Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History

Khalid Elhassan - April 11, 2022

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
A Sans Culottes. Wikimedia

25. Out With the Elaborate Fancy Schmancy, in With the Simple and Staid

In Revolutionary France, the extravagant fashion and styles of the despised nobility came to be seen as expressions and symbols of counterrevolutionary intent. As such, the Revolution sought to suppress elements of dress associated with the aristocracy. Expensive silks, velvets, and other pricey items of clothing were prohibited, as the revolutionaries set out to create a new order marked by fraternity, rather than privilege. Thus, in the midst of the Reign of Terror, the workaday outfits of the sans culottes (“without breeches” – the common people of the lower classes) came to the fore.

The new and simpler styles were seen as symbols of revolutionary egalitarianism. The revolution in fashion was permanent. The Revolution itself went off track, and the revolutionary regime was replaced in turn by the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire, and finally, a restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon’s defeat. However, the extravagant fashions of the Ancien Regime did not return. Breeches did not make a comeback, and the elaborate powdered wigs and feathered hats for men were consigned to history.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Hells Angels today. YouTube

24. From Cool Youth Fashion to Uncool Geezers

Today, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) does not carry the kind of cachet it used to once upon a time. Especially among the modern era’s young motorcyclists, Hells Angels no longer come across as dashing dangerous types whose gear makes a cool fashion statement. Instead, they come across as aging or aged unkempt bikers who ride around in overpriced and underperforming Harley-Davidsons. However, although they might no longer be dashing, they’re still dangerous: the US Department of Justice sees the Hells Angels as a crime syndicate.

With members often involved in violent organized crime, extortion, prostitution, narcotics, and the traffic in stolen goods, some countries have banned Hells Angels chapters or even the entire club. Strange as it might seem, the world’s most infamous outlaw bikers began as innocent WWII veterans groups. In 1940, Harley Davidson began to make a limited number of motorcycles for the US Army. Production skyrocketed when America joined the war the following year. Known as Harley-Davidson WLA Liberators, they had 739 cc displacement, 3-speed transmissions, 23.5 horsepower, and could do 65 miles per hour.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
A WLA Liberator. Wikimedia

23. From Camaraderie to Outlawry

The US Army ordered more than 90,000 WLA Liberators during the war, along with spare parts that were the equivalent of many more. Different models were also produced for the US Navy and Marine Corps, and a WLA variant, known as the WLC, was made for the Canadian Army. When peace returned, the military began to sell surplus Harley-Davidsons dirt cheap, and they were snapped up by returning GIs. Some veterans formed innocent motorcycle clubs, that eventually morphed into not-so-innocent biker gangs.

As happens after most wars, some WWII veterans had trouble readjusting to civilian life. Some suffered from what we now know as PTSD, some wanted to recapture the war’s adventure and adrenaline rush, and some were just plain bored. Some formed motorcycle clubs, and rode together mostly in military surplus Harley-Davidsons. At first, it was just about camaraderie, but it eventually became a fashion and lifestyle statement. From there, it did not take long before some of the veterans’ motorcycle clubs gained a reputation as outlaws.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Harley-Davidson WLAs in World War II. Motorcyclist

22. The Rally That Got it Started

Bad boy cool biker fashion began with a 1947 American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) sanctioned rally in Hollister, California. It started off innocent enough, but soon morphed into an out-of-control biker riot that ravaged the town, and gave rise to the iconic biker outlaw image. The incident’s roots go back to the 1930s when the small town of Hollister began to host an annual Fourth of July motorcycle rally known as a Gypsy Tour. Such tours were innocent affairs that typically revolved around social activities, motorcycle races, and parties.

Gypsy tours were canceled during WWII, but in 1947, Hollister let it be known that its annual motorcycle rally was back on. Unfortunately, the good people of Hollister had not reckoned with the dramatic increase in motorcycle popularity or the changed demographics of motorcycle enthusiasts. The small town was about to host thousands more bikers than it had expected. Many of them differed greatly from the wholesome motorcyclists with whom the townspeople had dealt in the pre-war years, in that they were younger and rowdier. As seen below, the result was chaos.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Members of the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington. Speed Boys

21. Post-WWII Bikers Were a Different Crowd Than Prewar Ones

Hollister’s 1947 Gypsy Tour kicked off on July 3rd, and before the small town knew it, it had been flooded with about 4000 bikers from across America. The new arrivals instantly doubled Hollister’s population. Never in the pre-war days’ rallies had so many people participated, and Hollister was unprepared for the flood of guests. They included groups with colorful – and to innocent 1940s sensibilities, sinister – names such as The Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington, The Boozefighters, and the Market Street Commandos.

