Linda Schulte-Sasse is DeWitt Wallace professor of German at Macalester College.
Whether you're more comfortable in jeans or Jean-Paul Gautier, you can't escape the fact that clothes have meaning in our culture. Consciously or not, we "read" each other through codes of clothing that we don't decide on, and we may be most conformist when we think we're most unconventional. But while we have the luxury of choosing how far we enslave ourselves to the "dictatorship" of fashion, resisting fashion in a literal dictatorship is something else again.
Few dictatorships were as fashion-obsessed as Nazi Germany, and a museum exhibition I visited in Germany takes up the question of just how political clothing was in the Third Reich. With the help of some 600 donated artifacts, the exhibition — whose title translates as "Glamour and Horror" — reminds us that no aspect of life under the Nazis was free or truly private. But neither was Nazi-era fashion all about brown shirts and black boots.
Under National Socialism, glamour and horror were but two sides of a coin. On the glamour side were the uniforms, armbands, lapel pins and other markers that gave "the movement" a ubiquitous visual presence: the scoutish Hitler Youth and League of German Girls' garb, the SA's brown shirts, the form-fitted SS uniforms without which we wouldn't have Darth Vader. Besides signaling a militarization of civilian culture with roots in 19th-century Prussia, the uniform look aimed at creating uniformity inside and out. It contributed to the fantasy of a Volksgemeinschaft, a community of the people defined as much by who couldn't belong as who could — the not-belonging of course being likewise made visible by the yellow badge Jews had to wear after 1938.
Folkloric clothing became another kind of uniform, suggesting a simpler, Alpine life. Though never prescribed (only forbidden for non-"Aryans"), folkloric clothing served to invoke the Volksgemeinschaft, while reinforcing Nazi gender politics. Especially the women's "dirndl" with its tight-waist, flowing skirt, apron, and decollete, reversed the Weimar era's androgynous look.
But even Nazi Germany was not a vacuum and the regime never lost sight of the need to satisfy consumer demands shaped by a cosmopolitan Europe — least of all in fashion. The Nazi look competed with international chic. Although Goebbels wanted to include a fashion branch in the seven-armed Reich Culture Chamber, it never materialized, nor did a centralized policy regarding fashion. A glance at fashion magazines or Nazi-era movies shows that divas seldom wore dirndls, and the "German Fashion Office" founded in 1933 focused on competing with the French.
As glamour became more elusive under the strain of war, propaganda conditioned women to equate frugality with patriotism. When women resorted to sewing new dresses out of remnants, the only party-affiliated women's journal, NS Frauenwarte, recast a survival measure as an opportunity: "Clothing from two kinds of material are not only practical and help save on points, they are also totally chic." (The "points" refer to a clothing ration system.)
Jewish textile manufacturers were the first to fall prey to "Aryanizing" laws whose names give a new meaning to the word euphemism — like the 1933 "Law Regarding the Sequestration of Assets Inimical to the People and State." The clothing left behind or confiscated from deported Jews was generously donated to the "Aryan" needy. And again stretching euphemism to its most grotesque, "consumer research" became a form of murder in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, where a "Shoe Testing Track" featured nine different walking surfaces. Inmates selected for the "Shoe Walking Commando" were forced to walk many kilometers to help shoe manufacturers test the durability of boots and civilian shoes, many made of synthetics being developed as leather grew scarce. Conservative estimates suggest that 15-20 of the involuntary "test subjects" died daily.
The exhibition leaves little doubt that National Socialism was a totalitarian regime that, in the words of a curator, "governed all the way into the sewing box." Yet it's hard to walk through without recalling that today personal "choice" is still a challenge, and that all too often glamour still owes a debt to horror. Media images dictating what we should put on our bodies (and how our bodies should look) are scarcely less powerful for not being government-sponsored. And those distant sweatshops making designer-everything affordable — are they modern variations on the shoe testing track?
When on Aug. 30, 1945, the Allied Forces banned all markers of Nazi party affiliation, they ended one regime but could not end all those things that we mean by fashion "dictatorship." Nor did the articles they banned disappear, but turned up re-fashioned, "de-Nazified." Swastika-shaped belt buckles had fake jewels pasted over them, Nazi flags mutated into aprons, and uniform jackets became scratchy, heavy children's coats that kids hated to wear. Decades later, of course, the very Nazi look that had been outlawed made a comeback in pornography and the skinhead getup — not in spite, but because it was a no-no.
Though a failure in every way, Nazism was brilliant in putting style before substance, in letting everybody be part of a big glitzy show. Maybe that's why it's never entirely gone out of fashion.