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.
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.
- That’s a lot of tailoring to make it look that good
- It’s cut like a tightly fitted suit. Especially round the shoulders
- A tightly fitted suit made of cheap wool
- 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.
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).
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.)