Berlin Nightclubs: Unraveling The Fascinating World Of Dress Code Culture And Reserved Rights Of Admission

By Lola Sasturain via El Planteo

Berlin is a global mecca of techno and its dance clubs are an essential part of the city’s cultural capital. A holy aura surrounds them.

It’s a fact: clubs don’t look like Berlin’s in any other part of the world, and the things that happen there don’t happen anywhere else.

That it is forbidden to take photos, that you can come across a gang bang in action, that you can stand in line for four hours and the “security” may not let you in if you are not goth enough: many things are said, and most of them are true.

Although, obviously, the story is only a portion -reduced and simplified- of reality, and of the infinite range of possibilities that open up when going through (or not) the doors of the Berghain, Trésor, KitKat, Sisyphos, RSO, and many more. Sites that, more than clubs, at this point, are institutions. So much so that they have their own regulatory committee, which is the body through which the political, economic, and social decisions that concern the Berlin rave scene go through.

The question of the right of admission and the dress code itself embodies several contradictions. Something that would be very problematic in a country like Argentina, where the right of admission based on clothing would certainly have class implications. But, in Germany, it is sustained and celebrated.

Why is something so discriminatory and arbitrary at first glance, so contrary to the values ​​that are preached today, not only tolerated but celebrated? How can this be an essential part of the young folklore of one of the most modern and progressive cities in existence? Is there something positive? And finally, how can we guarantee our entry to the clubs?

A Bit Of Context

Berlin is a city of polarities and contrasts, with very marked identities and in certain opposite aspects between east and west, winter and summer, day and night. In this last dichotomy, we are going to stand: daytime Berlin is a (very) green city that can be explored by bicycle, family, open-air events, community fairs, and a vegan and eco-friendly paradise. At night, its status as the capital of the counterculture is noticeable. The music is harsh, the clubs are dilapidated, the drugs and sex are out in the open and they don’t shock anyone too much.

All this seems to coexist without major tensions because Berlin is a city of individual freedoms. Their society is founded on a social pact of respect for others, absolute trust, and zero intrusion into the lives of others. As long as all three are fulfilled, the balance is sustained.

And although you see many more people living on the streets than in some other cities in Europe, and although it seems like the absolute capital of hedonism, the crime rate is very low, children walk alone on the streets from a very young age and confidence in the neighbor is one of the pillars of everyday life.

Something that may be difficult for those of us who live in other types of societies to understand is that, paradoxically, the rules of freedom are harsh. And, although no one who is not local has to do it a priori, knowing them (and strictly abiding by them) is key to having a good experience. This is transferred to what happens inside the clubs.

For example, doing drugs on the dance floor is grounds for expulsion, and not in a good way. But getting 5 people into a bathroom to consume anything and spending fifteen minutes there while people wait outside, or receiving a golden shower in the darkroom is allowed and is, in fact, expected. Confusing, right?

In General Terms

There is one piece of advice that goes for all raves: don’t go anywhere without knowing where you’re going.

Each club has its own dress code and in many cases, this changes according to the theme of the night. There are stricter ones (Berghain, Kitkat) and more lax ones (Trésor, Renate, Sisyphos), but in all of them, it is advisable to find out if there is, for example, a theme night: kinky, fetish, and queer are relatively common slogans.

Information about the dress code for each particular night is often not readily available on social networks, but it exists and can be found. However, there are some rules of etiquette when queuing that are usually common and have nothing to do with the look: do not appear to be in a large group, do not use your cell phone too much and much less take photos, do not talk too much (especially if it’s in foreign languages), not being wasted and not showing excessive enthusiasm.

Photo: James Dennes, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons // Edit in Canva by El Planteo

If you want to get in, you have to play the game, and embody the performance: get dressed, separate the large group into groups of two or three people maximum (even better alone), put on a serious face, and wait for everyone to meet inside. Which is likely not to happen. And it’s no use fighting, getting angry, or insisting.

This aversion to large groups is not accidental: especially when they are made up of men, these groups are much more likely to generate problematic situations and invasion of personal space in a context where individual freedom and comfort must prevail. In Berlin, you dance alone. Unlike what we are used to on this side of the globe, the clubbing experience in Berlin is expected to be almost introspective: people meet inside, maybe have sex, maybe hang out, but literally, everyone is in their own bubble. People dance alone, facing the DJ booth or wherever they want: large groups, and not to mention if they dance in a circle, are usually not local.

Another peculiarity is the age range: if the techno scene in Argentina is dominated by the under-25 people, in Berlin clubs you see little or no post-adolescent faces. Looking very young is a point against entering. The public of the clubs is usually around thirty-ish.

The Paradoxes Of Non-discrimination

The obsession with looking for caring environments has largely to do with the search for non-discrimination: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia and no intolerance of any kind. That’s usually the downfall of most of the iconic clubs in Berlin. Nevertheless, in the typification of the subject that does not discriminate, is not sexist or homophobic, obviously, prejudices also creep in and, whether one wants to accept it or not, discrimination. As if it were not discriminatory and problematic from the assumption that people who do not discriminate look and dress a certain way.

