When I completed my review of Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich, I made note of other books on fashion and World War II that I was looking forward to reading and sharing my thoughts with you. And today I share with you my thoughts on Broken Threads: The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria.
Broken Threads stems from a fashion exhibit that was produced by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 1999 and shares a collection of essays written by a variety of authors on the subject of Jews and the fashion industry during the Second World War. Nazi Chic author Irene Guenther is among the essayists and a few of the pieces are translated from German.
The book opens with a wonderful introduction that discusses the origins of the book, and why fashion is an important part of WWII history, and brought up a great point – fashion is a way to bring in new audiences to Holocaust education. What so few people know is that the Jews were integral to the fashion industry. Prior to the WWII, Jews in Germany operated nearly eighty-percent of the department and chain stores, sixty-percent of the wholesale and retail clothing business and forty-percent of the wholesale textile industry. They had talent regarding fashion design, knowledge of textiles and extreme business savvy that made them excel in the fashion world. But by being such a pillar of the fashion industry, the Jewish owned businesses became easy targets once Hitler rose to power. Jewish fashion was deemed a perpetrator of modernism, something the Nazis felt was un-German. According to the Nazis, modernism was degenerate, and the fashion coming from the Jews was labeled hideous, and a “satanic mockery of womanhood”. Boycotts ensued, Aryan take-overs of businesses began, and those shopping at Jewish owned businesses were labeled as traitors, which even became grounds for divorce in Germany.
In 1933 Adefa, the Federation of German-Aryan Manufactures of the Clothing Industry, was created. The group aimed to eradicate Jews from the fashion industry, and perpetuated that their goods were superior to those made by Jews. Members had signs in their store windows boasting that their garments were “made by Aryan hands” and the garments also bared sewn in Adefa labels. Additionally, the group produced fashion shows and exhibits showcasing their German goods and aimed to produce a true German style.
Eventually, the boycotts and work of Adefa culminated in in Kristallnacht, where 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. After that horrific night, Adefa felt its goals of ridding the fashion world of Jews was complete and began to focus on removing Jewish methods and technique from the industry. Then, on August 15, 1939, as Jews were forced into the ghettos, Adefa proclaimed success over the Jewish “monopoly” in the clothing industry and dissolved.
In the ghettos Jews were then, ironically, forced to work to produce clothing and shoes for Nazi officials, their wives, the military and even for “Aryan” businesses, who contracted cheap ghetto labor in order to gain huge profits, and the same thing continued into the death camps.
Broken Threads also offers more details regarding the rationing process, noting precise points to garment numbers, but the images painted regarding the lack of inventory, and desperate means that women went to clothe themselves and their families are not as harsh as those described in Nazi Chic. Other topics of discussion are the history of Jews in the garment industry, dating back to biblical times, the history of the department store, and the Aryanization that occurred in Vienna.
In many respects I wish I could have read Broken Threads prior to Nazi Chic. It is a much easier read, includes a timeline and pictures throughout, while covering many of the same topics as discussed in Nazi Chic. The only topic really omitted is the discussion of women in the military. So for those wishing to learn more about the fashion industry under the Third Reich, and not the military aspect, then Broken Threads is a much better read, and I would recommend it for anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.