At first, Hollister’s bars welcomed the bikers and the business boom they brought with them. Soon, however, drunk motorcyclists were racing up and down the streets, while bar-wrecking brawls erupted in the drinking establishments. Because Hollister had not expected so many visitors, a housing problem developed. By July 4th, bikers were sleeping on sidewalks, haystacks, and on people’s lawns. Hollister’s seven-man police force was overwhelmed. They tried to end the chaos with the threats of tear gas, and by arresting as many drunks as they could.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Biker on Hollister Street, July 4th, 1947. San Francisco Chronicle

20. The Riot and Movie That Gave Rise to This Kind of Cool Bad Boy Fashion

Try as they might, the authorities’ efforts to maintain order in Hollister proved fruitless. The chaos only ended when the Gypsy Tour ended, and the bikers headed back home. Two months after the Hollister Gypsy Tour, the same biker clubs descended upon Riverside, CA, for the Labor Day weekend. It was another AMA-sanctioned event, and it ended in the same chaos that had engulfed Hollister. Riverside’s sheriff blamed punk kids, and stated that: “They’re rebels, they’re outlaws“. That established the imagery of outlaw bikers.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Hells Angels pioneered bad boy cool biker fashion. Pinterest

The Hollister Riot in particular inspired 1953’s The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. It was the original outlaw biker movie, and the first to examine American motorcycle gangs. It also made biker fashion the height of bad boy cool. A few months later, in March 1948, some of those clubs came together in Fontana, CA, and agreed to merge. They chose a name suggested by a veteran who had served in China with the Flying Tigers’ Hell’s Angels Squadron, which got it from the 1930 Howard Hughes movie, Hell’s Angels. When questioned about the missing apostrophe, Hell’s Angels often retort “it is you who miss it. We don’t“.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Russel Brand at the GQ Magazine 2013 Man of the Year Awards. Dose

19. An Uncomfortable Joke About a Fashion Company’s Past

English comedian Russell Brand got himself kicked out of a GQ magazine’s Men of the Year Awards shindig in 2013, when he cracked jokes about the event’s sponsor, Hugo Boss, and its Nazi ties. As Brand put it: “If anyone knows a bit about history and fashion, you know it was Hugo Boss, who made uniforms for the Nazis. …But they looked fu*king fantastic, let’s face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality“.

Understandably, Hugo Boss’ executives were not thrilled that all they got for the £250,000 they had spent to sponsor the event was another dose of bad publicity about their company’s Nazi past. Whether Russell Brand’s humor was in good taste or bad, he was not wrong about the fashion designer’s Nazi ties. Today, Hugo Boss is a global luxury fashion brand, famous for its flashy ties and classic suits. It had about 1100 company owned stores worldwide as of 2019, and about 4 billion dollars in sales. As seen below, there is quite a bit of darkness in the company’s background.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Fashion designer Hugo Ferdinand Boss. Bundesarchiv Berlin

18. The Man Behind the Snazzy Nazi Fashion

There was a time when it seemed that no yuppie was cool unless his wardrobe contained Hugo Boss shirts, suits, socks, sunglasses, cologne, and man-thongs. Less cool was the history of the company’s founder, fashion designer Hugo Ferdinand Boss (1885 – 1948). He was an enthusiastic Nazi who devoted his talents to making Hitler’s goons look as snazzy as possible. He founded a textile factory as a family-run business in 1923, and one of his early big contracts was to supply uniforms to the Nazi party’s SA stormtroopers, or Brown Shirts. Boss eventually joined the party, and that paid off when the Nazis took power in 1933.

