Irene Guenther. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Already in the decade preceding the Third Reich, female fashion had become a locus of contentious debate in Germany. In reaction to the “Garçonne” style that had become popular in the post-World War I years, conservative critics railed against “de-generate” cosmetics and clothing, which they described as “jewified,” “masculinized,” “French-dominated,” and “poisonous.” They also castigated the trend mongers who pushed such tasteless, unbecoming fashions onto unsuspecting female consumers. Short hair, shorter hemlines, pants, and visible makeup—all of these were purportedly causing the moral degradation of German women.
Vituperative commentaries claimed that French fashions were unhealthy for German women, both morally and physically, and that it was imperative for German designers to establish complete independence from the nefarious French influence on female fashion. Also denounced was the dangerous American vamp or Hollywood image that young German women were foolishly imitating with penciled eyebrows, darkly lined eyes, painted red mouths, and provocative clothing. Additionally, by the mid-1920s, Berlin had become an acclaimed world center of fashion, especially for ready-to-wear women’s apparel and outer-wear. Highly exaggerating the percentage of Jews in the German fashion industry, diatribes in pro-Nazi publications polemicized against the “crushing” Jewish presence, which was blamed for both ruining economic opportunities for the Aryan middle class and conspiring to destroy feminine dignity by producing immoral, whorish fashions for German women. This downward spiral in female appearance, critics asserted, could be halted only with the creation of a “unique German fashion.” That term, however, was never fully defined.
Fashion Ideology and Policy
Such reactionary, anti-Semitic, and rabidly nationalistic messages were repeated on countless occasions throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, so that by the time the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 the argument was clear. Only German clothing, specifically Aryan-designed and manufactured, was good enough for females in the Third Reich. Racially appropriate clothing depended upon the elimination of French and, especially, Jewish influences from the German fashion industry.
To that end, an Aryanization organization named the Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutsch-arischer Fabrikanten der Bekleidungsindustrie (or Adefa), was established in May 1933 by several longtime German clothing manufacturers and producers. The group’s aim was to systematically purge the Jews from all areas of the fashion industry. Through a combination of massive pressure, boycotts, economic sanctions, illegal buy-outs, forced liquidations, and the systematic exclusion and persecution of countless Jews, Adefa succeeded by January 1939 in ousting all Jews from the German fashion world. The Deutsches Mode-Institut (German Fashion Institute) was also founded in 1933, with strong backing from the Ministry of Propaganda and several other governmental agencies. Its mission was to attain fashion independence from French influence, to unify the various facets of fashion creation and fashion production in the German clothing industry, and to create a “unique German fashion” that would garner the Third Reich international acclaim and monetary rewards via its designs. Beset with internal conflicts throughout its existence and given little actual power, the German Fashion Institute never succeeded in fulfilling any of its goals.
Additionally, the Nazi state attempted to construct a female appearance that would mirror official ideology, uphold the government’s autarkic economic policies, and create feelings of national belonging. This proposed female image would need to correlate to the Nazis’ gender ideology, which urged women to return to their authentic role of wife and mother. Women’s natural maternal instincts would thereby be satisfied, while also allowing them to fulfill the honorable duties of childbearer for the nation, significant consumer, and loyal citizen that Nazi Germany had bestowed upon them. As “mothers of the German Volk,” women were assigned to correct the nation’s sinking birthrate, guarantee the racial purity of future generations, and strengthen the economy by purchasing only German-made products. These were important tasks that required an image befitting the propaganda. For the ideal German woman, devoted to her family’s well being, beauty stemmed not from cosmetics or trendy fashions, but from an inner happiness derived from her devotion to her children, her husband, her home, and her country.
The two images most often proposed and put into visual forms of propaganda were the farmer’s wife in folk costume, usually referred to as Tracht or dirndl, and the young woman in organizational uniform. The rhetoric surrounding these two proposals advanced the “natural look” for women and condemned cosmetics and other “unhealthy vices,” such as smoking and drinking, as unfeminine and unGerman. Stress was placed on physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle, both of which would facilitate a higher birthrate. Moreover, while the folk costume looked to the past and promoted an image that illuminated the Nazis’ “blood and soil” ideology, and the female uniform spoke to the present and exemplified the idea of conformity over individuality, both images signified a rejection of international trends, again, as unGerman. Both proposals also fit the state’s anti-Semitic and anti-French agendas, as well as its “made-in-Germany” autarkic policy.
