The Holocaust was a mass genocide of the non-Aryan race, devised by the Nazis of being the superior race. The victims of these mass genocides included 6 million Jews and 11 million non-Jews including Poles, Soviets, homosexuals, gypsies, the disabled, and political prisoners. Thus, in a world after the horrors of the Holocaust, it is questionable whether we should wear the same fashion that brings memories of pain and terror to some: the blue and white striped uniform.
The reason why I bring up such a question is that the vision of the vertical blue and white striped shirt and trousers (or dress, for women) is because of what these stripes represent. This uniform not only replaced the victim’s clothes – it also became their identity. The striped clothes were extremely recognisable and transformed the inmates into a large mass of identical prisoners. It dehumanised them, making them look like commodities rather than autonomous beings as they could not even perform the simple choice of what to wear.
It is simply not necessarily a question of wearing vertical blue and white stripes, but one that is tied to the morally questionable events that occurred during the Holocaust. These people were tortured and killed in those very uniforms. Some could argue that by wearing blue and white striped clothes one would be honouring those who have perished. However, this does not seem convincing as such a uniform simply conjures the concepts of humiliation and a sense of unexplainable fear if one was going to survive another day.
It is not always about what you wear, but also the awareness that you should have about what you wear.
Clothing plays an essential role in our everyday lives. Alongside its protective function against the weather, clothing has a significant purpose in expressing one’s social positions. Clothing also expresses who we are as individuals and what we hold value in. For example, an individual wearing vibrant clothing may indicate that they have a loud and bubbly personality or simple classic styles may suggest that a person is elegant and reserved. Therefore, clothing will always be relevant and is a crucial category in expressing social positioning in a multi-layered society. On the other hand, the inmates of concentration camps were deprived of this very simple notion. If clothing is part of our self-expression and enables us to explore ourselves, then why would we choose to express ourselves as a prisoner of a concentration camp? It just does not seem acceptable. These people were obliged to replace their clothing with the characteristic blue and white striped uniform. This again illustrates how people were deprived of showing their individualism as women were unable to wear trousers, only dresses. Thus, it suggests the control that they were placed under and had to submit to the Nazi’s old-fashioned idea that women should always wear a dress. Why should it, therefore, be right for us to wear blue and white stripes when they were forced and had no other choice. What does this say about one as a human being, especially if one is aware of its connotations? Can’t we be more creative with our fashion choices rather than replicating a look that brings emotional discomfort to many?
The reason that this resonates with me personally on such a strong level is my connection to the Holocaust and relatives that had perished and survived the atrocities of the Nazis. Therefore, clothing that resembles the prisoners uniform brings me great discomfort. This is especially as my Great Aunt was experimented by Mengele (the angel of darkness, one of the Nazi’s leading doctors). Even though she survived, miraculously, the tortures that he brought upon her whilst she was in her striped uniform is not something that I wish to recreate via my fashion choices. Those who do not have such connections with the past of the Holocaust may not feel such discomfort about wearing blue and white stripes. But for me, those stripes bring up images of exhausted, malnourished and deprived people who were fighting for their lives; mountains of dead bodies piled into several heaps who were treated as rubbish rather than the human beings that they were. Additionally, it reminds me of the horrors placed upon my own family and the emotionless people that played God, taking away what was naturally given to them. The uniform resonates with the concept that certain people are not good enough, that certain ‘races’ are lesser than others, and supports Hitler’s ridiculous claim that the Aryans were superior. It is not an ideology that should be supported and this is what the striped uniform embodies. So, why would I want to express such horrors in my fashion choices? It seems morally questionable.
The issue is that most people do not think of what they choose to wear or what it represents. Most people think that a shirt is just a shirt and nothing more. But items of clothing have the power to portray what you are feeling and what you want to express. Maybe the bigger issue here is that we should all be historically aware of our fashion choices as many are not aware of what their clothes are representing.
