Nazi Chic?

A minor warning before we get started today. Today’s post may be viewed as controversial and maybe even frivolous. However, I find it an enthralling and important topic. Further more, I do not support the horrible and anti-Semitic views of the Nazis nor do I sympathize with them.

When you think about World War II, you think about Pearl Harbor, Rosie the Riveter, air raids over Britain, and the horrors of the Holocaust.  Us vintage lovers may also think about the fashion of the time, and how the silhouettes were sleek and sexy or the dawn of slacks and fashionable casual wear.  But for the most part, when we think about the fashion, we think about our nation’s war time fashion, whether that’s the United States, Canada, Britain or Australia.  We simply don’t think about Germany.

To many, the topic of fashion during WWII, and specially German fashion, may be deemed unworthy of attention or shallow in contrast to the atrocities that the Nazis committed.  But Irene Guenther, author of Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich paints a portrait of a nation not only at war with the world, but at war with itself and how fashion played a role under Hitler’s rule.

There are a lot of good things and a lot of not so good things to Guenther’s book.  First off, it’s not an easy read.  It reads like a text book.  It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish. Part of that may be because the first part of the book I care little about – World War I.  The book is difficult in some parts to read, while easy in others.  It is also of the type where there is a section of pictures in the center, instead of throughout.  I’m sorry, but when discussing items such as art, fashion and architecture, I believe that pictures should be along side words.  She also takes time to discuss the extravagance of some of the higher up male officials of the Nazi party, and rationing of food, areas I found unnecessary.

Now, let’s talk about the good and the extremely fascinating. Nazi Chic? is filled with incredible battles within Nazi Germany toward what its ideal woman should be, and what “German Fashion” meant.  It also discusses how early on Nazi Germany set itself up for the economic failure.  Nazi Germany thought itself supreme, and quickly did away with accepting imports, which included much of the fabric and some of the clothing the country needed.  But this was just one nail in the Reich’s coffin.  At the time, the Jewish population had nearly total control over the German fashion industry, from design to manufacture to sales.  They had the skill set and the know-how.  By eradicating Germany of the Jews, Germany lost much of its clothing and fashion industry.  Much of the Aryan takeovers resulted in poorer quality goods and as even Magda Goebbels, wife of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, noted, upon observing many of her favorite Jewish designers disappearing, “Elegance will now disappear from Berlin along with the Jews.” And, boy, was she right.  Despite Germany’s early start to rationing, supplies for the average German ran out and over the war years, women were far from elegant.  Between the lack of imports, the amount of items going to the soldiers and the disappearance of the Jewish garment industry, shops were bare.  Burlap sacks were unwoven and rewoven into underwear, sweaters and socks.  Those who had lost someone to the war reworked their male family members’ remaining clothing items into new items for themselves.  The extreme shortage of leather left many out in the cold with regards to footwear, and over time, materials that we now think of as being average for footwear, such as cork, wood, and for the vintage fanatic, Plexiglass, were all innovations of the shortages Germans suffered.

Both those higher up officials and their wives could still have nearly everything they wanted, and sometimes by the most unique means.  While it wasn’t unheard of for Nazis to take what they pleased from the homes of the Jews they forced into the ghettos and later concentration camps, the Nazis would go on to use those in such horrid locations as a virtual sweatshop.  Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, had a warehouse, dubbed “Canada” where the items that were taken from the Jews were thrown.  Aware of the goods, Frau Höss, the wife of the camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss, took items from “Canada”, along with two female inmates, and forced them to design and make clothing for her and the Höss family.  Gossip and jealousy ensued, and to avoid further resentment, Frau Höss established a sewing room detail at the camp where a select few inmates were required to produce two custom-made pieces each week for the female SS guards and the wives of SS officers.  Everyday clothes, lingerie and evening gowns were sewn and if the women are pleased with the work, the inmates were given an additional piece of bread.  How fascinating that prior, items made by Jews were deemed degenerate, were now a prized possession.  While Frau Höss and other Nazi women were enjoying the luxury of custom-made garments, and the average German woman was darning and patching, it was those in the camps who suffered the most.  They were wearing filthy “pajamas” day in and day out, and most of the time not even given the basics of underwear.  By war’s end and the camps were liberated, those women who survived and had the strength stormed the SS headquarters of their camps and took tablecloths to make a dress or skirt.

Most interesting to me is the brief mention of how the swastika was treated in fashion.  While it was common place on uniforms and their accessories, as well as armbands and party pins, it also found its way into the everyday fashion and home of Germans.  Guenther makes note that it appeared on dog collars and bedsheets, and even as a ladies’ hat, however she either never discovered images of these, or chose to omit them in her picture pages.  Those interested in vintage fashion, especially that of 1940s are familiar with that of sweetheart jewelry – items that carry a patriotic theme such as the stars and stripes or a “V” for victory – but we never think about the notion of Nazi sweetheart jewelry.