The Dirndl Fashion
The farmer’s wife, labeled “Mother Germany,” was offered as one female ideal. She was the link between the bonds of German blood and soil. Her natural looks, unsullied by cosmetics, her physical strength and moral fortitude, her willingness to bear hard work and to bear many children, and her traditional dress that recalled a mythical, untarnished German past, were deified through countless exhibits, paintings, and essays. In propaganda photos, rural women usually were shown with their hair braided or pinned up in a bun, no cosmetics, surrounded by children, and beaming with an inner glow that gave no hint of the difficult work that filled their days. And what was the ideal farmer’s wife wearing? According to Nazi propaganda, she should dress herself in Trachtenkleidung, a folk costume that reflected Germany’s rich cultural heritage. Promoted as an expression of the true German-Aryan character, the age-old Trachtendirndl—generally comprising a dress with tight bodice and full, long skirt, a white blouse with puffed and gathered sleeves, a heavily embroidered or crocheted collar, an embellished apron, and a variety of head pieces or hats—was viewed as the most suitable example of racially pure clothing and held up as a significant symbolic metaphor for pride in the German homeland.
To promote the resurrection of the folk costume, state-sponsored Tracht gatherings and folk festivals cropped up everywhere, even occasionally in metropolitan areas. Girls and women were told to proudly wear dirndls for Nazi Party-sponsored occasions and historic celebrations. And, farm women were encouraged to rediscover the many attributes of Tracht. They were also urged to sew their dirndls from fabric they had woven themselves, while caring for their flock of children and helping with the harvest. The problem was that most of them had ceased wearing anything resembling Tracht on a regular basis by this time, due to its impracticality and the difficult economic straits in which so many rural families found themselves. Farm women had long ago turned to dark fabrics that showed little dirt, looser clothes that allowed for greater movement, and sleeves that did not encumber them at their work. Except for the rare special occasion or celebration, rural women had not regularly worn the traditional dirndl for decades. Also problematic, the Nazis’ extensive Tracht propaganda did not succeed in convincing urban women to embrace the folk costume. While dressing in dirndls for certain events was considered fun, the majority of women living in large cities, such as Hamburg and Berlin, continued clothing themselves according to the latest international styles shown in German magazines, despite arduous efforts by some Nazis to convince them to dress otherwise.
The Female in Uniform
As an urban alternative to the farmer’s wife in Tracht, the Nazis offered another female ideal: that of the young German woman in uniform, a reflection of the Party’s attraction to organization and militarization. Much like Trachtenkleidung, the uniform offered yet another visible sign of inclusion into the Nazi-constructed German racial community. It also represented order and accommodation, as well as a rejection of international trends and individuality.
As organizations quickly proliferated in the Third Reich, so did female uniforms. Whether for girls, young women, female youths in the labor service, or female auxiliary units, once World War II began, each group had a distinct uniform or, minimally, different insignia, badges, and armbands that specified rank or branch of service. Hair was to be kept neat and away from the face, preferably in braids for young girls and a bun for adult females. Cosmetics were shunned as unnatural and unnecessary for these young women who glowed from health and love of country. Physical fitness, self-sacrifice, obedience, and loyalty to the Nazi regime and its tenets were the most important components of all organizations, whose over-riding purpose was to groom a generation of racially pure, healthy, ideologically sound females to become future “mothers of the Volk.” No individual touches, no embellishments, nothing was allowed that might detract from the symbolic significance of the requisite clothing. The uniform sartorially expressed the Third Reich’s demand for unity, uniformity, conformity, and community.
Clothing females in organizational uniforms, while fairly popular when the nation was at peace, became a political problem for the government once the conflict broadened throughout Europe and additional women were needed as war-essential auxiliaries. Uniforming increasing numbers of females and placing them in positions that had been designated as “male only,” obviously upended the Nazi Party’s “separate spheres” propaganda and its gender-specific work policies of the prewar years. The state’s other concern was that extensive female uniforming would make clearly visible to the home population that the war was not going well. Furthermore, as the conflict continued and drastic textile shortages developed, some auxiliaries, who were only issued armbands indicating service affiliation in order to save material, openly complained and privately resented that they could not wear the full uniform others wore. Female auxiliaries stationed inside as well as outside of the Reich wanted, at the least, to look official as they risked their lives for the nation.