Boss’ status as an active party member and enthusiastic supporter of Nazi policies placed him on the inside track when the new regime began to award clothing contracts. Before long, the company was producing, in addition to the Brown Shirts’ uniforms, the black outfits of the SS, and the black-and-brown uniforms of the Hitler Youth. Production continued and expanded during WWII. By then, Hugo Boss was outfitting the SS, SA, Hitler Youth, German rail workers, postal employees, as well as the German army, navy, and air force. That was not the worst of it.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Snazzy outfits made by Hugo Boss for the Nazis. Pinterest

17. A Fashion Icon’s Use of Slave Workers

As WWII raged on, Hugo Boss used hundreds of slave workers in his factory, mostly from Poland and France, to meet increased wartime production demands. The slave laborers’ working conditions were dreadful. They were insufficiently fed, received inadequate medical care, and were made to live in insanitary barracks infested with lice and fleas. During air raids, they were not allowed into shelters, but had to remain in the factory. Those who tried to run away were sent to even more dreadful places if captured, such as Auschwitz.

After the war, Germans were subjected to a de-nazification process, and the Nazi fashion designer did not fare well. He was heavily fined, stripped of his voting rights, and prohibited from running a business. Boss appealed and managed to get the penalties reduced, but the business ban remained. So he was forced to transfer ownership and management of the company to his son in law. In the years since Hugo Boss has, understandably, not been keen to celebrate its founder or discuss its prewar history. In 1999, the company finally agreed to contribute to a fund to compensate its former slave workers.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
An artist’s impression of a pineapple in 1558. University of Virginia Library

16. A Fruit That Took Europe by Storm

Pineapples today are just a Dole can away, and often cost a buck or less. As such, it’s hard to grasp just how exotic and expensive they once used to be. When Christopher Columbus returned from his second voyage in 1496, he brought back a consignment of pineapples. Only one of them survived the sea passage without rotting, but that one was enough to send the Spanish court into raptures. One courtier wrote that “its flavor excels all other fruits“. To understand the reaction, one needs to think about it in the context of its era, one in which sweet things were not as common in Europe as they are today.

Refined sugar was rare and extremely expensive, while fruits were only available in season. As such, a ripe sweet pineapple could have been the tastiest thing that a European of that era had ever tasted. An even greater factor was the exotic appearance: pineapples looked like nothing Europeans had seen before. As one envoy of Spain’s King Ferdinand put it: “[it is] the most beautiful of fruits I have seen. I do no suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exquisite and lovely appearance“. Pineapples became prized status and fashion symbols, and as seen below, were esteemed to an extent that seems ridiculous today.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
A 1708 depiction of the pineapple as a symbol of trade and prosperity. The Paris Review

15. When Pineapples Were the Height of Fashion

Back in the days when royalists advocated the divine right of kings, anything with a crown came to be associated with heavenly approval. The pineapple, whose spiny top resembled a crown, became a symbolic manifestation of monarchy. It soon became known as “The King of Fruit”. Between that, the vast distances they had to travel to reach Europe, their exoticism, and the fact that few people had ever set eye on one, possessing a pineapple became a status symbol and a statement of exquisite fashion sense. So much so, that pineapples were used in international politics and diplomacy.

In 1668, a French ambassador arrived in England to mediate a dispute over some Caribbean islands. England’s King Charles II ordered a pineapple from the English colony of Barbados perched atop a fruit pyramid at a dinner feast in honor of the French envoy. Contemporaries saw it as a public relations triumph, which asserted English dominance in the region. The move visually illustrated that England’s naval supremacy meant that the English could get pineapples from the Caribbean at will, while the French could not. From then on, the pineapple, which Charles II christened “King-Pine”, became his favorite status symbol. He even commissioned a painting in which the royal gardener presents him with one.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
1807 Old Bailey transcripts about a pineapple theft case. BBC

14. Ready Availability Cratered This Fruit’s Value as a Fashion Statement

By the eighteenth century, pineapples could be grown in European greenhouses, but only at great expense, in the ballpark of $15,000 in 2022 dollars. To eat them was considered wasteful, so it became a fashion to use them as fancy dinner ornaments. They were passed from party to party until they rotted. People who were not rich enough to own pineapples but wanted to look like they were, rented them from shops that sprang up to cater to their social-climbing needs. Pineapples were expensive enough to warrant security guards, and for good reason. For example, 1807 Old Bailey transcripts show several pineapple theft cases, including one of a Mr. Gooding who got transported to Australia for seven years because he stole seven pineapples.

