By 1930, Berlin emerged as an international fashion capital. It’s success even drew Parisian fashion designers. Most of the fashion businesses were owned and operated by German Jews. In their thrust to decimate the Jewish population, in 1933 the Nazis implemented a campaign to force these firms to sell. Signs in store windows read “Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda, buy only at German shops”, meaning wear dignified clothing not made by the Jews.
Author Uwe Westphal of Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836–1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry, shares this history in a discussion with FIT historian Keren Ben-Horin and journalist Jennifer Altmann, whose grandfather ran one of Berlin’s fashion houses.
By the end of the 1930’s, the Nazis had taken over Jewish businesses. All assets of 2700 Jewish fashion houses, retailers, and manufacturers were confiscated. These textile and fashion firms were valued at more than $1.0 billion in today’s dollars. Owners, tailors, and seamstresses were sent to labor and concentration camps and used as slave labor to make clothes for the military and Nazi high society. Westphal’s book was published July 2019. He started his research in 1984, was threatened and had to move six times. He says, “some in the German fashion industry were very very angry that I was doing my research”. He left Germany and moved to London.
Today, a memorial marks this history in Hausvogteiplatz, the center of Berlin’s fashion district. From his documented account of names responsible for this persecution, Jewish families are able to claim restitution from the German government.
Fashion Culture presents a series of stories unknown, or if known, overlooked, as part of EDGE’s education content. Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836–1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry, a buried story from the Holocaust, yet EDGE recognizes its significant contribution to fashion’s history.
Today, Berlin only teaches fashion as far back to the 1950s; they don’t go further back. Talent is lost from the 1920s and ’30s, and when you don’t pick up on that, you lose a new generation of designers.
– Uwe Westphal, as told to Atlanta Jewish Times
More reading, history of Berlin Fashion:
Image: Pinterest, Gary Moon | Berlin 1928, at a polo tournament, scan from: Berlin die 20er Jahre, Christian Brandstätter Verlag
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