Clothing can accomplish many things. It can bestow group identity or express individuality. Creating it can be both an artistic outlet and drudgery. It can reflect the highest standards of craftsmanship or be as simple as sewing a seam. It is both performance and practicality. And, as we learn from Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, clothing can be a lifeline out of hell.
It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely (or hideous) juxtaposition than a fashion salon in Auschwitz. But there it was: a fashion studio and workshop literally yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners. Author and costume historian Adlington discovered the “Upper Salon” while researching a book on the global textile industry during World War II. Established by the larcenous and amoral Hedwig Höss, wife of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, the salon’s official mission was to provide beautiful, haute couture clothing to the wives of top-ranking Nazis, female SS guards at the camp and, foremost, Frau Höss herself. The salon’s other purpose was to provide a safe haven for the enslaved female laborers who, under the supervision of Marta Fuchs, a Jewish prisoner from Slovakia, cut, sewed and altered the outfits that would adorn their tormentors.
Adlington does an excellent job of telling the story of Marta and all the other women whose lives were spared because they had the skills to work in the comparative safety of the Upper Salon. She also provides the greater historical context of how the Nazi government viewed fashion as both a powerful propaganda weapon and an important tool for funding the Holocaust.
This information is helpful in understanding the journeys these designers, seamstresses and cutters took to Auschwitz and the Upper Salon, and overall Adlington weaves historical information into the individual dressmakers’ stories well. But the most powerful lesson from The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is how the bonds of friendship, family and skill allowed these women to survive with humanity while resisting the brutality around them.