Every nation that fought in World War II (1939–45) created standardized uniforms for their soldiers. The most dramatic uniforms were worn by the Nazi soldiers of the German army. With their mania for black leather, brass buttons, medals, and armbands, the Nazis proved as bold in their fashions as they were brutal on the battlefield. The German uniform style during the Nazi period was so eccentric that the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922–) called it "madly theatrical."

After seizing power in Germany in 1933 under the leadership of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), the Nazi Party put in place a totalitarian state (a strictly controlled state under the leadership of a dictator) that left no aspect of German society untouched. Uniforms became the norm for both civilian (non-military) and military dress. But where other totalitarian societies, such as Russia, opted for functional dress codes and muted color schemes that de-emphasized individuality, the Nazis preferred expressive styles designed to make the ordinary citizen feel like part of a grand national enterprise. The development of smart looking uniforms for everybody provided visible evidence of German unity.

Nowhere was this sense of identity more evident than in the German military. The Nazis believed that their army represented a modern recreation of the Teutonic (or ancient German) Knights, the mysterious military order of medieval Europe. Instead of the chain mail (armor made of interlinking metal rings) and plate armor the knights would have worn, the Nazis substituted black leather. The Nazi Gestapo, supposedly a secret police force, called attention to itself by wearing slouch hats and ankle-length black cowhide coats. The brutal S.S. Panzer military divisions struck fear in the hearts of their adversaries with black forage caps (caps commonly worn by soldiers during the American Civil War [1861–65] with visors of roughly cut pieces of leather that rapidly assumed a curved shape and sides that collapsed so the top tended to incline forward), jump boots, and stylish black leather jackets. (A few decades later Western teenage "rockers" could be seen sporting virtually the same ensemble.) Variations on this same dark outfit were also adopted by German fighter pilots and undersea U-boat crews. No one in the Nazi high command, not even Adolf Hitler himself, felt fully equipped without an extensive leather wardrobe.

After Germany's defeat by the Allied powers, including the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and their allies, in 1945, the Nazi regime was destroyed, but its style lingered on in movies and in television shows. One of the common elements of Nazi dress, the black leather jacket, became a popular symbol of rebellion that was worn by rock 'n' rollers in the 1950s and beyond. The popular heavy black boots known as Dr. Martens also closely resemble Nazi jump boots. One of the most important symbols of Nazi style, the swastika, has remained off limits to fashion's reinterpretation and reuse, for it is too closely associated with the darker side of Nazi rule, especially the mass extermination of Jews in German death camps. However, some modern militant groups, including skinheads and Neo-Nazis, tattoo the swastika on themselves to show their appreciation of the Nazi ideals.

Though Nazis were defeated in World War II, their style of dress—leather jackets, thick-soled boots—lives on. Reproduced by permission of © .

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