This is a slim volume of seven scholarly, but highly readable, essays describing the period of time prior to the Holocaust when Jews played a preeminent role in the clothing and fashion industry in Austria and Germany. The essays are illustrated by archival photographs, drawings, and pages from the popular press of the period. The book grew out of a landmark exhibition, “Broken Threads: From Aryanization to Cultural Loss-The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria” produced by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in association with the Original Costume Museum Society in 1999. The authors are from diverse disciplines: Holocaust and Jewish Studies, Fashion History, Social History, Architecture, and German Studies.
The Jewish role in the fashion and clothing industries was a “central issue” to the Nazis, reports Kremer. Almost 80 percent of department and chain store businesses in pre-war Germany were Jewish-owned, as were 40 percent of wholesale textile firms and 60 percent of wholesale and retail clothing businesses. Jews owned all the “major Berlin department store — Wertheim, Herman Tietz, Nathan Israel, and KaDeWe.” Berlin was the center of the ready-to-wear industry and a model for the clothing industries of Paris, Vienna, London, and New York and Jews were the key players in this side of the fashion industry as well, according to Ingrid Loschek.
The association of Jews and the fashion and clothing business may not seem surprising to the average reader, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries, anti-Semitism severely restricted Jewish employment, according to Christopher R. Friedrichs, in his essay “From Rags to Riches — Jews as Producers and Purveyors of Fashion.” In Germany and Austria, Jews were not allowed in the guilds which meant they were excluded from all trades and crafts. They were not allowed to make goods to be sold to non- Jews, nor were they allowed to weave cloth, make shoes or sew clothing to be worn by Christians. They were also strictly forbidden from making goods to be sold on the open market. They only could make and sell wares to be used by other Jews.
But, there was one loophole. Jews were generally allowed to sell recycled goods and hence many Jews tried to earn a living by peddling second-hand clothing and products. With the unification of Germany in 1871, Jews gained full and equal legal and economic rights. Within a relatively short period of time, by the early 20th century, Jews had reached “the pinnacle of the German garment and fashion industry.” This all changed with the Nazi “Aryanization” of the fashion industry and the forced removal of all Jews. This was a tragic loss for the Jewish community, poignantly described by Gloria Sultano. It was also a major cultural loss for Germany and the world. The German fashion business never again achieved the vibrancy and the commercial success it had when Jews and non-Jews worked together prior to the Holocaust.
These essays and archival material are both disheartening and uplifting. On the one hand, the depth of the tragedy of the Holocaust is nearly overwhelming. But on another level, the material is very inspirational. This book is based on an exhibition in Canada, created by a diverse group— Jewish and non-Jewish, designers, entrepreneurs, and academic scholars — who gathered together to acknowledge and document the enormous role Jews played in developing and shaping the clothing and fashion industry— something the Nazis were sure they could forever erase from history.
On a personal note, I teach sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) of the State University of New York, an institution founded in the 1940’s by a group of Jewish “cloak and suit” manufacturers in coalition with others to create the “MIT” of the fashion industry, hence “FIT.” To some, this industry may seem superficial and glitzy. It is not. It is a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise with artistic accomplishments that equal any other artistic sphere. Reading this book was an emotionally moving experience for me. Through the photographs, lyrical essays, and drawings, I was able to kvell over the outstanding handiwork of the Jewish designers, businesspeople, tailors, and dressmakers who made such important contributions to this global business — people who carved out creative fortunes from “the rag or shmattah” business. Archival sources, index, notes.