Jewish Designers Used to Set the Fashion Trends in Berlin

Fashion Magazine Elegante Welt, Berline, 1919.

Berlin, 1920s. Bustling streets, high spirits and even higher ambitions. Just like in America, the 20s in Berlin were roaring. Social strictures were loosening, there was an energy in the air, and creative industries boomed. Women were cutting their hair, shortening their skirts, and living free, or freeer, social lives. And fashion was at the center of the revolution. In Berlin, this new boom was spearheaded by mostly German Jewish fashion moguls. They dreamed up designs that were daring and thoroughly modern. Their clothes emancipated German women from social norms and conservative ideas of gender. But nearly within a decade from its height, the entire Jewish fashion scene had been destroyed. Dismantled by a controlling and oppressive Nazi regime.

At the Museum at Eldridge Street, we typically tell the stories of the way immigrant’s lives are shaped by relocating to America and making new lives in a new country. But it’s also worth exploring Jewish culture in other places around the world. The German Jews who created Berlin’s vibrant fashion industry influenced German culture, art, movies, and more – and in turn influenced the world. And the persecution they faced by the early 1930s is a prime example of the type of violence and oppression that so many Jewish immigrants sought to escape by coming to America. This Tuesday, October 13th, we’re partnering with the Museum at FIT to bring you this fascinating and dramatic story. In a free virtual event, author Uwe Westphal will share this history in a discussion with FIT historian Keren Ben-Horin and journalist Jennifer Altmann, whose grandfather ran one of Berlin’s fashion houses. Registration for the event is open now. Read more to get a small taste of what you’ll learn with us on Tuesday.

As early as the 1830s, the German Jewish fashion industry was gaining steam. It especially took off in Berlin, in the Hausvogteiplatz district. Throughout the 19th century, Berlin had a reputation for being very cultured and metropolitan. (That perception certainly followed German Jewish immigrants to America; they were considered much more urbane than their Eastern European Jewish brethren.) Just like in America, Jewish creatives and scholars played a central role in the burgeoning cultural vibrancy of Germany – so it should come as no surprise than Jewish designers were at the head of most of Berlin’s top fashion firms.

Hausvogteiplatz, Berlin, 1925. The center of Berlin’s fashion district.

By the 1920s, Berlin’s fashion industry rivaled Paris. Nearly 100,000 people were employed in the Jewish fashion houses headquartered in the city. So synonomous was the industry’s success with its Jewish headliners that the very idea of haute couture was considered to be a piece of Jewish culture. But these firms weren’t just designing clothes for Jewish buyers – they set the trends and made clothes for everyone.

At the premises of L. Seligmann company, Berlin, 1932. Mr. Seligmann was forced by the Nazis to emigrate to London in 1935. He lost his entire business.

That is, until the Nazi’s took over. Because fashion was so closely linked with Jewish life, those businesses were targeted swiftly and fully. In 1933, the Nazi party began to force the closure of Jewish-owned fashion firms. In many cases, the businesses were forced to “Aryanize” – the Jewish founder was removed and a Nazi-approved mogul took their place as head of the firm. During raids on the businesses, cloth, fully made designs and equipment were thrown into the street and burned. In some horrifying cases, the production equipment was set to work camps. Jewish prisoners (some of whom once owned or worked in Jewish fashion firms) were forced to make clothing for the military and Nazi high society.

Nazi fashion advertising, 1938. The ADEFA seal stands for German goods made by Ayrian hands as well- as a completeley different image of women.

The Berlin fashion industry immediately took a nosedive. The Jewish designs up until the 1930s were exuberant, daring – they reflected the increased freedom that women were experiencing in all areas of social life. But the Nazis saw those freedoms, and that type of creative expression, as dangerous. Under new rule, the seized fashion firms released conservative, utilitarian clothing. The designs reflected gendered expectations that women would focus on raising loyal Aryan families.

Like so many other aspects of Jewish life, Berlin’s fashion scene was completely extinguished. Join us on Tuesday to hear more about the heyday of this exciting moment in time and ask some important questions about its legacy in German life. How has Berlin and German reckoned with this past in contemporary times? Is fashion – Jewish fashion – returning to the lives of Berliners? How should we honor these stories?

Register to attend today – we’re looking forward to sharing this important history with you next week.

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