shown. Most of them were in a poor condition, probably because of the interplay between extreme heat and humidity there, yet they did not fail to impress, most of them that is. Some were just a bit too cliché in their romanticism, but most had a primitive power that overshone the overt symbolism and gave the dark and vast images that were depicted on very large canvasses in thick layers of paint a mystical and mythical deepness that blew me away. I could not help but think that modern painters like Armando and Anselm Kiefer were influenced by him, or at least had shared his vibe: he was more than just a preacher of proto hippie ideals. Thank you though for bringing him to attention.

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