A visit in Cologne/ Germany
FRANZISKA BECKER ON FABRICS, FASHION, SAFETY PINS, AND CARS
Titus Billings, Global Arts Press
“Safety pins.” Franziska Becker replied without a moment’s hesitation when I asked her what fashion essential she was never without. “Safety pins. They’ve been my constant companion since I was in my ‘teens. And they’ve saved me from more of what Americans call ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ than you can imagine. But they’re also accessories for me; by that I mean safety-pin-pins, as in brooches. My favorite was stolen maybe seven years ago, along with a sweater, in a US chain restaurant called Romano’s Macaroni Grill. I’m still in mourning, and I’ve never found anything close to an adequate replacement. Whenever I pass by the scene of the crime, I become a little wistful.”
When Franziska Becker walks through her neighborhood on the south end of Cologne, she turns heads. And not just because the sixtysomething artist isn’t hard to look at. It’s also because over the years she’s developed a distinctive personal style. It doesn’t compete for attention with her massive oeuvre of paintings, cartoons, and illustrations. But it nonetheless helps to identify her as one of Germany’s prominent creative personalities.
The recipient of the Wilhelm Busch Prize, the Gottingen Elk, and the Max and Moritz Award has had her work shown in important galleries and museums throughout Europe and the Americas. So she doesn’t need to promote or advertise herself. It’s just that a breezy, comfortable, yet elegant style is something that she enjoys. For all that, she’s very good at it.
There’s a casual, relaxed cut to her dresses (she never wears pants). Well, maybe once. “I was on a trail ride, muleback, down the rim of Bryce Canyon in Arizona. So I scored a pair of sweats in a nearby tourist shop. Tossed them out as soon as I climbed off the saddle.” She remarks that “clothing should move when you move”, as we walk down the Severinstrasse to visit her tailor. And “move” she does. For an American who’s accustomed to the languid pace of a small southern town, her speed is a little intimidating. Men, but mostly women, are eyeballing her as we pass though the crowds. “Thing is”, she adds as I barely keep up, “I tell women, ‘when you check yourself out in the mirror, apart from whether or not it looks and feels good, ask yourself, am I going to enjoy wearing this?’ Clothes should be fun.”
Ever make a fashion mistake?, I ask. All the time, she replies; “But I have a tried-and-true method of testing out my clothing. I just walk through a black neighborhood in the States. If the women shout out their approval, it’s passed muster.”
We enter a modest but tasteful shop where Mrs. Becker says she has all her tailoring done. “Apart from designs I’ve borrowed from the pros, and modified for my own tastes, and the tailor’s impressive skills and talents”, she says as the woman at the sewing machine blushes, “it’s all in the fabric. And good fabric is damn hard to find.” Her source? “ When I’m in the States, I visit any number of mill outlets in the Philadelphia area. One wades though a crumbling, repurposed factory, choosing one’s steps carefully since the floor might collapse. There’s thousands of massive spools piled everywhere. And it takes patience.” But she insists that what one can find is extraordinary. “And please don’t ask the price”, she adds, “these things are so cheap Stateside that it’s almost criminal.”
“One other thing”, she says as she discusses length and cut with the mostly-Russian-speaking seamstress. “Any woman over twenty-one, no matter how slim her shape, should avoid too-tight, too-short clothes. Once you’ve graduated college, trash them.” Anything else? “Yes. I wish the fifty-year love affair with blue jeans would end. And no one, male or female, young or old, can look even halfway intelligent wearing a baseball cap backwards.”
Shoes? She insists she’s not a fan. Just comfortable ones, preferably red. “And I‘m hopelessly envious of mens’ shoes. They frequently look better than womens’, are better built, and are more comfortable. And while we’re on the subject, let me ask you a question, Mr. Billings: What man, gay or straight or anything in-between, would ever wear stiletto heels?”
Coats? “The frock coat is an elegant and practical garment. And if it’s cut right, it’ll move along with you. More men and women should wear one. And if I might make a suggestion, our Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, who like most elected officials had added the odd pound on account too many obligatory state dinners, might be well-advised to consider adding one or two to her wardrobe.” “Almost forgot. Raincoats. I haven’t owned one since I was eight years old.”
On the way back to her studio on the Alteburger Strasse (a five-storey walk-up...more huffing and puffing just to keep pace), she walks over to what looks like an abandoned car, opens the hatchback, and retrieves some groceries. “This is a great place to store things without lugging them up all those stairs”, she says as she locks up the derelict vehicle, an ancient Golf that’s been victimized by Karneval vandalism, decades of rust, and the odd hailstorm. Inside, the headliner’s gone, there’s a gaping hole where the radio used to be, and there’s a bird’s nest on the dashboard. I suggest that’s it’s handy to have a storage container parked right in front of your studio, but don’t the cops get upset?
“No”, she replies. “It still runs, and I drive it regularly around town, and out to the country to my little place out there. Yes, I guess it lacks some up-to-date features. I mean, it’d be nice to have airbags. And maybe even a radio: My mechanic tried to fit one in the dash, but it turns out the car’s so old, nothing’s compatible. Or something to that effect; I’m not an expert on automotive stuff. Last winter the door locks froze open, and I had to tape the car shut; I can recommend Tesa Brand Nuclear Grade Duct Tape for this purpose. Replace it? I’d prefer not to. Problem is, it’s so rusted out it likely won’t pass the next inspection. Otherwise, I’d never get rid of it.”