In the nineteenth century, steamships became ever more reliable, and their ever bigger cargo holds meant that pineapples could be shipped to Europe in bulk. The resultant availability of pineapples at ever lower costs lowered their prestige and cratered their fashion cachet. For the upper classes, the once exotic tropical fruit had been a marker of status. Now, the notion that pineapples were available – and affordable – to all and sundry galled the snobby set. Cartoons of working-class people eating pineapples were used in satirical prints, visual metaphors of the downside of progress in what seemed to the elites as a topsy-turvy world.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Hitler Youth. National Geographic

13. The Nazis Used Fashion to Turn Children Into Monsters

The Third Reich committed too many crimes to count. Not least among them is the mass indoctrination of innocent German children, to turn them into brainwashed and hate-filled cogs in their monstrous machine. In 1922, the Nazis established a youth arm to recruit, indoctrinate, and train members for its paramilitary, the Storm Troopers, commonly known as the Brown Shirts. As the party grew in numbers and power, so did the size of its youth arm, which was renamed the Hitlerjugend, or “Hitler Youth” in 1926. When the Nazis gained power in 1933, they made the Hitlerjugend Germany’s sole official youth organization.

The new regime took over and folded preexisting youth organizations into their own, and Hitler appointed a Reich Youth Leader to oversee the takeover. However, not all German children willingly accepted the fare fed them by the Nazis, and some of them adamantly refused to just go along. Through a mixture of youthful courage, and teenagers being teenagers, some sought to express their individuality through a teen lifestyle and fashion that bucked the system. Those kids, who defined themselves in opposition to the Nazis, came to be known as the “Edelweiss Pirates“.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Hitler Youth on a hike during a Nazi summer camp before WWII. History Network

12. The Indoctrination of Children

The Nazi youth organization was divided into the Hitler Youth proper for boys aged fourteen to eighteen, and a junior branch for boys aged ten to fourteen. German girls from ages ten to eighteen were placed in a parallel organization, the League of German Girls. Youngsters were taught Nazi doctrine, and encouraged to report those who went against it – including their own parents, if they criticized Hitler or the Party. Children were also taught to link those designated enemies by the state – such as Jews – with societal decline, and with German defeat in WWI. Fittingly for a totalitarian regime, the Hitler Youth was an all-encompassing and immersive experience.

Children imbibed Nazi ideology, racism, speech, and fashion. Eventually, membership became obligatory. The parents of children who were not signed up fell under suspicion and were often questioned or otherwise harassed by the authorities. In the meantime, their children were subjected to peer pressure and ostracism by schoolmates and teachers. It worked. At the end of 1932, the Hitler Youth had 108,000 members. By the end of 1933, the Nazis’ first year in power, that number had shot up to 2,300,000. By December 1936, there were more than five million Hitler Youth.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Captured soldiers of the 12th SS ‘Hitler Youth’ Panzer Division. Wikimedia

11. A Dark Version of the Boy Scouts

In December, 1936, membership in the Hitler Youth was made mandatory for all Aryan youth. In March of 1939, children were conscripted en masse into the organization, regardless of whether their parents consented or objected. In 1940, a year into WWII, the Hitler Youth were reorganized into an auxiliary force to perform war duties. Chapters became active in local fire brigades and in recovery efforts after Allied bombing raids, helped deliver the mail. They also directly assisted the military, such as with service alongside antiaircraft gun batteries. As the war dragged on and losses mounted, Germany faced a growing military manpower shortage. So in 1943, the Hitler Youth was tapped as a manpower reserve, and a plan was approved for the formation of an SS division comprised of Hitler Youth.

