Hovering between cars or striding down their very own outdoor catwalk, the prostitutes on Berlin's Oranienburger Straße have a dress code you can't fail to recognise.
On top, long platinum locks cascade over a tightly-laced torso: in these cold winter months, the corset collapses the layers of unexpected puffer jackets and sweatshirts into a trim waistline. The bottom half features spectacular, gleaming PVC boots, laced, zipped, or pulled up above the knee to lift the wearer a good seven inches (17.8cm) off the ground. And don't forget the umbrella, fake fur accessories and trusty bum bag. You know what it means: sex for sale. At its cheapest, the whole look costs about €400. And, for German prostitutes, it's all tax deductible. In full dress, they are as recognisable as the police, if not more so.
Dr. Julia Bertschick at the Freie Universität notes that clothing is not necessarily fashion: "You can see the corset and boots that the girls along Oranienburger Straße wear as a uniform, rather than fashion. This clothing very practically signifies who they are and what they do for a living."
Although this "uniform of prostitution" is not a formal one – the women are free to choose – it can't be pure chance that the Oranienburger Straße street walkers adopt the same array of corsets and boots. So why does the corset so clearly signal prostitution? Dr. Valerie Steele is director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. As the author of the definitive book about the cultural history of the corset, she thinks this particular style is special to Berlin: "Prostitutes across the world do not normally go for this look. The corset does have sexual connotations, but mostly in fetish wear."
In Steele's opinion the "obvious prostitute" on Oranienburger Straße belongs to "just another Berlin phenomenon" since the city "has always been in its own little fashion bubble, doing whatever it wants - and now it's at it again."
She is convinced that this clothing trend says more about the city than about prostitution. "The corset is associated more with lingerie dominatrix wear than prostitution: Berlin must have a taste for the fetish and dominatrix culture."
Steele adds that while it may be difficult to see why corsets are a feature at this particular point and time, there are classic reasons why they are considered sexy. "It's simple: the corset lifts the breasts, and tightens the waist."
Essentially, it creates a sexual caricature of the female form. It introduces ideas of an erect and powerful woman, which plays on the idea of the dominatrix – apparently a normal phenomenon in naughty Berlin!
Late night fashion talk with a Berlin prostitute - 2:30am on Oranienburger Straße, 1°C
A cold and quiet night. One woman weaves between the cars, dressed in white and eating a hamburger. She might be 23 - blonde, slim and stunning.
Exberliner: Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about fashion?
Berlin working girl: Fashion? (One eyebrow raised.)
Exberliner: I'm writing about how important clothing is in prostitution.
BWG: (Smiling.) Ok. Why not? (At this point, she spots some people coming. Excusing herself, she swans out into the pavement, but returns saying "Oh no, it's fine. He's got a woman with him.") What did you want to know?
Exberliner: Do you wear a corset out of choice or because it's your uniform?
BWG: Oh no, there's no uniform. When I first started working, I just got tips from the other girls. I wear mine because it helps me to maintain my posture while standing around all night. It's warmer as well, which is really practical during the winter. And, of course, the men like it.
Exberliner: So you buy them yourself, they're not provided for you. Are they expensive?
BWG: That's right. We don't have to wear them. They cost between €60 and €80, which I suppose is expensive. But it's all tax deductible, so it's worth it overall.
Exberliner: Is this the only one you have?
BWG: No, I've got a few different ones: this white one, the same in black and a gold one. That one cost a bit more and I wish I hadn't bought it. It's good to stand out a little, but not too much. I generally wear this one: the white catches people's eyes in the dark.
Exberliner: How many layers are you wearing tonight?
BWG: I wrap up like an onion! So I've got the coat, two sweatshirts, two T-shirts, a vest and the corset on top. It seems to do the job.
Exberliner: So the corset is actually practical. What about the boots [which are laced, immaculate white PVC with 7inch heels]?
BWG: These are more practical than you'd think. When I started working here, I wore flat boots. But within 20 minutes your feet are minus two degrees, like the ground. So it's actually better to be a couple of inches away from it. You get used to these kinds of boots. After a while you build up calluses on your feet and they become easy to wear. Really!