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.