German women's fashions (1920s-1940s)Discussion Aug 1997

From: "Irene V. Guenther" <> 02 Aug 1997

I am working on a book on German women's fashions/clothing from the 1920s through the end of World War II. I have consulted hundreds of German women's magazines, interviewed women who lived through the period in Germany, and have perused the German archives (although it has been like looking for the proverbial "needle in the haystack") for official views, laws regarding women's clothing during the Third Reich. Secondary sources on fashion never, ever mention Germany/Berlin -- emphasis is always on Paris, London, New York, even though Berlin's second largest export was designer and ready-made clothing.

Ideas for further sources would be much appreciated. I am also trying to locate as many German Jewish families as possible, who were forced to give up their clothing businesses as the Nazis "aryanized" that industry. Quite a few, I believe, emigrated to New York and to London, and began their clothing businesses anew; some attempted to reclaim their businesses in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. Any ideas on how to locate those who still survive? Many thanks.

From Gayle Veronica Fischer 03 Aug 1997

I have found that trying to locate laws on dress in the United States to also be a case of the "needle in the haystack." I joke that I will write up my research after retirement since it will take me my entire academic career to find all the laws I need. In studies on US clothing history there is often anecdotal information on laws about not being able to wear stripes on Sunday or something equally ridiculous with absolutely no citation-- usually not even a state or city. I am systematically going through state law books but laws about clothing are often hidden under laws about creating a public nuisance, inheritance laws, theft, a larger category than you might expect. I keep telling myself all I want are laws about skirt length, etc. I suspect that most of the laws I'm interested in are in local ordinances--where do you begin with those?

So far, I have only shared your frustrations and not offered any suggestions, let me do so now. During the wars the textile/ fashion industry often fearing government regulation, imposed their own regulations on manufacturing, so you might look at industry newsletters or minutes of meetings or correspondence. You might want to look up the International Textiles and Apparel Association and textile journals, these tend to be multi-disciplinary in approach and are often quite useful. You might also check to see if there is a bibliography of government publications, sometimes rather than making laws governments printed pamphlets which suggested ways citizens might help the war effort and these often include suggestions about dress. Have you looked at publications that might have been writing about life in Germany but not from a German perspective--magazines such as Look and Life, immediately come to mind. secondary sources: The US, including NY, is left out of most secondary sources until the second World War allowed American designers and fashions to "replace" the lost French fashion industry. Good luck. I hope some of my suggestions have been helpful.

From Sandra F. VanBurkleo 04 Aug 1997

...FWIW...:before the twentieth century, and perhaps into that century from the lawyers' point of view, such legislation fell under the heading of SUMPTARY LAWS. You may know this; if you do not, knowing the legal term may help you save time/use legislative indexes more effectively. Without some sense of how legal heads were constructed, it really is a needle in haystack, or worse. Cheers!

From Jill Fields 04 Aug 1997

I would suggest contacting Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in order to locate German Jewish clothing manufacturers from your time period. The foundation has on file thousands of videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors, as well as historians on staff who might be able to answer some of your questions. The Foundation's phone # is (818) 777-9000; mailing address is P.O.Box 3168, Los Angeles, CA 90078

From Beate Binder 05 Aug 1997

...Do you know Uwe Westphal: _Berliner Konfektion und Mode: Die Zerstorung der Tradition 1836-1939_ (Berlin, 1986)? Maybe the publications of the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum are as well interesting for you: Mode der 20er Jahre. Berlin Museum. Bearb. von Christine Waidenschlaeger.

Karen Ellwanger, who is a professor in Oldenburg (Fachhochschule or Gesamthochschule as far as I know) has written something about fashion and everyday life in the twentieth century. But I don't know if she has already published it. Maybe you can contact her. I'm sorry that I don't know her exact address, but if you are interested I can find it out.

From Annette Timm 05 Aug 1997

...I have come across four references to women's fashions that might interest you. Since I found them while looking for quite different things, you might not be aware of them:

  1. This one is a little earlier than your preferred dates, but you might find it interesting anyway: Frieda Grunert, "Die Mode in Berlin," in Was die Frau von Berlin wissenmuss: Ein praktisches Frauenbuch fuer Einheimische und Fremde, ed. Eliza Ichenhaeuser (Berlin/Leipzig: Herbert S. Loesdau, Verlagsbuchhandlung, ca, 1913), pp.265-72. This article is about fashion, culture and capitalism and includes the following quote (translations are all mine): "Berlin women are often labeled as having bad taste. But it is a fact that women as consumers are independent from that which Industry offers them as buying objects [Kaufobjekte]. On the other hand, only in our own time have we come to the realization that the female consumer has an incredible power, that her misguided or well-educated taste is an important factor followed by industry."
  2. A little later than your period, but also possible interesting as an epilogue might be: Anna-Sabine Ernst, "Mode im Sozialismus. Zur Etablierung eines 'sozialistisch Stils' in der fruehen DDR," in Lebensstile und Kultumuster in sozialistischen Gesellschaften, ed. Krisztina MaenickeGyoengyoesi and Ralf Rytlewski (Kn, 1990), pp. 73-95.

I found the next two in the Bundesarchiv Potsdam:

3) in BArch(P) Reichsarbeitministerium 3901/4594 (p.76) there is a small pamphlet advertising an exhibit about fashion at the 1926 Duesseldorf health, welfare and sport exhibition "Gesolei". An article by Margret Witt entitled "Die Bedeutung Der Gesolei fuer die Frau" discusses the special section of the Gesolei for women, which was meant to "represent in summary everything that occupies and fulfills women" including work and education. Fashion, it is argued, is also important for women's health. Women, after all, are only properly dressed when they are dressed appropriately for the occasion. "One are of interest," the pamphlet proclaims, "that has survived despite women's righters, despite intellectualism, despite university study and politics, an area that women as daughters of Eve-and we say thank goodness-still understand is women's fashion." The exhibit includes displays of appropriate clothing for the house, career, sport and social occasions. Women were encouraged to develop their own taste "so that they would not become slaves to fashion, but rather use fashion for her own purposes and to make it more useful in highlighting her individuality."

4) Even more interesting was a letter and offprint sent by Emmy Schoch (Modewerkstaetten) to the Reichsministerium des Inneren (1501/26231,B1.129-164) on July 16, 1933 in response to Frick's radio address on June 28, 1933. Frick had argued that fashion was deeply intertwined with the "racial problem" ("Kleid und Mode sind mit dem Rasseproblem tief verbunden...")

Schoch is offering her services to Frick as an expert in "German fashion for Volk and Health." She argues that "just as one runs into Jews wherever there is an ulcer on the body of the Volk [Volkskoerper] (according to our Fuehrer), so in every women's [sic] life one runs into the problem of clothing and fashion: for both good and evil." {This last translation was my best shot at a rather confusing sentence: "Wie man bei allem Geschwuer am Volkskoerper auf den Juden stoesst (nach unserm Fuehrer) so stoesst man in allem Frausenerleben auf Kleid und Mode: im Guten im Boesen. ..."] Hope these are of interest to you.