Fashion under Nazism
For the last few months, the textile museum in the Bavarian town of Augsburg has been showing an exhibition about fashion under Nazism, from 1933 to 1945. Entitled Glanz und Grauen (“Splendour and Terror”), it aims to explore the particularities of clothing design, production and use in the Third Reich. It asks such questions as, what was the specificity of fashion under Nazism? How did the war and the Nazis’ ideology influence what people wore and the looks they sought to achieve? What was the relationship between clothing, racism, antisemitism and the war? With this, the exhibition provides interesting insights into the regime’s reach within culture and the influence of its political and racist aims on lifestyles and everyday experiences. Here’s a review of the show in words and pictures.
’30s fashion vs Nazi fashion
The exhibition begins with an overview of the styles and items from the 1930s and 1940s. A display of dresses shows the evolution of waist heights, skirt lengths and commonly used materials, from velvet to lace. A cabinet displays typical, prized and fashionable items from this era such as leather gloves or nylon tights; contemporary adverts for clothes give an idea of both widespread trends and contemporary prices.
Opposite this, a large tapestry depicts the National Socialist ideal: the women dressed in conservative blue dresses, executing household chores, and the men going about their work. Around the corner, a display of German dresses shows how the Dirndl, the traditional German dress, was adapted to the times and made more practical. The contrast of the latest fashion and these conservative role models forms a kind of introduction to Nazi fashion in context.
The visitor then enters a key section of the exhibition called “the street”, showcasing what one would have seen when walking around the city. It points to the political meaning of different styles and pieces of clothing in this public setting. A window cabinet displays the uniforms of the youth movements, the Hitler Youth and German Girls – the look of conformity. Opposite, a display shows the clothing of those who rejected or challenged the style imposed by the authorities, such as wide-legged suit trousers, short shorts or British-looking hats and umbrellas – the look of dissidence.
Closing this section, a range of magazines and newspapers with Nazi insignia shows how the regime came to control communication about fashion in this period. This section as a whole highlights the difficulty of pinpointing what is “Nazi” and what is merely 1930s style and fashion. At the same time, it shows the insidious infiltration of the regime into mundane and everyday activities by means of small symbols and changes, as well as the political appropriation of styles for the sake of demonstrating resistance or acceptance.
Utopia vs reality
As you move forward into the centre of the exhibition, you come across a silent loop of short extracts of famous contemporary black-and-white films projected against the wall, in a setup made to look like an old-school cinema.The film stars are wearing beautiful clothing, large coats with fur and smart hats, and acting emphatically, as they did in the 1930s and 1940s; along the side, the drawings of one of the designers who made her career in the Third Reich hang on the wall.
This area aims to show what style people aspired to. This theme is picked up on again in a room set somewhat apart, which is entered through a sumptuous velvet curtain. There, one can see luxurious items from the period, dresses made of fine and precious materials or handbags encrusted with sparkles and stones. As this shows, the celebration of the “people’s community” did not lead to the disappearance of classes. Clothing remained a key way of signalling wealth and social status.This introduces the theme of utopia versus reality.
Indeed, in general, most people’s relationship to clothing in this period, especially after the start of the war, was shaped by shortage. It was characterised by trying to save money and make ends meet, making one’s own clothes and improving existing garments. The exhibition presents many such items. This section reminds us that this period cannot be considered without taking into account the war economy and effort. Yet at the same time, it shows how continuing to care about how one looked was a source of distraction and joy in this difficult period.
Finally, this section addresses the fact that antisemitic policies also shaped the character of fashion and practices surrounding clothing under Nazism. The boycott and exclusion of Jewish traders and tailors from the economy is also part of the story. The so-called “aryanisation” of the textile industry involved making purchases from certified Aryan stores and the clothing was labelled accordingly. An organisation called Adefa Adefa (Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscharischer Fabrikanten der Bekleidungsindustrie) was even founded for this purpose and benefited non-Jewish tailors. In this same section, a panel on the wall indicates that the robbing of the Jews had already begun before the war started. Photographs illustrate how the clothes of the Jews were distributed to Germans in need. Fashion and clothing was one of many sources of persecution.
Perpetrators vs victims
In the last third of the exhibition, as you reach the back of the windowless room and come up against the back wall, things get darker in every sense of the word. This section deals in a direct way with the link between clothing and theft, exploitation and the crimes of the Nazis, including the Holocaust. On the right, a section is dedicated to both uniforms with their insignia and the different functions and grades they stood for. While their sight inspires terror, this also reminds us of the prestige those who wore such uniforms enjoyed.
In this same area, a small display shows items stolen and sent home by the Germans from the lands they occupied. The caption emphasises the importance of these items for the morale of the population, especially as the war progressed and German losses mounted.
Clothing, it cannot be forgotten, was a key means of identification, exclusion, humiliation and persecution of the Nazis’ victims, above all the Jews. The yellow star was introduced in Germany in 1942. It had to be sewn on to all garments and measure at least 12 centimeters in diameter. Clothing was also highly significant during the Holocaust and in the camps. Not only did camp uniforms have power and meaning but clothes could also be a matter of life or death.
Last but not least, the clothes of the victims often served to enrich the perpetrators. This is dealt with in a separate area at the end of the exhibition, which is accessed through a small door-sized entrance. Inside, a single pair of shoes is on display and the floor is marked with the familiar design of a concentration camp roll call area. This dark, closed and bare room has an oppressive effect on the visitor and its placement at the end suggests this is where all that preceded inevitably led to.
However, as one comes out again, a last display gives a quick insight into the continued struggle around clothing after the war was over. It presents some of the ways in which materials and garments were reused: an army coat was turned into a winter jacket by removing the insignia; a bed cover into a women’s coat; a sailor’s uniform into a suit. Behind this is the word “denazification” (Entnazifizierung). These awkward-looking pieces of clothing stand for hardship, but they also seem to indicate the uneasy transformation of Germans into democrats in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Incidentally, being cleared came to be known in German as obtaining a “Persil ticket”, named after the famous washing powder.
At the outset, one can read that the exhibition aims to present the significance of clothing in the Third Reich, and to draw attention to key aspects of fashion under Nazism against the backdrop of Nazi history as a whole. For a small exhibition, it does this brilliantly. Not only are the tangible, well chosen and well presented items intrinsically captivating, but the way the exhibition is designed, with continuity yet abrupt angles and a dark background, makes the visitor feel as though they are travelling through time and getting an ever-deeper understanding of what Nazism was actually about. In short, clothing and fashion is a great way of telling a well-known story once more and turning it into a relatable experience. By doing so, it also draws attention to several oft-neglected dimensions of history, such as gender, class and everyday concerns.