It is understood that in the nightlife of this city, to be and to seem are considered the same thing. “I stopped dressing all in black because that is closely associated with techno and it has happened to me that when I was about to play they say ‘great, you are not going to play reggaeton’ and maybe I will,” said Pablo Betas, aka Bungalovv, Argentinian musician and DJ who lives in Berlin. His sound ranges from noise to deconstructed club and although it is very dark, it has much more to do with Latin rhythms than with quarter-note kick drums. And, in a context where the clothes are so precisely considered code, perhaps at certain moments this gaze would imply things about his art that are not true.

“In Argentina, they don’t let you in because you’re gay, but I don’t know if there’s anything worse for a gay than not being let in in the club because you look straight,” reflected Joaquín, an Argentinian homosexual, after being denied entry to the KitKat for dress code issues. Joaquín appeared in a black band shirt, and black pants, and wearing his elaborate sculpted nails.

Pau is Spanish, lives in Berlin, and works at Renate’s bar, in the Treptower Park neighborhood. It is not one of the most demanding clubs in terms of dress code, but it is more strict on some particular theme nights. In his experience, the culture of the right of admission ends up having more positive than negative consequences, but it generates mixed feelings: “Among the negative things are that people stop going, either because they are rejected or because they don’t agree with the fact that they judge you without knowing you, which seems reasonable to me,” lamented Pau.

It is not written anywhere, but in the most famous clubs, with a strong queer or gay stamp, women are a minority, as well as lesbians, trans people, and fluid masculinities. And among cis men, being and appearing homosexual is often not enough. Even within the LGBTQ community, there are preferences; those most guaranteed entry to Berlin’s most iconic clubs are cis men who embody hegemonic masculinity. Standard, bah. Carved bodies, leather, latex and an “active” attitude, with pardon the oversimplification. But beware: the typical group of guys is almost guaranteed to be rejected.

Photo: Courtesy Of Thomas Stein, CC-BY-SA-2.0, Via Wikimedia Commons

In the most sex-positive clubs (suitable for having sex), the coding has to do with sexual orientation and gender identity: in Berghain, the majority are cis men but there are many more trans identities than in KitKat, for example, with a much more binary imprint.

It is worth clarifying that this refers to these great emblematic clubs: the rave scene in Berlin does not end there and is full of “kulturhaus”, spaces, and independent parties that run away from the institutionalized place of the club and seek to summon another public, female, feminist and non-cis dissidents. But it is worth insisting that the concept of rave as the space-time capsule where each person can be who they are runs through the DNA of the city whatever the scene and the editorial line of the event. Therefore, the heteronormative is not very well received in any context.

The Rebounder, A Curious Institution

The figure of the bouncer is different in Berlin than in other places in Europe, not to mention in Latin America. “You establish a toxic relationship with the bouncers,” laughed Joaquín. A relationship in which there is anger and contempt but an absolute need to still be accepted.

Pau compared them with the bouncers from his native country: “With airs of superiority for physical reasons and with a not-so-pleasant treatment,” he said. And that’s true. The bouncers in Berlin’s clubs are not huge, muscular people dressed in uniform: their authority does not lie there. It must be said with all the letters: the whim plays an important role, it is cared for and celebrated, as regards the role of the bouncer. And, if you don’t like it, there’s the door (which you won’t be able to go through).

And while the Berghain bouncer has shut out people who queued for hours in sub-zero temperatures for no reason, his status as king of the ice seems undeniable. His noes are noes and that’s it. There are no more explanations. The dark side (better said: one of the many) is that there have been reports of bouncers from less famous clubs who, joining this mystique, have engaged in sexist, racist, and classist behavior with total impunity.


“I do believe that the dress code issue has positive consequences for the experience, without a doubt, both for Renate and all the other clubs,” reflected Pau.

“Although it may be based on prejudice and although there are people who, between many quotation marks, ‘deserve to enter and do not enter and people who, between many quotation marks, ‘would not deserve to enter and do enter’, I do believe that the majority of people who enter are there to enjoy, dance and let go. At parties where there is no kind of filter at the entrance, the atmosphere can be less of this kind, more normal in a bad way.

Like Joaquín, who days later tried again and finally entered KitKat, and who, with a bit of anger, had to accept: “Being inside I understood why they didn’t let me in last time.”

It may be because the filter based on appearance is effective or because the feeling of gratitude and happiness for having entered makes everyone predisposed in the best way, but that “curated” atmosphere is sensed for good. Inside, no one looks at anyone, and no one pays much attention to anyone. Nor, if an expression of will is not meditated, nobody touches or looks for someone to dance with. It is a strange image of collective vibration made up of many individualities.

The ban on taking photos extends to all techno clubs. Some are laxer with the use of cell phones inside and place a sticker on the camera. Others directly force you to leave your bag with your cell phone inside in the cloakroom, and that will depend on the attitude of whoever is at the door.

After the initial moment of anxiety, it is inevitable to agree with the measure: the impossibility of recording, much more than the dress code, is what enables the magic.

If anyone could photograph what’s going on in there, those things just couldn’t happen. Would the existence of a darkroom make sense if it was full of tourists making stories? Of course not. Would there be so much mystique around the entire Berlin rave scene if we saw it, precisely, through Instagram stories every weekend? Also not.

