In 1999 the British editor of GQ was fired for placing a Nazi on a list of who was Best Dressed in the 20th Century. He specifically praised the crisp style of Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” who drove through Northern Africa as part of the Nazi colonial project during World War II. As the saga goes, Rommel lead his army from the front, yet managed to appear freshly pressed — at least in photographs — with not a hair out of place. A portrait of the perfect metrosexual (a title he would no doubt loathe).
It may be shallow to praise a handsome man for nothing but his looks and it certainly isn’t out of character for Western society to value beauty over character, but what does it mean when we laud a Nazi like Rommel?
The term “Nazi Chic” refers to the austere and tailored look of those in the Third Reich during the second world war, including Rommel. Adolf Hitler himself wore an undecorated and plain uniform while the majority of Nazi leadership dressed flamboyantly in black leather, brass buttons, and gilded epaulettes, stylings that would later influence 1970s punk and BDSM culture. From high end designers to campy trends like “swastikawaii,” the iconography of Nazi style has elbowed its way through history, whether its wearers promote its ideology or not.
By now it’s no secret fashion label BOSS (named after German designer Hugo Ferdinand Boss) was the official uniform supplier for Hitler’s early bodyguards, its successive paramilitary, and the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth. With only six sewing machines to his name, Boss joined the Nazi party in 1931 and saw a significant increase in sales. Boss used some 180 forced laborers and prisoners of war from a variety of disenfranchised states to tailor Hitler’s uniforms until 1946, when he was penalized for his Nazism and heavily fined. He appealed his conviction and won, then died in 1948, presumably of guilt.
Meanwhile in Poland, Hedwig Hensel, known as Frau Hoess, lived and worked alongside her husband, lieutenant colonel Rudolf Hoess, the longest standing SS Commandant at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Despite the mandated restriction of materials, Frau Hoess leveraged prison labor to build out a sewing center so she and her cohort could wear nice, hand-tailored clothing. She sourced fabrics and hoarded luxury items pillaged from a stockroom nicknamed “Canada,” full of items stolen from inmate’s homes before their imprisonment.
After the war was declared over, she was found in an abandoned sugar factory by British Allied soldiers where she was “amidst astonishingly large amounts of the finest hand-tailored clothes and furs, all former possessions of Auschwitz’s dead.” Frau Hoess may have thought herself the best dressed, but she is among the most evil.
Outside the obvious symbols of Nazism and fascism, any iteration of military style failed to filter into post-war civilian life until well into the 60s and 70s, when fascist aesthetics began to pepper their way back into contemporary art.
This resurgence was due in part to a heavily stylized Italian film called The Night Porter, whose themes included fascism, taboo sexuality, and guilt; a trend cultural critic Susan Sontag chastised because it exalted fascist aesthetics in an attempt to exonerate society.
By the late 70s and early 80s, punks and goth kids like Siouxie Sioux and designer Vivienne Westwood borrowed the iconography of Nazi Germany in an attempt to create shock factor and to rebel against right wing conservatism. Donning black leather and wearing officer visor caps and iron crosses was a way to rebel against the establishment. Military style continued to reinvent itself on the runway. The late 80s and early 90s saw big name labels like Perry Ellis, Helmut Lang and Claude Montana fill the pages of Vogue with double breasted jackets, mandarin collars, bombers, and cavalry pants.
Perhaps the most bizarre iteration of Nazi Chic is the contemporary trend of dressing up in full Nazi regalia rather than simply borrowing elements, which is enduringly popular in Asian nations including China, South Korea, Taiwan and India. Analysis of the phenomena argues Asia has significantly less cultural baggage attached to Nazism the way the west does.
The long-standing fascination and fetishism attached to Nazi Chic is mystifying. Dressing like a Nazi, whether it’s a costume or not (Prince Harry, anyone?) relies heavily on cultural context and shifts its meaning depending on its wearer.
But lately, it goes beyond poor taste and arguably, it always should have. In the U.S., anti-semitic incidents have increased by 86% in the first three months of 2017, meaning there are real consequences to normalizing Nazism, even as a fashion statement.. Aestheticizing politics is the work of fascism, assuming the structure of our political lives are merely art forms, relieving those in power of the urgency for direct action.
Fashion is hardly apolitical. Hate will adopt new symbols smelt from old ones. Whether it’s the disaffected white working class or the Alt-Right, young punks or neoliberals — dressing the part is half the battle but will never win the war.