The enduring appeal of Nazi chic

In the subculture of S&M, Nazi uniforms are an industry of their own

No one, not even Max Mosley, seemed too perturbed about his appetite for whacking and being whacked. But he strongly denied the News of the World's claims that there was a Nazi theme, perhaps understandably, given that he is a scion of the Hitler devotee Oswald. If he'd wanted to do that, he pointed out in court, there are many places from which he could have bought appropriate Nazi paraphernalia. For, whatever his personal preferences, there are thousands who do find dressing up in the garb of the most calculatedly ruthless exterminators in recent history an erotic aid.

In the subculture of S&M, Nazi uniforms (you know the kind of thing - black leather trench coats, Waffen SS jackets, Third Panzer Division shirts, jackboots, peaked caps, the odd swastika) are an industry of their own.

The fashion sociologist Elizabeth Wilson described how fascism eroticised uniforms with "the fetishised idealisation of the masculine body". Stylish play with Nazi chic was a feature of punk, too, with swastikas and Adolf Hitler T-shirts, while Nikki Sixx of the American rock group Mötley Crüe posed in heavy black leather and a Nazi flat cap. Siouxsie Sioux was duffed up for wearing black vinyl stockings and a swastika armband. More recently, our own dear Prince Harry appeared at a party in a swastika armband.

The Third Reich has also inveigled its way into the mainstream. As fashion editor of the Guardian in the mid-Seventies, I covered a Mädchen in Uniform collection of swaggering gals in crafted black leather, and there have been many similar collections since. Raf Simons's autumn-winter 2007/2008 collection of black leather, black wool, black vinyl and black silk was quickly labelled Nazi couture. There is still untapped mileage in the Goering look - thigh-high boots, transparent linen shirt and heavy eyeshadow - though it is unlikely Hugo Boss will be creating it; the company was not pleased when it came to light that in the 1930s it had created Nazi uniforms.

And yet, how ironic it is, the creation of sensual dress around Nazi motifs, given that Hitler strove to remove sensuality from clothes - at least for women. In Nazi Chic?, her scholarly examination of how dress was used to "create" the perfect weiblich (feminine) German woman, Irene Guenther describes how the Jews, who had built a hugely successful fashion industry, were condemned for creating clothes glorifying "whore types". When they were purged en masse, it spelled disaster for the German fashion industry. Clothing exports plummeted. Alluring Paris fashions were banned in favour of dirndl skirts, embroidered blouses and discreet necklines for the desired large, healthy Mädel, although SS wives had special dispensation to buy from Paris.

As Guenther drily remarks, even though the Nazi wives were on the whole pretty compliant they, as much as other women of the age, found little of appeal in the politically correct offerings of the German Fashion Institute. Thus, the resourceful wife of Rudolf Höss had an attic in the family villa turned into a studio where two Jewish female Auschwitz inmates sewed clothes for the commandant's family. In the end, a "sewing room" was established at the camp to make exquisite evening gowns for all the wives for SS gala events.

But if one woman stood out particularly against Hitler's repression of glamorous fashion it was Magda Goebbels, wife of the propaganda minister Joseph. She considered herself among the best-dressed women in Germany and would not have been seen dead in a dirndl or a "grey mice" suit, the uniform for urban women.

She did little to endear herself to the authorities with her recorded protest against the mass deportations when she complained that: "Elegance will now disappear from Berlin along with the Jews."

Not that it disappeared for her. When Berlin was bombed and the propaganda ministry was reduced to rubble, Frau Goebbels was wearing "a mink coat and green velvet hat".

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class