The Nazi Aesthetic in Fashion - Pt1

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The Nazi Aesthetic in Fashion
Author: Laura Klosterman Kidd

SS uniforms were worn as fetish costumes in the erotic underground of 1930s Berlin. The use of Nazi aesthetics in fetish costumes of the 1930s does not appear to have been linked to a belief in fascist ideology by most fetishists; instead, the SS uniform became an eroticized symbol against Nazi totalitarian power. The use of Nazi uniforms and accessories remains a consistent prop in fetish genres, such as variants of sadomasochism and homoeroticism, and continues to be a significant niche market available in specialty boutiques as well as through Internet sales.

The Nazi aesthetic appeared in fashion in the late 1960s and the 1970s, in the punk rock subculture of Great Britain. Punk fashion thrived on controversy, and some punk fashions included clothing, jewelry, and armbands embellished with Nazi symbols, especially the swastika, the most powerful motif in the Nazi aesthetic. The use of the Nazi aesthetic in punk clothing started a street style and was later incorporated into retail punk clothing by fashion designers including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Clothing with the Nazi aesthetic was not worn by punk rockers to communicate fascist ideology, but as an outward symbol of their rejection of British postwar society and culture, and their dissatisfaction at the political and economic climates, as remembered by Vivienne Westwood in a 2009 interview in Time magazine: “We were just saying to the older generation, ‘We don’t accept your values or your taboos, and you’re all fascists.’ ”

Nazi symbols and imagery were also used by the racist skinhead culture of the 1970s and 1980s. To distinguish themselves from traditional skinheads who did not espouse racist beliefs, white power skinheads incorporated the Nazi aesthetic, especially symbols and imagery, into skinhead fashion to specifically communicate their white supremacist ideology. As the white nationalist movement grew, skinhead fashion became associated with racism and violence. Although some aspects of skinhead fashion filtered into mainstream fashion (for example, shaved heads, all-black clothing, and Dr. Martens boots), the use of overt Nazi imagery and symbols, such as the swastika, did not infiltrate mainstream fashion in the 1980s. The Nazi aesthetic was generally rejected by fashion designers and fashion consumers, considered to be part of the stereotypical white power neo-Nazi subculture.

During the Paris fall/winter collections of 1995–1996, fashion journalists and members of the Jewish community were becoming sensitive to what they perceived as an increasing use of Nazi imagery in fashion collections. In January 1995, the secretary-general for Europe of the World Jewish Congress expressed his concern over a women’s collection presented by Jean-Louis Scherrer, which featured garments and hats trimmed with iron crosses and other insignia that were similar to those used on military uniforms worn in Germany in the 1930s. A week later, fashion journalist Suzy Menkes reported on the condemnation by the World Jewish Congress of the men’s loungewear collection designed by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. Titled “Sleep,” the collection presented striped pajamas and dressing gowns worn by male models, many with shaved heads, and also numbers stenciled on various garments. Coincidentally, the collection was presented on the day of the 50th anniversary commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz. The designers and many observers disagreed with critics who denounced the collections as offensive and fascist, and there was no indication that Kawakubo and Scherrer believed in fascist ideology. However, many fashion journalists and others in the Jewish community expressed concern about the “banalization” and use of images of Jewish suffering and the iconography of World War II Nazi aesthetics in fashion.

In the year 2000, Ruth La Ferla, writing for The New York Times, commented on the “style world’s growing fascination” and renewed interest in “the brute aesthetic of fascism” in architecture, fashion photography, film, and on fashion runways. La Ferla noted the Nazi aesthetic that some fashion designers adopted for shop decor, catalog layouts, model selection, and collections, notably the aesthetics of force, domination, grandiosity, body obsessiveness in the heroic style, and sexual classicism. Fashion journalists continued to perceive some collections’ presentations as too close to the Nazi aesthetic; one example was the fall/winter women’s collection of 2000–2001 from Belgian designer Martin Margiela. Margiela showed his collection in the French National Railway Depot in Paris, with a set reminiscent of the railroad stations where Jewish victims waited for deportation to Nazi death camps. Suzy Menkes, writing for Women’s Wear Daily, stated that “Only the historically impaired would not have had at least a fleeting thought of Sophie’s Choice.Another example occurred in July 2001, when Italian designer Francesco Barbaro presented his collection in Rome using the swastika as the theme for his collection. The public affairs director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned Barbaro’s collection, saying: “The use of the swastika is not only tasteless and offensive but it may also encourage racist and anti-Semitic behaviour by neo-Nazi groups.”


World War II recruiting poster for the Waffen SS (ca. 1939), which is often used as a graphic image on white power clothing. Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
Fashion writers and observers continued to observe the use of the Nazi aesthetic in fashion throughout the first decades of the 2000s. In 2006, London designers Rocky and Louise Mazzilli of Voyage and Alexander McQueen presented collections that used swastikas and Nazi symbols as design motifs. Neither collection was particularly well received; Susie Lau, creator of the blog Style Bubble wrote: “I have no problem with fashion poking fun, making political and social commentary but there are some things that should be left alone and this is one of them.” Belgian designer Raf Simons presented a fall/winter menswear collection of 2007–2008 that was labeled “Nazi Couture” by Brandon Baunach in the blog Design Crack. Simons’s collection did not include any Nazi motifs, but did use the color black to such an extent that Angela Neustatter, writing for the New Statesmen blog, observed: “There is still untapped mileage in the Goering look.”