Other topics discussed are the issue of women in uniform, Germany’s fashion institutes, attitudes toward France, hypocrisy of what it meant to be a German woman, and Kristallnacht. But do not expect to read anything about Coco Chanel or Hugo Boss.

While the book may appear thick, nearly a third is notes and bibliography.  And Guenther’s notes are nearly just as interesting.  You can tell that this subject means a lot to her, and that she spent many years reading and interviewing people on the subject to compile this astonishing book that is in fact the first English language book on the subject of Nazi Germany fashion.

Overall, I found Guenther’s book to very interesting, and at times shocking.  I will note that Nazi Chic? is written in typical essay format, and while it does include first-hand accounts, these are not shared directly, but rather indirectly, and the reader is only aware of such personal tales when reading the conclusion.  I recommend the book for those with a high interest in the history of the Nazi Party, and/or the garment industry and those who are fanatical about 1940s fashion.  Interested in buying? Click here.

I have a few more books on the subject of fashion during World War II and I look forward to reading them and sharing them with you as well.

19 thoughts on “Nazi Chic?

  1. Thank you for this review, I have never heard of this book before.
    I really love 40ies fashion, though I am German. I completely disagree with the politics of this time and I am very happy to live in Switzerland (which was more or less neutral during the war, they didn’t criticise Germany openly because they didn’t want to be implicated in the situation. Today Switzerland has to face the accusation that it enriched itself because much of the Nazi money laid on Swiss bank accounts), when buying 40ies fashion magazines here, they don’t deal with Nazi Germany at all, but they mention the war and the problems they are facing because of it.
    I love to read American Vintage Blogs, they often show the fashion that never reached Europe because of the German government and there are so many of objects because they weren’t destroyed or used up during and after the war. But every now and then I have to take a deep breath, reading comments like ‘I love WWII’. I can understand that you understand the history differently than me, but still, it was a war, loving the Fashion or the style of the 40ies is one thing, having a weak spot for old military objects I can’t understand, but ok. But to say someone loves the 2nd world war is just…naive, in my opinion. So thank you very much that you wrote a post of this so difficult a topic and stating your opinion on it.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I wish I could go around the world visiting countries that were involved in WWII and listen to their stories and learn about the point of view in that country. You are right, saying “I love WWII” is a very, well, wrong, way of saying things.

      Regarding buying and collecting military items, I approve of it when purchased for the right reasons. I believe it helps keep the memory alive of what happened and can be used as a teaching tool, and I think that is a good thing. If we forget, we risk repeating ourselves.

  2. So fascinating!

    I’ll confess that I’ve picked this book up several times in the bookstore, thumbed through it and put it back on the shelf. The topic just seems to be so daunting, and it was written as a scholarly work, which requires full concentration when reading. So thanks for the review. I can tell that it will be worth the effort.

    Growing up in the US in the 1960s, WWII was still a very fresh topic. All the adults either fought in the war or dealt with the total change of circumstances of life here in the US. I grew up with tales of sacrifice, and from the men who had fought, terror. Today, there does seem to be the idea among some that WWII was one great big USO party.

    • Yes, it is indeed a book that requires full concentration to read! Which is I think what made it difficult at times, since my brain wasn’t fully focused on the words at hand and why it took so darn long to read!

      I really hear what you’re saying about WWII being a USO party. Many vintage fashion lovers really glam up WWII (I’ll admit that I’m guilty of that from time to time) but often forget about the true horrors of the time, and that is very sad. I’m not sure quite how to put this, but I am envious of your ability to hear stories from the war. My dad’s dad fought, but died before I was born, and my mom’s dad was stationed at desk duty, due to health issues, but never discusses it either, and when I ask, they are always quick, one word answers, which leads me to believe he’d rather not discuss it.

  3. Sounds like a tough but overall rewarding read? I have to admit I find the title personally a little off putting and confrontational but I guess maybe that’s the point?

    It would be interesting to read about how the Germany fashion industry suffered and changed as a result of WWII. Australia was one country who’s fashion bloomed with many people coming to make new homes and bringing their talents with them.

    Great review Janey!

  4. Thank you very much for broaching this often hush-hush subject, dear Janey, both here and on Facebook (I wrote a fair bit relating to my thoughts there, so fear not, I won’t repeat them all here again). I’ve been studying the history of the Nazi party, holocaust, and WW2 in general (in depth) since I was a young girl, and would read this book in a Berlin minute. Thank you for the introduction. Should I have the opportunity to pick up a copy, I will be sure to let you know what I think of it.