The resultant unit, the 12th SS Panzer Hitler Youth Division, fought in Normandy in 1944, where it gained a reputation for ferocious fanaticism. As Germany’s situation grew more dire, the Nazis increasingly turned to their youth organization. By 1945, Volkssturm units – the Nazi militias – were routinely drafting twelve-year-old old Hitler Youth members into their ranks. As the curtain fell on the Third Reich, Hitler Youth units played a conspicuous role in the last days of the Battle of Berlin. They fought so ferociously for their namesake that only two members of a children’s unit that manned the Nazis’ last line of defense survived.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Members of the League of German Girls perform gymnastics. Wikimedia

10. The Nazi Version of the Girl Scouts

While the boys of the Hitler Youth were indoctrinated to become good Nazis – and prepared to become good soldiers – members of the League of German Girls were trained to become good Nazi wives and mothers. Leaders of the female branch were even directed to recruit girls of good genetic stock to mate with SS and Nazi officials in accordance with a selective breeding program known as Lebensborn. After they were recruited, matched with partners, and impregnated, the Lebensborn program helped the girls throughout their pregnancy.

When it came time to give birth, the program afforded the girls’ facilities in which to deliver their babies, and provided them with prenatal and postnatal care. Because the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were deemed Aryan organizations, premarital sex between their members was often encouraged by Nazi officials. The goal was to increase the stock of Aryan babies. Mixed-gender gatherings of the youth organizations, such as the Nuremberg Rallies, often produced bumper crops of teen pregnancies. The most infamous of those, the 1936 Nuremberg Rally, led to an estimated 900 pregnancies and, as seen below, scandal.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Edelweiss Pirates. Mental Floss

9. The Kids Who Bucked the System With Fashion

It is unclear how many of the teen pregnancies at the 1936 Nuremberg Rally were the result of consensual sex between Nazi teens, and how many were the result of molestation by adult Nazis. However the pregnancies came about, their number dismayed many. Traditional conservative elements still held some sway in the Nazi party at the time, and the Lebensborn crowd had not yet gained an ascendancy. So a temporary stir and kerfuffle ensued. In the end, many of the pregnancies were terminated by abortions, on orders from the Party.

Against that backdrop of descending evil and forced conformity, some German youngsters refused to go along with the Nazi program. To resist the pressure to join the Hitler Youth was difficult and often hazardous. Nonetheless, some brave youth refused to simply go along. Best known among those were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates, a loose association of youth movements in western Germany that developed in opposition to the regimentation of the Hitler Youth. They took their name from the edelweiss, a hardy white mountain flower that grows in high altitudes.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Edelweiss Pirates. Timeline

8. Jazz and Blues Were in Fashion Among Anti-Nazi Youths

The German kids who refused to conform to the Nazi regime often expressed themselves through lifestyle and fashion choices that bucked the totalitarian state. Like many youth cultures across the ages, the Edelweiss Pirates set themselves apart with a distinctive style of dress that became common among their members. They did not all use the title Edelweiss Pirates – the branch in Cologne, for example, went by “Navajos” – but they shared some common traits. Foremost among them was an emphasis on and encouragement of free thought.

The Edelweiss Pirates rejected the strict gender segregation of the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls, in favor of co-ed activities. They liked to hike and camp, not least because while in the great outdoors, they often had the freedom, while temporarily away from snoops and snitches, to engage in prohibited activities. Those included singing or listening to music deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, like jazz and the blues. They were also able to freely express themselves, and openly discuss topics and voice opinions that would have gotten them in trouble had they been overheard by informants back in the cities.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Edelweiss Pirates. YouTube

7. Nazi Attitudes Towards Teen Fashion and Lifestyle Rebels Hardened During WWII

The Nazis initially dismissed the Edelweiss Pirates as minor irritants and teenaged delinquents going through a phase. Attitudes hardened when WWII began, however. The authorities blamed the Edelweiss Pirates for collecting anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets dropped by British bombers, and stuffing them into mailboxes. That was viewed as subversion during wartime, and treason. In 1943, for example, authorities in Dusseldorf complained to the Gestapo that the local Edelweiss “gang” was a bad influence on other youth, as well as on young soldiers, who hung out with them while on leave. The report noted:

These adolescents, aged between 12 and 17, hang around late in the evening with musical instruments and young females. Since this riff-raff is in large part outside the Hitler Youth and adopts a hostile attitude towards the organization, they represent a danger to other young people.” Nonetheless, the local authorities were relatively lenient with the Edelweiss, when compared to how they dealt with adult subversives. Take the penalties for “delinquents” who kept their hair long and their appearance bohemian as a fashion statement to set themselves apart from the militarized regimentation all around them. They were usually given a stern talking-to, then had their heads shaved.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Heinrich Himmler. Wikimedia