German and Russian military uniforms of the 1940s were the inspiration for the collection presented by Seth Aaron Henderson, the winner of the seventh season of Project Runway in 2010. His reference to using German military uniforms as his collection inspiration was linked to Nazism by many viewers who wrote comments on April Peveteaux’s blog on The Stir, even though there were no overtly Nazi-themed garments in the collection. Some collections for 2011 were also cited as using the Nazi aesthetic. Emporio Armani’s men’s spring/summer collection of 2011 was called “the most overt Nazi fashion show ever shown on the runway” by Joel Nikolaou of The Examiner; the garments were styled after Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the Nazi Gestapo. A theatrical use of Nazi aesthetics was a women’s collection presented by French designer Charlie Le Mindu during the fall/winter London fashion week of 2011–2012, inspired by the Nazi sexploitation film Salon Kitty. Described as “Neo-Nazi, Lady-like Chic” by Rivkie Baum for Fashion Capital, this collection featured nude and blood-covered models, headpieces rich in Nazi symbolism, swastikas painted on the backs of models, and was accompanied by the sound track of the screams of pigs being slaughtered. Shortly after this collection was shown, designer John Galliano was arrested and charged for anti-Semitic rants that cost him his position at Dior. Phillipa Snow, writing for The Tourist Magazine, observed that perhaps the Le Mindu show and the Galliano episode may have “pricked” the conscience of the fashion industry concerning the use of Nazi imagery as fashion inspiration.

In the United States and Europe in 2011, the “Hitler Youth” hairstyle became popular in New York’s West Village and among European fashion designers and broadcasting personalities. Scott Shuman, photographer and author of the blog the Sartorialist, has worn the “Hitler Youth” hairstyle unaware of any association to Adolf Hitler. Schuman believes that the popularity of this hairstyle “goes along with a newly restored romance for tailoring, the cut and craftsmanship you see with this current heritage trend,” suggesting that this style is merely a nostalgic look from the past, following the trend in menswear to 1930s classic cut and tailoring. Annika von Taube, the editor in chief of the German art and fashion magazine Sleek, further asserts that “no one” in Berlin associates the haircut with fascism, and is, perhaps, an example of “selective perception.”

Nazi imagery has also been used by fashion retailers in Europe. In May 2010, the New Form boutique in Palermo, Sicily, used an image of Hitler in an ad campaign, targeting the teen- and twenty-something market. Eighteen-foot posters of a pink-suited Hitler in purple eye shadow, captioned “Cambria [Change] Style: Don’t Follow Your Leader,” invited customers “to create their own style and not to be influenced by their peers.” The ad campaign disturbed Palermo city leaders, but the posters were left up for the duration of the ad campaign.

transformed as graphic T-shirt designs of Ronald McDonald, a pink Teletubby with a pink swastika for an antenna, and a panda bear. Nazi-themed clothing has also been used as staff uniforms for a South Korean bar/restaurant and an Indonesian coffee bar/bakery.


Creation by fashion designer Charlie Le Mindu during his fall/winter collection of 2011 show, on the third day of London Fashion Week, 20 February 2011. The collection was described as “Neo-Nazi, Lady-like Chic” by Rivkie Baum for Fashion Capital (available online:www.fashioncapital.co.uk/News/23546--Charlie-le-Mindu-Feb-2011.html). © Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images.
Asian department store retailers have also used Nazi imagery as visual merchandising. In 2003, Hong Kong department store Izzue used the Nazi aesthetic as part of a merchandising campaign. The visual merchandising of the store featured the Reich tricolors (red, white, and black) on banners with the Reichsadler eagle design and iron crosses; large metal canisters with swastikas painted on them were used as table displays.

In Ahmedabad, India, the Hitler men’s clothing store opened in 2012. The storefront, business cards, and store bags bore the Hitler name with a swastika dotting the “i” in Hitler. Complaints from the small local Jewish community were ignored, but, after discussions with the Israeli Embassy, the store owners did change the store name, claiming ignorance of the Hitler legacy.

The use of Nazi imagery in Asian fashion design and merchandising is disturbing to many European and American tourists. These tourists acknowledge that Nazi chic in Asia may not represent support for fascist ideology and may be a result of the lack of education in many Asian countries on the legacy of Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, and World War II in Europe. In 2000, Donald Macintyre, writing for Time Asia, reported on what he perceived as the “troubling fascination with Third Reich Regalia” as considered “chic” in South Korea; Macintyre’s observations were echoed by Simon Masnick, writing for the China business newspaper The Standard in 2005. Igor Bukker for Pravda.Ru expressed concern about the “cult of Hitler” in Asia, and what may be perceived as misplaced admiration for the aesthetic style of the Third Reich.

