Dressed to kill: The age of high fascism and fashion are inextricably and insidiously linked

  • In fashion, as a general rule you don’t touch the Holocaust or Hitler if you don’t want to get panned.

  • But connections between fashion and fascism have always existed.

  • Fashion was used under fascism to push their agendas. And certain fashion brands made money — indeed built their empires — through their complicity with fascist regimes.

'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.

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Twenty years ago, the editor of British GQ magazine included the Nazis in his list of best dressed people of the 20th century. He had to leave the magazine in the wake of the controversy that followed. When a fashion house sent out models in striped pajamas with numbers on them in a fashion show, on the very day the 50th year of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp was being commemorated, there was global outrage. A few years ago, designer John Galliano got into a drunken spat in a Paris bar where he was recorded declaring his sympathies with the Nazis. It led to him being fired by Christian Dior, where he had been the creative director.

In fashion, as a general rule you don’t touch the Holocaust or Hitler if you don’t want to get panned. But connections between fashion and fascism have always existed.

First, is how fashion was used under fascism to push their agendas. The Italian fascist party through the 1930s and 1940s systematically employed the fashion industry as a tool to mould the cultural expressions of nation, class and gender in the ‘new Italy’. It was state patronage that pushed the Italian fashion industry to compete with France, and distinguish itself. Women in particular were manipulated through fashion ideals to create an authentic Italian femininity. In 1939 Mussolini organised “The Great Parade of the Female Forces”, a parade of the Giovani Italiene, a fascist organisation for young women that would define the “new Italian woman”.

During the occupation of France by Germany, Hitler used fashion as propaganda, organising photoshoots of stylish people in Paris alongside his soldiers, to show that people were living happily under the occupation. He recognised the importance of the fashion industry in Western Europe and considered moving the French fashion industry to Berlin. Within Germany, he established the German Fashion Institute with full state support, decreeing that German women should wear only German designs made with German materials. Hitler loathed French fashion, it seems, seeing it as creating a type of liberated womanhood that did not suit the German woman and her role in society — to be “robust, athletic, young wives and mothers”. (Some might be reminded of the RSS’s views on what Indian women should be doing and wearing — certainly no cellphones and no jeans.)

 Dressed to kill: The age of high fascism and fashion are inextricably and insidiously linked

Connections between fashion and fascism have always existed. Getty Images

Second, were the ways in which fashion brands made money — indeed built their empires — through their complicity with fascist regimes. These histories have been pushed out of sight, but they remain undeniably a part of the growth story of several big fashion brands. Balenciaga, for example, was known for making dresses for the wives of Nazi generals. Coco Chanel allegedly made money off the Nazis during the war and received their patronage because of her German officer lover.

Some relationships were even more insidious. In Nazi Germany, the violent paramilitary group SA (Sturmabteilung, meaning “assault division”) created by Adolf Hitler in the 1920s was instrumental to his rise to power. Members of the SA were known as the “Brownshirts”, becoming visible icons of terror and intimidation.

Who supplied these? One of Hugo Boss’s first big contracts was to supply brown shirts to the Nazi party. Through the 1930s and ‘40s they produced and sold Nazi uniforms using the forced labour of incarcerated Jews (mostly women) from Poland and France. Many died or were sent later to concentration camps. Hugo Boss was tried and fined after the war.

And finally, are the more subtle and enduring ways in which fascism and fashion continued to influence one another in the post-war period. Like the fascination with a fit body, the uptake of plastic surgery in search of physical perfection, and heightened awareness of body image — all rooted in fascist dreams of the ideal body.

Recently, Europe has seen a resurgence of right-wing extremism, some of it through the use of clothing as a means of mobilising right leaning youth. Several brands have been called out for making garments with fascist messages — not as obvious as the Third Reich’s swastika symbol but variations of these, and other secret symbols that would be visible and make sense to someone who shares these feelings. Young people buying these clothes are using fashion “to form their identities and make a statement to each other and to those outside the group.” Fashion has thus become one of the multiple access points into extremism.

Closer home, the smart attire of the current right wing regime has come up in the public eye since the famous Rs 10-lakh suit worn by the Prime Minister when he met US President Barack Obama in 2015. The monogrammed suit appeared to be pin striped, in which the pin stripes were actually the Prime Minister’s own name printed in rows all over the suit, which critics called a sort of “megalomania”. More recently, it has been the Maybach glasses that the Prime Minister wore during a solar eclipse.

What we wear is not apolitical. It represents many things, even being part of the design of a certain image and strategy. Sadanand Menon wrote about the phenomenon that is the Modi Jacket (or MJ as he finds it is called) and how it surfaces everywhere in this visit to Baroda, as a display of power dressing. There is the elaborate turbaned head gear that the Prime Minister wears ritually at every national day, signifying in many parts of Northern and Western India a masculine, upper caste pride. The khaki half-pants of the RSS (the uniform now revamped to brown full pants) and tragically, that beautiful colour of marigolds and sunsets — gerua or saffron — have also come to signify a certain kind of ‘hate clothing’.

If earlier comparisons between the current Indian regime and the pre-war fascist governments of Italy and Germany in Western Europe seemed too simple, it is now clear that they were on point.  Not just their power-hungry bullying ways or a predilection for violence and brutality — but also their fondness for natty dressing.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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Updated Date: Jan 09, 2020 09:47:05 IST