A further illustration of this is wearing designer brands of who had made morally questionable choices in the past. For example, during the Second World War, several established fashion brands were accused of cooperating with the Nazis. In one such instance, Coco Chanel, the iconic founder of the luxury high fashion house specialising in haute couture, designer clothes, luxury goods such as Coco’s signature perfume (Chanel No. 5), and fashion accessories, was deeply associated with the Nazis. However, many people are not aware that Chanel was involved with the Nazis and her emotional connection to her lover, Nazi official, Baron von Dincklage. Moreover, Chanel was not the only suspect of socialising with high-level Nazi officials, but she took advantage of her powerful connections to oust Jewish business partners within her own company. Her loyalty to the Nazi party was also depicted in recent French documents which revealed that she also may have been a Nazi spy, Agent 7124, for the Nazi intelligence organization.
What is ethically questionable is Chanel’s dispute of the rightful ownership of her business. Although Chanel did deserve the majority share of her company, the way she went about making this happen was morally corrupt. The dispute over who was the rightful owner of her company stemmed back to 1924 when Chanel aspired to expand her business. Though it required substantial financial backing, Paul and Pierre Wertheimer, a pair of Jewish businessmen, provided the investment that she urgently needed and claimed the stake of stock, leaving Chanel with a 10 per cent share within her own company. It can be argued that Chanel never forgot or forgave this financial stranglehold. Realising that whilst Paris was occupied by the Germans, she could exploit the Aryan laws to her advantage, Chanel took action against the Wertheimer brothers, who were practicing Jews, as they were legally forbidden to own any businesses at that time. Consequently, on May 5 1941, Chanel wanted complete ownership of her perfume brand be returned to her. Therefore, this suggests that Chanel used the Nazi laws to her own advantage – no matter what the consequences of her actions would have been. This also leads one to believe that Chanel herself was anti-Semitic and could have possibly believed in some of the Nazi ideologies. However, having accounted for this outcome, the Wertheimer brothers transferred the possession of Chanel to a non-Jewish friend as their family had fled Paris, emigrating to New York to escape Nazi persecution.
After the end of the war, Chanel was investigated for Nazi collaboration crimes. Though she was never prosecuted for her active collaboration with the Germans, it has long been rumoured that this had been because Churchill, her long-time friend, intervened to save her. However, again, this does not seem right as others who had been prosecuted were paraded in the streets of Paris, humiliated with their heads shaved for their war time crimes. It is not sufficient that Chanel was not penalised for her wartime actions. Instead, Chanel moved to Switzerland where she lived with her German lover, Baron von Dincklage.
In the end, in 1954, Chanel re-established ‘Chanel’ with the astonishing aid of the Wertheimer brothers; reaching a settlement and receiving nine million dollars for her share of No 5 sales during the war. But how does this seem morally permissible? She used the Nazis to her own advantage, to regain control of her Chanel empire whilst putting others in danger.
Although Chanel is an inspiration within the fashion industry, I am sceptical of her ethics and thus question whether her brand is something that I would want to support, even after her passing in 1971 (at the age of 87). As I am a very keen fashionista myself, I personally truly adore Chanel’s classic, elegant, minimalistic, chic style and designs. She revolutionised women’s fashion, transforming tight corseted clothes that women could not move into comfortable, stylish fashion, radically introducing women’s trousers. Without Coco Chanel, women’s fashion today would look very different. For that, I must give credit to her and am thankful for. However, I will not choose to support her brand because I do not believe that what she took part in whilst the Holocaust was taking place was morally permissible. The very fact that she was not punished for her war crimes suggests to me that she did not see the wrongness of her actions. Thus, why should a person who used the Nazis power to resurrect her Chanel empire be awarded for being morally unsound? It does not seem just.
In conclusion, maybe it is not always what you wear but the awareness that you should have about what you wear. If you are morally satisfactory with supporting any concept that may be questionable to others then you should be able to do so. Some clothes may bring emotional reactions to some and not others. Therefore, for some, it may not be morally permissible to wear blue and white striped clothing and acceptable for others. Nevertheless, people should be able to respect others’ connotations with certain patterns or types of clothing. Hence, we should all be mindful of what we are creating, wearing and therefore representing through our fashion choices. However, it is when people are ignorant of what they are representing by the clothes that they wear where problems are caused.