    ♥ Jessica

  5. I think this is incredibly interesting! I’m a Jewish girl (with both Polish Jewish relatives and non-Jewish German ancestry), and I’m not offended by this in the slightest. I’m tempted to pick up this book, though I don’t know if I can force myself to read a textbook-style book. I want to, though!

    xox Sammi

  6. Thanks, this post is really interesting, even if the title might suggest something else, sometimes you just the word Nazi to make me shudder, I’m Italian, I still remember the stories of my grandfather, who lost two brothers in the war, and even the stories of my father who was born in 1936, that although he was a child, he remembered both the German soldiers, that those Americans.

    I also like fashion in general, and this book looks very interesting, I have just checked the internet, and I do not think that there is the Italian version. Too bad.


  7. I personally feel like we often forget that “the enemy” was a country (and it’s leaders), and not necessarily the people themselves. People who had no interested in war were dragged head first and then had to cope. I would actually be really interested in this book (especially if it’s images were next to the text) as fashion, and women’s coping mechanisms, when at war fascinate me…regardless of the country.

  8. Honestly when it comes to WWII I often think about Germany. I have done years and years of research of Germany, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc… that I am not surprised this exists. They were so determined to have a unique look, with the hype of all things aryan. Since this title is in English, I’m guessing this is either a translation or a American book about fashion for people in Nazi Germany.

  9. Thanks for the review! It definitely sounds like an interesting read.
    I guess it might be more costly to have images printed in text than it is to have them all in the middle. Plenty of art texts have a lot of images either at the back or in the middle though I will admit I find it frustrating, too.
    Also, I’m a dope – I don’t have this book (though it’s been on my wishlist for years) but one called Fashion Under Fascism, which is about fashion in Italy under fascist rule in the 30s so maybe similar?

    • I have Fashion Under Fascism as well, along with Fashion at the time of Fascism. I’m currently reading Broken Threads which is about the Jewish fashion industry prior to and in light of WWII, which will be reviewed next.

  10. Great review! I read this book in college and it’s a hard read for sure. I actually have taken an interest in Germany and European views of WW2. Being a history major and an American studies major studying people during war times is always fascinating. Fashion really does tell us a lot of what was happening and it’s a great key to learn about different cultures and people. Nice job

  11. Awesome review, Janey! I’d read many years ago that there was a sewing detail in Auschwitz, but I had no idea they were producing custom garments for the wives of camp commanders there.

  12. Hi,
    I’m Irene Guenther – the author of the book under review, Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich. I just happened upon this page while googling myself for a WWI centennial exhibition on soldiers’ art that I recently curated, which apparently received a great review in some newspaper (although I have yet to find it). What a nice surprise to come across this review. I’m writing in for two reasons: The first is that authors have almost no clout when it comes to deciding where photographs are placed in a book. Publishers take the easiest route, which is to group them all together, rather than to disperse the photos throughout the text. That said, I was incredibly lucky to have a publisher who allowed 50 photographs. These days, most publishers limit authors to 20 or less simply because it costs a lot of money to pay for copyrights and to print a book with lots of photographs. Yes, I did have photographs of women’s hats with swastikas, brooches with swastikas, and so on; however, it was the publisher who had the “final decision” power on what to leave out and what to include. Regarding the text itself, I was really sorry to read that some of you found it somewhat difficult to read. That’s another dilemma that academic writers face: On the one hand, we get creamed by our fellow academic colleagues if our books aren’t so hard to read that you have to have a dictionary sitting beside you. I’m appalled by such condescending attitudes, so I would write a chapter and give it to my sister to read, who is not a historian or academic, but reads a lot. After each chapter, and some rewrites, when she would say “yes,” it’s really interesting and reads well,” then I figured it would also interest other non-academic readers. I think that process made the book a better book and, possibly, that might be why it won some big awards … because people (not just ivory tower academics) could read it and learn from it and enjoy it. Thanks so much for your interest in the book. What a nice surprise for me to discover this blog! I’m at work on a book that examines the fashion industry (and women’s fashions more generally) in post-WWII Germany – a comparison of the four occupied zones from 1945 to 1949, when Germany was officially divided. In the meantime, since it is the centennial of World War One, you can take a look at the exhibit I co-curated on German and American soldiers’ art during the war: Irene

    • Hi Irene. I feel so incredibly honored that you took the time to read my review and comment on the post! Thank you so much! Also, thank you for the insight into the publishing process! I had no idea that publishers had such input on these issues. I also admire your foresight to make the book more readable, and offered portions to your sister as you wrote. I greatly look forward to your second book, especially since I also read and enjoyed Broken Threads, which you also had a hand in writing. Thank you for the information on the WWI exhibit as well. I would love to go! But alas I am on the west coast, but for now will admire the unique on-line gallery. Thank you again for your comment and knowledge, as well as writing on such interesting, and often overlooked subjects.

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