Nazi "chic"? : Fashioning women in the Third Reich

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Guenther, Irene

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During the Third Reich, women’s clothing became a site of contentious debate. Clothing, which the Nazis hoped would serve as a visible sign of inclusion into – or exclusion from – the Volksgemeinschaft, the national community, instead became a divisive wedge between the government and the majority of German women. This dissertation explores attempts by the Nazi state to construct a female appearance that would both mirror official gender ideology and support plans for a Nazi-controlled European fashion industry. The purpose is two-fold: to understand the ideological battles concerning clothing and image fought within the Nazi political hierarchy and the public cultural sphere, and to assess the extent to which female fashioning could and did avert totalitarian regulation because of profound disjunctions between propagandistic rhetoric, economic imperatives, and political necessities. Fashion, therefore, serves as a window into a number of important issues. It illuminates the complex relationship between German women and the Nazi dictatorship, as it details transformations of female dress and image, French-German relations, antiSemitism in the fashion industry, the economic policies of autarky and aryanization, clothing problems on the home front, clothes and clothing production in the concentration camps, and the constant contradictions between ideology, governmental directives, and daily realities. In this way, the story of women’s clothing during the Nazi years can elucidate a great deal about the ambiguous nature of German fascism at the intersection of gender and culture. To provide essential background, this study begins in the rampantly nationalistic years surrounding the First World War, when the groundwork for these clothing conflicts was laid; examines the 1920s, when Berlin vied with Paris to become the cultural “hot-spot” of Europe; and then concentrates on the period in which the battles regarding women’s clothing and appearance culminated, the years of Hitler’s Third Reich. Primary sources from government ministries, fashion school archives, women’s magazines, and SS/SD public morale reports, reveal that no cohesive national fashion program was ever successfully implemented, despite tireless attempts by some officials. Obstacles included ambivalent posturing, competing factions, and conflicting laws in the less than monolithic National Socialist state. Ultimately, it was not Nazi regulations that fashioned German women. Largely, it was the destruction and shortages caused by total war, as well as the inherent intensely personal essence of fashioning, that fashioned and refashioned women in the Third Reich.




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