Nazi Chic?: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich
By Irene Guenther
Berg Publishers, 320 pages, $28.95.
* * *
Was there an aspect of culture in which the Nazis did not take a fanatical interest? From numerous books and articles and films on the subject, we have become familiar with images of Nazis storming museums and galleries to confiscate art they deemed “degenerate,” building pyres of books they found distasteful and suppressing all films that weren’t propaganda for the state. But surprisingly, Nazi leaders also sat around debating the finer points of German fashion. According to a new book by historian Irene Guenther, “Nazi Chic?: Fashioning Women in the Third Reich,” the Nazis were avidly involved — for reasons ideological, aesthetic, economic and nationalistic — in the administration of the German fashion industry.
In her well-written, engrossing and exhaustive (if at times exhausting) study, Guenther furnishes ample evidence of the Nazis’ peculiar preoccupation with fashion. She examines Nazi policies on women’s fashion with an eye toward illuminating conflicts within the National Socialist state: its fraught relationship with its female citizenry, its ideological contradictions and the limitations of its power. While these conclusions are hardly revelatory, the particulars of Guenther’s research are. Joseph Goebbels meddled with the production of runway shows, insisting that organizers supplant French fashions with German styles. Articles in S.S. newspapers inveighed against “artificial beauty,” warning of the dangers of lipstick and false eyelashes. Well into the war, in 1941, Goebbels made a point of addressing an audience of fashion editors, warning that he would “take steps against the fashion world” if they did not cease “plugging clothes that need a lot of material.” Yet in 1944, Nazi officials approved “fashion makeovers” totaling 30,000 marks for a thousand female Nazi leaders traveling abroad.
Why would the Nazis concern themselves with fashion? The most obvious and disturbing answer is that Jews had achieved visible success in the German fashion industry: as editors of popular women’s magazines; as owners of prominent department stores; as captains of the German ready-to-wear, or Konfektion, sector. This made the fashion world a target of the Nazis’ virulent antisemitism. Publishing companies and fashion schools were purged of their Jewish board members, employees and students. Shopkeepers were forced to hang in their windows signs stating they sold only “Products Made by Aryan Hands.” Jewish-owned businesses were either liquidated or aryanized, taken from their Jewish owners and given to those of Aryan descent, often forcibly and without monetary compensation. By 1939, Nazi organizers within the fashion industry declared they had achieved their hateful goal of creating a “new, purely German Konfektion.”
The role of women in German society also figured heavily in National Socialist ideology, so it is hardly surprising that the Nazis gave a great deal of thought to how the new Aryan German woman would be fashioned, to use Guenther’s preferred term. (The repeated use of “fashion” as a verb, meaning “to shape or form or clothe oneself,” is the only cutesy gender-studies sin Guenther commits in this remarkably jargon-free book.) Women would rehabilitate the Volk, or German national community, by strengthening the domestic economy and halting the declining birthrate. This a woman could accomplish by being a patriotic consumer — which basically meant shunning the fashions and cosmetics of France, Germany’s longtime rival in the fashion industry — and a prolific mother, which meant giving birth to as many racially “pure” children as possible. But this doctrine, widely disseminated in print propaganda and speeches, needed a visual correlative to make it concrete.
The two dominant images proposed by Nazi hardliners have since become familiar cultural stereotypes: the rural farmer’s zaftig wife dressed in her dirndl, or traditional folk costume, and the severe-looking National Socialist woman in her neat, crisp uniform. The dirndl, a long dress with a tight bodice, puffed sleeves and an embroidered apron, was thought to recall a “mythical, untarnished German past.” It was also considered “a healthy form of clothing” because its full skirt obscured large childbearing hips. (Nazi propaganda railed against slim-fitting Parisian fashions, claiming they had caused the declining German birthrate by making women loath to get pregnant and thus ruin their figures.) Uniforms, on the other hand, would serve as an easy visual shorthand for inclusion in the German Volk; they would also obscure individual and class differences. Both versions of ideal womanhood, Guenther writes, required that women scrub their faces clean of “poisonous” and “foreign” cosmetics. Both mandated a physical, alfresco lifestyle as a means to promote health and fertility. And both were a nationalistic rejection of international
fashion trends that the Nazis felt were “un-German.”
Yet the majority of women in the Third Reich, particularly urban women, rejected these Nazi-prescribed styles in favor of the international looks they saw in fashion magazines and Hollywood films and on the backs of the German social elite, including the wives of S.S. officers. Guenther repeatedly suggests that the Nazis failed to persuade the female populace “to adopt a proposed refashioning” because party leaders held “conflicting definitions of ‘German fashion.’” This is a strange assertion; it assumes, as the Nazis themselves did, that a single, static vision would have been possible and enforceable. More plausibly, Guenther argues that the Nazi regime fostered the recalcitrance of its female citizens by allowing “free spaces” to flourish within the state. For example, Goebbels reversed his 1943 ban on hair permanents after only three months, stating, “[A]s soon as you dare touch [women’s] beauty products, you are their enemies.” (One can only imagine the quarrel at the Goebbels home that led to that public statement.) And he allowed upscale fashion magazines to publish photos of silk lingerie and to run ads for cosmetics, despite the official campaign against these items. The leniency was motivated partly by economics — foreign orders for German fashions meant currency for war materials — and partly by a desire to keep up appearances, to create the illusion that these luxury items still were available to the average woman. They weren’t, of course. The average woman had been enduring severe shortages since the first winter of the war.
Whatever the hardships of women on the home front, their plight obviously does not compare with the indignities and horrors suffered by Germany’s Jews. Guenther is certainly sensitive to this, but when she turns her critical intelligence to the ghettos and concentrations camps, “fashioning” them into her argument, her study breaks down. The subject matter is too delicate to bear the weight of her academic enthusiasm. “Utilizing clothing as [her] lens,” she writes that one prisoner’s shoes consisted of “wood slabs with leather straps across the top,” that another was given underwear “made from a Jewish prayer shawl” and that women, liberated from the camps, “fashioned their first postwar dress or skirt” from tablecloths they found at S.S. headquarters. Needless to say, such examples feel entirely beside the point. The book would have been better served by a few sentences acknowledging the insignificance of her topic in the face of such horror.
Any study that explores the fashions of a given era risks glamorizing the individuals who wore or promoted those fashions. Susan Sontag, writing about the sinister allure of the S.S. uniform, lamented the cultural tendency to view historical artifacts apart from their sponsoring context. This is not a problem if the subject at hand is, say, the gowns of former first ladies; it’s a different story if it is garments worn by history’s pre-eminent agents of evil. It is fascinating, if disquieting, to read that Eva Braun imported Parisian silk underwear and Ferragamo shoes by the dozen. Or that during the leanest years of the war Emmy Goring paraded publicly in “an ermine coat and diadem.” But such details need to be placed among the historical, political and cultural events that created them, which Guenther goes to great lengths to do.
Fashion, Guenther rightly contends, is not merely the pastime of rich urban dilettantes but, like art and literature and music and film, is at once a reflection of and a reaction to a society’s values and mores. By exploring this previously unstudied realm of a much-studied era, “Nazi Chic?” provides an original and absorbing glimpse into the absurdity and exactitude of the National Socialist enterprise.