6. Nonconformist Teen Lifestyle and Fashion Could Get Kids Sent to Concentration Camps or Executed in Nazi Germany

Stern talks and head shaves for nonconformist teenagers was too lenient for SS head honcho, Heinrich Himmler. He wanted an example made of youths who failed to show complete loyalty. The teen rebelliousness, refusal to toe the line, and counterculture lifestyle and fashion of the Edelweiss Pirates galled Himmler. He deemed any half measures when dealing with such “delinquents” to be unacceptable. In 1942, he wrote to his deputy Reinhard Heydrich that he wanted such kids to do two or three-year stints in concentration camps:

There the youth should first be given thrashings and then put through the severest drill and set to work. It must be made clear that they will never be allowed to go back to their studies. We must investigate how much encouragement they have had from their parents. If they have encouraged them, then they should also be put into a concentration camp and (have) their property confiscated“. By 1944, with Third Reich clearly circling the drain, Himmler ordered an even more brutal crackdown. In November of that year, thirteen youths were hanged in public in Cologne, many of them active or former Edelweiss Pirates.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Edelweiss Pirates in later years at a festival in Cologne, 2005. Wikimedia

5. Some of These Literal Fashion Rebels Continued on as Dissidents After WWII, While Others Became Reactionaries

Official repression failed to break the anti-Hitler youth coalition, which continued on as a defiant subculture. Its mores, lifestyle, and fashion rejected the norms of Nazi society, until the “Thousand Year Reich” went down to defeat after a mere twelve years. Postwar, some factions of the Edelweiss Pirates attempted to work with the Allied occupation authorities. Their advances were welcomed, particularly by the communists in the Soviet-occupied zone. However, most of the rank and file membership, true to their ethos, turned their backs on what was seen as attempts to politicize their movement.

Having risked their lives to evade the regimentation of the Nazis, they were not eager to embrace regimentation under the communists. As a result, those who remained in what became communist East Germany ended up as dissidents and social outcasts. Many of them did long stints in prison as a result. In an unfortunate irony, many Edelweiss Pirates in West Germany ended up as reactionaries, even less reconciled to defeat than the Nazis. They became notorious for their attacks on Germans – particularly women – known to have been friendly or intimate with occupation soldiers.

Related: 8 Tales of German Resistance in World War II.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel. Chanel

4. How This Fashion Icon Got Her Name

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883 – 1971) dominated Paris’ haute couture scene for six decades as its most prominent fashion designer. She came up with elegant casual designs that killed off uncomfortable nineteenth styles such as petticoats and corsets. Her innovations include the “little black dress“, costume jewelry, the Chanel suit, and quilted purses. The most famous item associated with her name, however, is the first perfume she launched, Chanel No. 5. When Time magazine published its list of 100 most influential people of the twentieth century, Coco Chanel was the only fashion designer to make the cut.

Gabrielle claimed that Coco was a nickname given her by her father. However, that is probably one of many untruths she made up about her family background. She reportedly got the name in her years as a cabaret singer, when she often performed a then-popular song called Who Has Seen Coco? Other accounts have it that it was a play on cocotte, the French term for a mistress. Yet another version has it that she was “called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris“.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel and Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster. Classic Chicago Magazine

3. The Ugly Side of a Fashion Icon

However she acquired her iconic name, Gabriel Bonheur Chanel revolutionized the fashion business as Coco Chanel, and inspired millions. Less known about her is she was a rabid anti-Semite, an admirer of Hitler, and a Nazi collaborator who worked as a spy for the Germans in WWII. Coco Chanel had long been a reactionary and anti-Semite and got on well with others who disliked Jews. In 1923, she began a ten-year affair with Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, one of the world’s richest men at the time, and a rabid anti-Semite.

