Inside the Fashion Industry's Terrifying History


Russell Brand found himself at the center of yet another controversy a couple of weeks ago when he was honored at a GQ award ceremony in London. While receiving the Oracle Award, he unleashed criticism of the event's sponsor, Hugo Boss, for their connections to the Nazi regime. Before finishing with a Nazi salute, Brand scolded: "Any of you know a little bit about history and fashion will know that Hugo Boss made the uniforms for the Nazis ... The Nazis did have flaws, but, you know, they did look fucking fantastic, let's face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality."

Not surprisingly, Brand was asked by a GQ editor to leave the after-party. But while GQ, Hugo Boss, and others have criticized Brand for bringing up politics at a fashion event, his comments were not only appropriate, but also perfectly timed.

Brand also attacked London Mayor Boris Johnson, winner of GQ's questionably prestigious Politician of the Year award, for an insensitive remark about chemical weapons. Brand's supposed rant was remarkably prescient. The history of fashion is more than a history of trends and modelling. Brand's comments highlighted the close relationship that nation-states have always had with the fashion industry. In modern industrial economies, fashion is often one of the largest industries. It employs millions of workers in farming, manufacturing, design, retail, and trade. The American apparel market had a value of about $331 billion in 2011 alone. Russell Brand was merely pointing out that fashion has often come at the cost of the industry's violent side.

In 2011, Hugo Boss acknowledged as much when it officially apologized for its close association with Hitler and the Nazi regime. This came some 60 years after the death of the company's eponymous founder. According to economic historian Roman Koester's book on the company during that era, Boss "did not only join the party because it led to contracts for uniform production, but also because he was a follower of National Socialism." The legal exploitation of cheap labor allowed businesses like Hugo Boss to increase profits. Hugo Boss received 40 French and 140 Polish forced laborers to fabricate Nazi uniforms, SS uniforms, and the brown shirts for the Hitler Youth.

Many industries, such as auto and banking, benefited from the Nazi regime, but Hitler and his high command's focus on reinvigorating German spirit and culture after the devastating losses in World War I translated to an emphasis on Nazi dress. The cultural front of the Nazi movement was meant to reverse the global dominance of British men's fashion and French women's fashion. In May 1933, the Nazis established the Association of German Aryan Clothing Manufactures, and sponsored a design studio dedicated to haute couture — Nazi Chic— that would rival its European neighbors. This German-designed fashion could, "promote the illusion of continuity after the National Socialist takeover," which was vital to state propaganda.

Fashion isn't just an extensive element of the modern global economy, but part of its foundation. The capacity to manufacture clothing has long been recognized as a vital step towards an industrial economy. And as with the Nazis, that manufacturing has often depended on forced labor. Both the United States and Great Britain relied heavily on the fashion industry throughout their economic ascendancy. In the United States, slavery had a chance to die a natural death immediately after the Revolution, but the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 led to a 70% rise in the number of slaves, from 697,897 in the 1790s first federal census to 1.2 million in 1810. The total value of cotton produced in the United States increased from $150,000 to $8 million over the same period. Cheap cotton became the backbone of New England's recently established textile industry, so slavery became indispensable for the economy. The United States Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, the same year Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

Fashion even served as the basis for Britain's exploitative relationship with colonial India. India's importance to the British Empire evolved around the textile industry. With cheap cotton from the United States cut off due to the American Civil War, British textile mills depended heavily on Indian cotton, and selling finished goods to Indian markets. By taking military control over India, Britain was able to create and impose favorable trade deals that severely retarded industrial growth, restricted Indian ownership of land, and forced Indians to buy textiles from England that were made with cotton grown in India. With the competition of a free market, Britain's textile industry would have dissipated and the fashion styles today associated with the "British gentleman" might never have existed. One of Mahatma Gandhi's first acts of protest was to boycott of British cloth, as well as openly encouraging Indians to spin their own cloth.

As with the Nazis, fashion played cultural as well as economic roles in colonial relationships. British fashions supplanted local customs and roles with British imperial policies to separate, identify, and reward certain socioeconomic groups. English fashion was a symbol of modernity that implied education, wealth, and status. Ancient Roman culture used fashion in a similar way — only those affiliated with royalty could wear the color purple, and senators debated whether or not slaves would become conscious of themselves as an overwhelmingly large class if they were given uniforms. The French pursued similar policies in African colonies. Colonial rule regulated the fashion of the indigenous population as backwards, and, in the case of England, "clothing 'the natives' was a central focus of the missionary project in the early encounters between the West and the non-West." By consciously wearing the apparel of an Indian village peasant, Gandhi reject British culture in favor of Indian culture. A half century of post-colonialism saw examples of leaders promoting both modernity and local culture through their fashion choices, most notably Mao Zedong, whose suit combined a Prussian military outfit with traditional Chinese styles.

Brand was not out of line. The history of fashion has always been a violent one. Today, Europeans moving to ban headscarves and veils on Muslim women in public, sweatshops are collapsing in Bangladesh, and non-profits in Africa are encouraging local fashion design and production. The practice of clothing donations from developed countries has been an obstacle to economic growth in Africa  because such donations sack demand for domestic clothing industries, something to remember when we see an image of an African child wearing a Coca-Cola T-shirt. Brand is only reminding us of how deep the history of fashion runs. He isn't the first comedian to do so. If you want to know how deep this really goes, you can always watch Zoolander.