Ben Sherman, Fred Perry, Lonsdale, and Pit Bull) and used them as white power insider brands—to communicate ideology and identify other white nationalists. Politicized by extremist racist skinheads, these brands were often unfairly and incorrectly stereotyped by the public and in the media as neo-Nazi or fascist brands. Many of the brands, most notably Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, and Lonsdale, have launched vigorous and ongoing campaigns and strategies in an attempt to recapture the pre-political, non-racist origins and intent of their images. Many of the labels are consciously taking steps to promote multiculturalism, including strategies such as increasing the number of ethnic models in their ads, using popular public figures to promote their brand image, increasing prices, and introducing new styles and colors that are not popular with racist skinheads. However, it has often proved difficult for companies to distance themselves from their perceived right-wing associations; in Germany in 2009, the Berlin police department banned police officers from wearing ten clothing brands while on duty because of the brands’ perceived associations with right-wing extremist groups in Germany.

Alpha Industries (AI), a Tennessee company founded in 1959, originally supplied military clothing. When AI became a commercial brand, their “MA-1” bomber jacket, already popular as traditional skinhead fashion, became a style worn by many white power skinheads because of the similarities between the logos of Alpha Industries and the Sturmabteilung or SA, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. The Ben Sherman clothing brand, considered by many to be one of the most iconic British brands of the mod and traditional skinhead subcultures, was also popular with racist skinheads—especially clothing with a logo of the Royal Air Force roundel, known as the “mod target”. Fred Perry tennis shirts became popular with traditional skinheads in the 1960s and 1970s when the company expanded its color palette; because the collar and sleeve trims on white tennis shirts were often in black, red, and white, racist skinheads wore the shirts because, to them, the color symbolism was tied to the predominant colors used by the Third Reich. White power skinheads co-opted the Fred Perry logo, the laurel wreath of victory, because the Third Reich also used this imagery. In the 1980s, white power skinheads strengthened the identification of the Fred Perry brand with the white nationalist movement by embroidering alphanumeric codes as design motifs on the Fred Perry tennis shirts they purchased from retail outlets. Numbers assigned to alphabet letters were placed in combinations to represent racist catchphrases. For example, the number “8” stood for the eighth letter of the alphabet, “H”—therefore “88” was “Heil Hitler,” and the “88” motif was a popular addition to the center of the Fred Perry wreath logo, indicating neo-Nazi affiliation.

The long-established British boxing clothing company Lonsdale also became a brand beloved of white nationalists, who would wear a jacket over a shirt with the LONSDALE logo, and open the jacket to reveal only the letters NSDA, the partial acronym of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterparti (National Socialist German Party or NSDAP), more commonly known as the Nazi party. In particular, the Lonsdale brand became associated with white racists and youth violence in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany in the early 2000s, prompting the company to start a publicity campaign called “Lonsdale loves all colours” and sponsoring antiracist events. The Pit Bull brand was popular with rockers and soccer hooligans, groups that are often associated with violence and aggressiveness. When racist skinheads adopted Pit Bull clothing, the brand became linked to the white power movement. In addition to launching vigorous antifascist marketing campaigns, many of these companies have ceased stocking stores with clothing items popular with right-wing extremists; they have also stopped manufacturing less expensive clothing ranges and increased prices on many items preferred by their far-right customers. This has resulted in a drop in the popularity of newer styles among white nationalists; however, sales of older styles as vintage racist fashions remain strong on Internet sites.

In the 2000s, the brand Helly Hansen became a favorite of white nationalists. This long-established Norwegian company manufactures high-performance outerwear for rigorous outdoor sports and survival clothing used in oil exploration, forestry, and maritime industries. In the late 1990s, Helly Hansen started a line of high-quality commercial streetwear, which became popular with urban youth in the north of England; the brand is also popular in gay communities. White nationalists like Helly Hansen clothing because of its style and quality, and also because the brand logo of “HH” can be interpreted as “Heil Hitler,” the Nazi salute.

The marketing and sales of white power clothing and the expansion of white power organizations have grown dramatically since the 1990s. The growth in both sectors can be directly linked to the Internet, as white nationalists from all over the world can freely acquire white power clothing, music, and other merchandise while remaining anonymous. White power clothing is still banned in many countries, but Internet sales have allowed white power clothing designers and manufacturers the freedom to develop new designs and distribute them freely with little fear of repercussions.

One of the first white power clothing labels was the Consdaple brand, started in Germany by Franz Glasauer, a member of the right-wing Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NDP). Glasauer created the line as a reaction against the introduction of a multicultural advertising campaign by Lonsdale launched to discourage the use of its brand by white nationalists. Like Lonsdale clothing, clothing with the Consdaple logo was also worn under a jacket strategically unzipped to reveal the letters “NSDAP.” The Consdaple logo also includes the Reichsadler eagle symbol of the Nazi party. The sale of Consdaple merchandise is illegal in many regions of Germany and Europe, and most sales occur via the Internet.
 
Good Lord! I have a Helly Hansen rain jacket I bought many years ago and still wear on occasion. Until this moment it had never occurred to me that it would evoke any connection with the cruel Nazis or, worse yet, the gay set!
 

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