In the 1930s, Coco Chanel began a relationship with an illustrator named Paul Iribe, and financed his monthly journal, a reactionary anti-republican and anti-Semitic rag. She often stated that she believed that the Jews were a threat to Europe. As such, it is no surprise that Chanel got on well with the Nazis and collaborated with them when they conquered France in 1940. In the years of occupation, Chanel lived in Paris’ Hotel Ritz, where many high-ranking German military and Nazi officials dwelt.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Pierre Wertheimer. Bibliotheque Natioanle de France

2. How Coco Chanel Tried to Profit From the Holocaust

As her native France groaned under Nazi occupation, Coco Chanel became the mistress of Baron Gunther von Dincklage, a diplomat and German military intelligence operative. Before the war, the majority owner of Parfums Chanel, the company that marketed Chanel No. 5, was a Jewish businessman named Pierre Wertheimer. The Nazis routinely confiscated Jewish property and gave it to Aryans. Chanel petitioned the Nazis that since she was Aryan, they ought to seize Wertheimer’s share of Parfums Chanel and hand it over to her.

Unbeknownst to her, Wertheimer had guessed that the Nazis would confiscate Jewish properties. So before they got around to it, he transferred legal ownership of his business entities to a Christian French industrialist. That industrialist had more integrity than Chanel, and returned the businesses to Wertheimer when France was liberated. After the war, French intelligence described the fashion icon as a Hitler fan and “vicious anti-Semite“. Coco Chanel was more than that: as seen below, she was a collaborator and traitor who had directly worked for the Nazi occupiers.

Also Read:

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Walter Schellenberg. Bundesarchiv Bild

1. A Celebrated Fashion Icon Who Had Collaborated With and Spied for the Nazis

When Paris was liberated in 1944, Chanel fled to Switzerland to avoid criminal charges for collaboration with the Germans as a spy. She lived there with her German lover, Baron Dincklage, before she returned to France in the 1950s to get back in the fashion business. Ironically, her comeback was financed by Pierre Wertheimer, the Jewish entrepreneur she had tried to screw out of the Parfums Chanel business during the war. Whatever he thought about Chanel as a person, Wertheimer was the majority owner of a lucrative enterprise and brand that bore her name. As such, he had a financial stake in the preservation of the famous fashion icon’s image.

Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History
Coco Chanel. In Style

Chanel’s comeback was a success. The public by and large remained ignorant of what kind of person she really was until long after her death in 1971, at age 87. Decades later, declassified documents confirmed that she had worked for both the Abwehr, German military intelligence, and the dreaded Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the intelligence arm of the SS and Nazi Party. Her SD boss was SS General Walter Schellenberg, who was sentenced by the Nuremberg Tribunal to six years for war crimes. After his release in 1951, Chanel supported Schellenberg and his family financially and paid for his funeral when he died a year later.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC – Hugo Boss Apology For Nazi Past as Book is Published

BBC – The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Status Pineapple

British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 1987) – Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair

Burr, Chandler – The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (2004)

Cherry, Paul – The Biker Trials: Bringing Down the Hells Angels (2005)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hitler Youth

Encyclopedia.Com – Fashion During the French Revolution

History – How the Hitler Youth Turned a Generation of Kids Into Nazis

History Collection – The Most Famous Male Style Icons

History Learning Site – The Edelweiss Pirates

Holocaust Research Project – The Hitler Youth

Independent, The, May 2nd, 2012 – Fritz Theilen: Member of the Edelweiss Pirates, the Children Who Resisted Hitler

Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, 1995 – ‘The Enemy of Our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives

History Collection – Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Kaloni – 10 Facts About Men’s Long Hair in History

Marsden, William, and Sher, Julian – Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Empire of Crime (2010)

Mazzeo, Tilar J. – The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (2010)

National Motorcycle Museum – 1942 Harley Davidson WLA, The Liberator

New York Times, August 15th, 1997 – Hugo Boss Acknowledges Link to Nazi Regime

Paris Review, April 25th, 2018 – The Strange History of the “King-Pine”

Porter, Monica – Children Against Hitler: The Young Resistance Heroes of the Second World War (2020)

Racked – How Pink Became a Color for Girls

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1990)

Time Magazine, August 3rd, 2009 – A Brief History of the Hells Angels

Vaughan, Hal – Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (2012)

Wikipedia – 1775-95 in Western Fashion

Wikipedia – Edelweiss Pirates