Popular Female Fashions
The image most widely embraced by German women not only competed with these two state-sanctioned offerings, but also often glaringly conflicted with either the Party’s rhetoric or its policies. While “the natural look” was the beauty slogan pushed by Nazi stalwarts, and a “unique German fashion” was relentlessly advocated, neither was enthusiastically adopted by most women in the Third Reich. Instead, they bought the latest cosmetics, tried the newest hairstyles, and wore variations of the same fashions being worn by women in France, England, and America.
Reflecting the interests of their readership, popular magazines published articles that illustrated makeup techniques, advertised face creams, tanning lotions, and hair dyes, and offered tips on replicating the looks of Hollywood stars, such as Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Katharine Hepburn. Photos in fashion journals depicted the newest styles by Parisian and American couturiers next to elegantly fashionable creations by Berlin’s best designers. Well-known German fashion schools, such as the Deutsches Meisterschule für Mode in Munich and the Frankfurter Modeamt in Frankfurt, eschewed the dirndl image in favor of international influences and female consumer desires, much to the dismay of Nazi hard-liners. And for those women who did not have the means to purchase their clothing from dress salons or department stores, sewing patterns, with which to recreate popular fashions, were widely available and affordable.
Wartime Fashions and Rationing
On 14 November 1939, two months after the onset of World War II, the government issued the first Reichskleiderkarte (or Reich Clothing Card). This rationing system was designed to ensure an equitable means by which to supply the civilian population with sufficient shoes, clothing, and textiles during the war. German Jews, deemed unworthy of receiving even minimal support, received no clothing coupons beginning in 1940. The clothing card was based on a point system, from which a recipient could not use more than 25 points in the time span of two months. Numerous other restrictions also applied. Hats were “points-free,” which meant they could be acquired without ration vouchers or clothing cards and so would become the major fashion item of the war years. Once hat supplies were depleted, and thus unobtainable for purchase, women created their own turbans and hats from fabric remnants, lace scraps, netting, and felt pieces.
The first clothing card, good for one year, allotted 100 points, but severe shortages rapidly developed in several areas, particularly shoes and cloth. Because textile and leather production increasingly was geared toward the needs of the German army, many stores were soon emptied of their reserves. Consequently, material remnants replaced leather shoe uppers, and soles were often made from cork or wood. Additionally, the government quickly discovered that its autarkic economic policy had, in part, resulted in an unsuccessful scramble for a wide variety of viable synthetics that were urgently needed to keep Germans, military and civilian, clothed. Many of the textile and leather substitutes were of poor quality and disintegrated when washed or ironed.
The second clothing card, issued in the late fall of 1940, was worth 150 points, but the additional 50 points had no real value since, by then, extreme clothing and footwear shortages had developed in several major German cities. Widely circulated government brochures urged women to “make new from old,” but a dearth of available sewing goods, such as thread and yarn, contradicted the state’s catchy mottos. Despite admonishments by those who viewed pants as unfeminine and unacceptable female attire, women increasingly wore trousers as the war dragged on and shortages continued to mount. Pants were warmer than skirts, especially once supplies of stockings and socks had been exhausted. They were far more practical for women to wear as work attire in war-related factories. And, often, they were the only clothes item in the household still in plentiful supply, with so many absent husbands and brothers serving in the armed forces.
By 1943, drastic garment and shoe shortages rendered the clothing card virtually useless in some areas of Germany. In response, civilians turned ever more frequently to the burgeoning black market, even though this was a highly punishable offense. The inability of the regime to provide adequate clothing provisions throughout the war years was met with growing resentment and overtly expressed discontent, which belied the Nazis’ depiction of a harmonious, supportive national community.
During the Third Reich, female fashion became a topic of much discussion and dispute. Instead of a unified view of what “German fashion” meant and a singular, consistently touted public image of the female, incongruities abounded. Additionally, no cohesive national fashion program was ever implemented successfully, despite tireless attempts by some officials. Women’s fashion, which the Nazis had hoped would be a sartorial sign of inclusion into the national community, the Volksgemeinschaft, instead became a signifier of disjunction. Female appearance could and did circumvent Nazi ideological tenets and state regulations, sometimes flagrantly. Concurrently, ambiguous directives laid bare the government’s obvious fear of losing both women’s support on the home front and a lucrative fashion market abroad. In the end, fashion proved to be an unsuccessful tool in defining German womanhood and citizenship, partially through the dictates of clothing and appearance. This failure exposed the limits of state power in a highly visible manner. What was propagandized in the sphere of women’s fashion had only a slight correlation to reality in Nazi Germany.