Zoom in: Berghain, KitKat, Sisyphos

Upon entering KitKat, the feeling is that of entering a psychedelic Roman palace of Caligula’s order: the enormous number of semi-naked or naked bodies are the least of it. A space full of nooks and crannies, mirrors and carpets, painted fluorescent, with a lounge full of daybeds worthy of an underworld spa and an oriental-themed pool full of inflatables.

In this club, you feel that club thing more palpably: in KitKat music does not seem to be the main thing. It is more of a meeting point, between a sauna, a disco, and precisely a very exclusive social club. People gather on the sides of the pool and shout, and talk, you see many groups of people who know each other from the inside and who surely did not arrive together because they already know where to meet. Sure, the courts are full, but they don’t cover even half of the total area of ​​the club itself, and they’re not the main space where the action takes place.

As in a good exclusive social club, people do not go in large groups but to meet the friends of the club. And the right of admission is an issue to take into account: harsh for beginners and insiders, and no reason to worry for regulars who have already earned their right to enter.

Still, KitKat has a reputation on which there is no consensus: while there are fetish nights where the vast majority are gay men looking for men (and where the dress code of latex, nudity and BDSM is strict), on weekends it is a club where people, whatever their sexual orientation, go to have and seek sex. And that inevitably is a terrain that sometimes becomes swampy and has the potential to become unpleasant for certain sensibilities.

Tybo, a young Swiss based in Berlin, said during the dawn of a Thursday night of fetish: “Tomorrow it is not worth coming, much more straight and boring”.

Sisyphos perhaps has more vanilla and suitable for all audiences, and that is the reason why many Berliners consider it “more touristy”. It is very touristy also because it is a fascinating place. There, the dress codes are not usually so strict and the music is not limited to Berlin techno, but on its many dance floors there is also house and other genres.

It’s not as sex-positive a club as the others, and therefore a good interlude for those ravers who want to dance and witness a bit of Berlin eccentricity without sticking both feet into a space-time hole.

The dress code is relaxed and cool and echoes in the space, where, in the warm season, the outside is almost more important than the closed dance floors, and people enjoy cooling off on the artificial beach that is located inside the huge and crazy venue. Friendly colors and textures are allowed: it’s just best not to wear anything too stuffy, pretentious, or screams “office worker on a day off”.

Very funny and enjoyable. However, it is not the favorite club of the “music nerds” or the Berlin techno fans. That is Berghain, recognized as “the best club in the world,” the one with the best sound and the holy grail for DJs from all over the world.

Uploaded, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Berghain is the one who popularized this dynamic and has some of the strictest admission rights, being his bouncer, Sven Marquardt, a cult character who even has his own documentary. Figures like Britney Spears and Elon Musk are said to have stayed out of Berghain. There is no other entertainment room in the world that even comes close to it in mythology. Needless to say, there are no mirrors or clocks inside.

Berghain was born as a gay men’s club – when it was called Ostgut, at the end of the last millennium – and something of that imprint still remains, although all dissidents have more chances to enter than normal-looking men and women.

Yes, wearing black won’t go amiss, and being German also helps: it has become something of a tourist game to get dressed up and follow all the directions to the letter to see who gets in. And that is precisely one of the few issues on which there is consensus when talking about this topic: the goal is to let in people who are there for the music, to dance and live the experience, and to avoid at all costs those who want to enter to say they were there. This makes the look very important but trying too hard is a reason for rebound. So: dark yes, fetish yes, comfortable too. In costume, overdressed or following a style manual to the letter, no. 

Inside the club, something similar to what Joaquín describes happens: it is understandable why there is so much fuss around the entrance. The atmosphere is very curated, there is space to dance, circulate and listen. The DJ booth is at the height of the people and to one side: the dance floor has protagonism, with the best sound system in the world, the famous Funktion One, and with the most celebrated DJs of global techno. So, then, the dance floor just deserves to be taken care of. Being inside it is inevitable to think about it: yes, all the mythology is true, it is the best club in the world.

“When I went to Berghain I queued for three hours and entered. And there was plenty of room inside. I don’t know if it would be enough for everyone to get in, but it is also true that they don’t need it. I entered at 4:30 in the morning, Ben Klock was playing and I was able to have him a meter away, be in front of the speakers, and have my space to dance perfectly,” says Pau.

And it happens that, among so many stories, legends, mysticism and gossip, one loses sight of something elementary: these clubs have a much larger demand than they can cover. There simply isn’t room for the number of people who would potentially want to come in, every weekend of the year. And the more the legends grow, the more people and the less space. And the more ruthless the bouncer.

This chronicler arrived at the door of Berghain one day when there were less than ten people in front: we all passed, even the non-Gothic ones. If you ever went and did not pass, in the end, you will never know if your outfit was wrong, if your accent was not liked, if the bouncer woke up in a bad mood or if it was simply a bad time due to excessive traffic. “Yes, there is a lot of mythology around this, some based on reality and others not, but I do feel that it is a little part of the fun,” concluded Pau.

Image by El Planteo

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