Leg-and-Skirt Management

Anne Hollander

  • Nazi Chic? Fashioning Women in the Third Reich by Irene Guenther
    Berg, 499 pp, £17.99, April 2004, ISBN 1 85973 717 X
  • Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt by Eugenia Paulicelli
    Berg, 227 pp, £15.99, February 2004, ISBN 1 85973 778 1

Fashion was always famous for its power, but only quite recently have people believed it has meaning. From time to time during the last two hundred years, writers have uneasily asserted that everything important about individuals, even about whole civilisations, could be learned from what people wore; but by the end of the 20th century, the meaning of clothing had become a respectable subject in its own right. During those same two centuries, women’s apparel became ever more conspicuous and volatile, acquiring exclusive claim to the term ‘fashion’. Male dress, on the other hand, became more and more inconspicuous; its changes looked more like the small shifts in tribal custom, while fashion became more unrespectable and frivolous.

Books such as Irene Guenther’s and Eugenia Paulicelli’s, connecting a cultural triumph of the 19th century with a political scourge of the 20th, can expect serious readers; but even so, their opening sections show that both writers still feel they must justify taking fashion seriously. They look at the ways both the Third Reich and Mussolini’s regime attempted to put a nationalist stamp on women’s fashion, each wishing to burnish its own image by controlling the power of female appearance. In both cases, fashion was only an issue because France had kept absolute power over fashionable women’s appearance since the time of Louis XIV. In Italy and Germany, no less than in Britain and America, Sweden and Spain, it was assumed that elegant women would dress in Paris, while less elegant but fashion-conscious women would wear domestic adaptations of Paris trends. It was not considered possible to sustain a superior feminine appearance – meaning an effortless-seeming physical perfection, combining natural endowments with current clothes and grooming – without ultimately owing it to Paris.

In Nazi Chic? Guenther shows how this historical assumption had already prompted a rash of satiric French cartoons during World War One, featuring dumpy, dowdy, or grotesquely rakish German women contrasted to sleek and chic French ones. At the same time, German press and propaganda were insisting that the French modes routinely adopted in Germany were not only debased and ridiculous, but whorish, degenerate and corrosive of German female morals. It was treasonous to look attractive in enemy-inspired garb; right-thinking German women should wear decent clothes suitable for doing proper work in service of the fatherland. Writers and journalists also suggested that German fashion should not only become independent of Paris, but surpass it when the war was over, going on to gain world fashion dominance with its noble, self-respecting styles. Never a word appeared about what the clothes should look like; no analysis was made of which shapes, colours and textures or ways of composing and wearing them might make German frocks eclipse Paris frocks in the postwar world.

Guenther points out that a large and immensely profitable garment business had long since developed in Berlin, selling expertly made ready-to-wear clothing and accessories for both sexes all over Europe, but specialising in made-to-measure tailoring. There was also a flourishing fashion business, with salons de couture and luxurious shops offering high-level ready-to-wear fashion and accessories, along with numerous fashion magazines. Before World War One, German industrial strength and technological skill were already superior to French, and German-made clothing was already being exported to France, often unrecognised as German by its French consumers, or even by German consumers shopping in Paris.

Patriotic enthusiasts could easily believe that consolidated effort alone was needed to create a home product distinctive enough to give Paris pause after the war. To that end, organisations were founded during the conflict to unite the disparate elements of the big German fashion business, to give it what was hoped would become a conquering force. There was still no clear idea about how the clothes should look, though some groups believed that art academies should offer training in fashion design.

By 1915, German feeling was running higher about female fashion than might easily be credited. Rapid industrialisation and its dislocations had produced a deeper fear of encroaching modernity in Germany than in slower-developing countries – a fear that was easy to focus on the way women’s looks had changed between 1907 and 1913. In Germany, this transformation was blamed on fashion’s Frenchness, even though the same changes took place everywhere fashion held sway. Guenther seems to suggest that the Franco-Prussian war had given early-20th-century Germans the feeling that Paris was now out to seduce their women in revenge for their defeat; that uncorseted, clinging, ankle-exposing French dresses were specifically designed to undermine German morals.

In fact, international fashion was modernising women faster than wars or organisations could do. During the ten years before World War One, the modish female body changed its shape, line, posture and surface from top to toe, becoming sleek, linear, self-contained and bipedal. Later, during the 1920s, women’s fashion everywhere came to consist of flexible fabric envelopes that moved in harmony with the body, without distorting its shape or extending its scope, and without sacrificing soft texture or bright colour. The effect was to make the look of dressed women correspond to the look of dressed men instead of contrasting with it, so that the modern male could see the modern female as a creature of similar human shape, with operative legs and feet and an unencumbered head. Even without trousers or strict tailoring, this was generally viewed with alarm as ‘masculinisation’, smelling strongly as it did of sexual equality. Paris was certainly leading this movement, but Weimar Germany (where women voted, as they didn’t yet in France) produced excellent versions, and promoted them in fine fashion illustration.

Guenther acknowledges the success of Nazi male chic – those ravishing, stiff black SS uniforms so romanticised in movies – but only to exclude men’s fashion from her account. She instead makes clear why there could be no Nazi chic for women. Since the 18th century, Jews had created and purveyed virtually all German elegance; and under Hitler, a carefully fostered fear of contamination by Jews easily swamped mere disapproval of French couture. Paris designers weren’t stunting the growth of German fashion, the Jews were: they were at fault, if only for making money out of whorish French fashion. By 1938, all Jewish businesses that served the garment trade – with textiles, trimmings and fastenings, with thread and seam-binding, padding and boning, buckram and interfacing, with custom tailoring and couture dress-design, with ready-to-wear tailoring and dressmaking, with machine-sewing and hand-finishing, with distribution and merchandising at every level, from designer salons and great department stores to little boutiques – had been wholly Aryanised or wiped out.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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