The value of a well-fitted suit

No knowledge is useless, and the world is fascinating.  Even knowledge about the most seemingly inconsequential information can be incredibly revealing as I found out recently, and am going to share.  A working knowledge of fashion shows a lot of what was wrong with what looked initially like an incredibly successful, powerful, and effective empire: The Third Reich, and its snappy uniforms.

Urban legend says they had great dress sense and it’s a pity they had Hugo Boss working for them, and his sense of style.  (For the record he worked for the Nazi Party, not the Wehrmacht).  Urban legend also says the Germans were great engineers and equipped their troops well early in the War.  Looking at the standard Wehrmacht uniform (the M36 Feldbluse) we’re going to see whether this is true or whether it demonstrates a lot of what was wrong with the Nazi mindset.

Below on a hanger is the M36 Feldbluse, the standard German infantry uniform at the start of WWII.  It looks superb even on a hanger.  Worn?  Even better.  As many newsreels show.

(By Maciej Jaros (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On first glance, as I said, it looks superb.  It is cut like a well made wool suit, with some good tailoring.  A second glance raises four points in my mind.

  1. That’s a lot of tailoring to make it look that good
  2. It’s cut like a tightly fitted suit.  Especially round the shoulders
  3. A tightly fitted suit made of cheap wool
  4. What are those slashes inside the lining you can just see where the suit parts?

It is, by any standards, a lot of tailoring.  Pleated pockets.  Double stitched everywhere.  The collar.  The lapels.  I believe it even has twice as many pieces of cloth as any of my good suits.  And it has far, far more stitching even than a not terribly cheap suit.  Almost all done by hand.  It’s also fitted.  There is only one way you can afford to make two of those for each of your enlisted troops – not paying the people making the uniforms.  (And despite this they had to do such things as remove the pleated pockets later in the war).  That said, the idea that the Nazis used forced labour is well known and wouldn’t be worth making this post for.

It’s cut like a suit round the shoulders.  I used to do ballroom dancing.  Trying to raise your arms to the side in that thing is … problematic.  Dancing, it moves the shoulders of your jacket to your ears – but add a belt round the uniform and you can’t even do that.  Look at the soldier in the middle in the photograph below; he has his hands slung over his friends’ shoulders. And that might just be as far as he can raise his arms to the side.

(Image by family/John N. via Wikimedia Commons under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

The uniforms are also close fitted and made of cheap wool (or later half rayon or shoddy).  The uniform was therefore scratchy – not a good thing.  But it’s the close fitted wool that’s the problem.  People wearing close fitted wool (or worse yet rayon) are going to sweat.  And soldiers aren’t known for being able to wash their clothes regularly, and wool doesn’t dry easily.  The Wehrmacht stank!  This is not a metaphor.

Finally there are the gaps in the inner lining – which are part of another example of form over function, concealing things that do the work.  Photos of German soldiers almost always show their gear carried on a utility belt on their waist.  It looks better than a backpack (although it’s less comfortable and you can’t shed it as easily).  And the little slashes are for straps inside the lining are for canvas straps that run inside the Feldbluse, starting at about waist level at the back, running over the shoulder inside the uniform, and to waist level at the front.  Attached to the ends were hooks poking out of the uniform to support the utility belt.  This worked well while the soldier was standing; if they tried lying down then the belt was likely to be dislodged from the hooks, and so not be held up properly.

And why would a soldier lie down?  One obvious reason is to take cover.  So the uniform failed just as the soldiers wearing it were trying to take cover.  That sort of thing is going to get the wearers killed.  (If you look at campaign photographs most of the soldiers have an uncomfortable leather strap to hold up their belts).

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-217-0465-32A, Russland, Soldaten auf dem Marsch.jpg(Image from the German Federal Archive  via Wikimedia Commons under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

So there you have it.  Nazi military fashion.  Reflects the rest of Nazi ideology.  It looks great in newsreels.  It’s over-engineered.  It needs forced labour to make.  It’s too constricting to move freely in.  It stinks.  And the emphasis on looks means that it fails when the wearer is worried about being shot at.  Looking good is about its only virtue.

The Feldbluse might at some levels be a great metaphor for Nazi design, but is far from the only one.  Clasps on belt buckles later in the war were soldered on.  The helmets were good but ludicrously over-engineered.  But I’d laugh at any fantasy author who created their winter coats.   Made out of woodland camo fabric taken from the Italians, and lined with real fur stolen from people they’d conquered.  As tailored and overengineered as the Feldbluse, of course.  And then the fur started to rot because it was almost impossible to dry.  Mitchell and Webb’s only mistake with German uniforms was not going far enough; no petty incompetence.

(With thanks to Cessna at RPG.net for analysis and fact checking and Wikimedia for the photographs.)

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One thought on “The value of a well-fitted suit

  1. Yup, they wuz crazy, ok. But you are a child of your time in expecting any possibility that soldiers on a long campaign had any hope of NOT stinking – that was part of war – and even victorious troops returning home, from the Vikings onwards, are recorded as in dire need of
    baths and fresh clothing. And everybody on both sides used shoddy, there were even various songs about wars and the possibility of wars, of which the chorus was; “Up goes the price of shoddy!” even when the verses were about peaceable matters, harvests and girls etc., the line was meant to convey a sort of sinister underbeat, like a distant and still ignorable drum…

    This blog fascinates me particularly, since your late Grandfather, who served in wartime in the RAF and in peacetime in the RNXS/PNXS – and in the Home Guard while in a reserved occupation up to ’43. talked to me quite a lot about uniforms, in particular he was of the opinion (demonstrated to me in various museums all round Europe) that, at the end of a war, pretty much all survivors dressed alike, in baggy uniforms coloured to suit the terrain, and with lots of pockets etc. so that you could move fast and freely carrying only your weapons in your hands.

    Often, in cinema newsreels, we children could only tell which side was being filmed by the shape of the helmets, which were characteristic, and indestructible, pretty much. But, directly after the war ended the “Victors” (you could hear the quotation marks in my father’s voice, he had a deep conviction that no war was ever won: “just one side managed to hang on a bit longer than the other”) the Victory Parades were contaminated by the military tailors,; all of whom had one ambition, to smarten uniforms up by making them pretty much skin tight in all the wrong places.(you can see it in Full Dress uniforms in museums anywhere)

    So, by his reckoning, the Germans, having lost WW1, put their troops, as a most necessary morale raiser, into victorious type uniforms from the beginning! Your comments as a dancer about not being able to raise the arms is fascinating, but I suspect that in the 1930s no
    officer would take kindly to the concept of his men raising hands; “Handhoch!” was strictly supposed to happen to other people, in defeat. Why would a good soldier want to put his hands up easily?

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