Bro­ken Threads: The Destruc­tion of the Jew­ish Fash­ion Indus­try in Ger­many and Austria

Rober­ta S. Kremer
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

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.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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