Date of this Version
Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario
A uniform of any kind, whether worn by a fireman, a nurse or a soldier, is designed to inform us about the person who wears it; and the same thing holds true for a prisoner uniform. In this presentation I am examining textiles from recent history: the prisoner uniforms from Nazi concentration camps; I attempt to “read” the information they contain.
Most, but not all, of the prisoner uniforms were striped. Iconography, in this case the stripes, is the most readily interpreted aspect of a textile. But other aspects of the uniforms are also well worth exploring. Manufacturing details, such as the materials used and the tailoring, tell us about the practical application of Nazi ideology and about the quality of textile materials in wartime. Alterations made by prisoners testify about living conditions as well as the prisoner’s adaptation to these conditions. Even the damage on the uniforms is telling; wear patterns and different stains suggest the prisoner’s work assignment.
As the textile conservator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I have worked on approximately 250 prisoner uniforms from Nazi concentration camps. What may seem like a monotonous task became fascinating when close observation of the uniforms revealed details of history that support the findings of scholars based on archival sources such as documents, photographs and films.
It is usually assumed that prisoners are dressed in striped uniforms because stripes stand out in the natural environment and that makes it harder for them to escape. However, this may or may not be the reason why stripes were chosen as the pattern for prisoners. In European visual cultures, stripes have a long association with loss of freedom and their pejorative meaning goes back hundreds of years. Stripes were considered an unnatural pattern in medieval Europe.