The Symbolic Power of Clothing during the Holocaust

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Alexandra Thelin, Drew University
Although the Shoah is not inherently associated with fashion, upon examination, one can see how dress played an integral role in its events. This poster presentation surveys clothing on a broad level during the time of The Holocaust, from January 30, 1933 - May 8, 1945, and its influence in the time period before and after these events. The symbolic meaning of dress, through the study of semiotics, will be considered, as the clothing a person wears holds immense power.

Berlin in the 1920s was the capital of fashion, but as Jews were often responsible for the innovative designs and tailoring, this was not something the Nazis would let continue. The first obstruction in this field was ADEFA, aiming for consumers to abandon Jewish-created clothing yet support clothing that was made from exclusively Aryan textiles. Additionally, Nazis promoted two distinct looks for patriotic German females, the dirndl or a uniform.

Through these strict limitations of dress, one could put themselves in danger from the clothing they chose to wear, giving clothing a great deal of power but taking away the agency of the wearer.

One aspect to consider regarding clothing and social capital and safety is cross-dressing, or transvestitism. This term both described people who wished to cross-dress as well as those whose true sex was not their birth sex. Although this was not shunned outright, it harbored social stigma and police harassment.

Also, in the camps, clothing controlled life or death, as ‘fashionable’ meant ‘decent.’ Clothing in good condition was crucial for inmates’ survival, as dirty clothing with germs increased mortality. It quickly became a necessity for clothing to be functional, where in the past, aesthetics may have been highlighted.

Some Jews were still expected to use their expertise in the field of sewing and tailoring to produce fashionable garments for the Nazis and their wives. These skilled prisoners altered the possessions taken from the Jews as they arrived at camp and repurposed them for their captors.

Additionally, some major fashion houses ended up collaborating with the Third Reich, including Gabrielle Chanel. Chanel had a known morphine addiction and actively collaborated with the Germans. Although shunned following the war, her 1954 comeback enabled her to remain a successful designer.

As illustrated by the above examples, fashion played an important role in society during the time of The Holocaust. Garments themselves then held power, as their usage told a lot about the person wearing them. Following the ADEFA standards and choosing to wear clothing made by those who supported the Nazis sent one message, while embracing individuality and the true self through choices such as transvestitism could lead to one’s arrest. Additionally, even though Jews were removed from the fashion scene, their sewing skills and talents held power as life-saving skills. In conclusion, there was more to clothing than what is visible on the surface, and its usage held symbolic power.

See more of: Poster Session #1
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