Holocaust Chic: Homophobia, Anti-Semitism and Abject Fashion Marketing @Mark O’Connell 2017, no reproduction without permission
“ I hate the word Homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an a**hole”
Morgan Freeman, Twitter, 2014.
Contemporary media engagement results in the constant barrage of information and marketing that is funneled through the myriad channels that stream into devices and apps and into our consciousness. The ability for cognitive registration of any particular item becomes more and more and competitive and the marketing strategies of producers go to ever-greater lengths to engage the commodity purchasing public. Within the realm of social media one of the strongest identifiable manifestations of collective will is the wave of outrage. A hashtag around an event will create a grassroots groundswell and then through viral reiteration the power of social change can be manifested.
Urban Outfitters recently debuted a “Tapestry” blanket that closely resembles the concentration camp uniform worn by homosexual prisoners in World War Two concentration camps.
Abraham H. Foxman, Anti Defamation League, National Director and a Holocaust survivor comments on the objectionable item: “Whether intentional or not, this gray and white striped pattern and pink triangle combination is deeply offensive and should not be mainstreamed into popular culture,” and goes on to say: “We urge Urban Outfitters to immediately remove the product eerily reminiscent of clothing forced upon the victims of the Holocaust from their stores and online” (Gray, 2015). For those not familiar with the significance of the pink triangle, it was the badge marking homosexual prisoners in concentrations camps during World War Two.
“Tens of thousands of gays were arrested in Germany and, after they were occupied by the Nazis, the countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland put similar laws into effect. Estimates by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., of the number of gay men arrested range up to 100,000” (Taffet, 2012). Once within the camps their experience was that: “Those sent to camps had a short life expectancy as well. They died from overwork, starvation, physical brutality or murder” (2012). And for those that were fortunate enough to have survived the ordeal, their treatment upon their subsequent liberation at the end of World War Two consisted of:
“The homophobic persecution endured by these people was compounded by the fact that after the war they were re-incarcerated. Those with a pink triangle later reported miserable treatment by other prisoners as well as by their captors. Gays were among those killed in an SS-sponsored “extermination through work” program that began in 1943. Many of those who were liberated from the camps were rearrested after the war to serve out their terms of imprisonment. The punishment for homosexuality under Paragraph 175 was two years in prison, but time spent in a concentration camp did not count toward their sentence. After the war, the West German government began paying reparations to those who had spent time in the camps. But in 1956, the government declared that those imprisoned for homosexuality did not qualify for compensation (2012).
In light of this punitive climate regarding homosexuality, the agency for recording memory was severely inhibited. As Erik Jensen in ‘The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi persecution’ explains:
…The absence of testimony, of personal memories, from the victims themselves. Almost all of the survivors lived in either East or West Germany or in Austria; and in all three countries the penal codes continued to criminalize homosexual acts after the war, and police regularly harassed gay men throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Because the legal and social stigma attached to homosexuality remained, homosexual survivors were understandably wary of telling their stories of persecution, let alone demanding public aknowledgment. The mayor of the village of Dachau, Hans Zauner, typified the hostile climate that these survivors faced when he, with apparent disgust, told an interviewer in 1960; ‘You must remember that many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?’ (2002: 321).
For Urban Outfitters to produce and item that capitalizes on this terrible legacy to sell their product is unconscionable. Explained away as an innocent mistake, their apology and explanation rings hollow after examination of other recent abject marketing offerings like the Kent State sweatshirt that appears to have bloodstains and bullet holes in it:
For those unfamiliar with what happened at Kent State: “On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War” (Rosenberg, 2013).
And there was also their infamous t-shirt that advocated for eating disorders.
The alarming regularity of these offensive offerings speaks to a marketing ploy by Urban Outfitters to grab media attention. If this is in fact so, it needs to be stopped because in the case of the pink triangle ‘Tapestry’ it trivializes the holocaust and cheapens the memory and experience of everyone victimized during those terrible times during World War Two.
Unfortunately it is not just Urban Outfitters who have used the holocaust to promote their fashionable wares. Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons early in her career put together a range of men’s sleepwear with such obvious concentration camp iconography that she ignited a global outcry and was forced to destroy the collection and has worked diligently ever since to eradicate all evidence of her unfortunate design choices. Included in the show were striped pyjamas and garments with numeric identifications as well as coats with footprints on the back. The fact that the fashion show took place on the anniversary of liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp was debatable as a coincidence or as something pre-planned. Agata Zborowska has written about the notorious show in ‘Uses and Abuses of History: a Case of a Comme des Garcons Fashion Show’. She quotes Serge Cwajgenbaum, General Secretary of the World Jewish Congress when he described the collection after visiting the Comme Des Garcons atelier after the show: “However, elements such as shaved heads, emaciated bodies and sad facial expressions invoke a much broader visual similarity: not only through the striped pyjamas, but a set of characteristic features of the models. What we get is a general picture of what a concentration camp prisoner looked like” (Zborowska, 240).
As the original striped pyjamas and other controversial wardrobe items were destroyed and Comme des Garcons has gone to great lengths to eradicate what photographic evidence remained, the ambiguous legacy has been left to grow to anecdotal mythical stature. Kawakubo consistently denied that she had any intention of evoking those concentration camp connections, but as she had previously made women’s clothing from salvaged army uniforms during the Bosnian war (Menkes, 1995), and had a very early collection embellished with ash and shredded clothing characterized as ‘Hiroshima’s revenge’, her denials seem a little trite (Thurman, 2015).
The larger issues of trivializing the holocaust through “holocaust chic” is that it de-sensitizes people and normalizes anti-semitism. It also opens the door for the far more serious occurrence of holocaust deniers voicing their hatemongering.
However it is grande dame of British fashion Vivienne Westwood who can be credited with bringing Nazi iconography into vogue in a far more literal way than Kawakubo ever did. She incorporated Nazi iconography in the late 1970’s in her fashion designs and the wardrobing for the Sex Pistols band who were managed by her (then) boyfriend Malcolm Mclaren.
And of course the most visible recent manifestation of fashion anti Semitism in recent memory was John Galliano’s spectacular downfall after his anti-semitic comments:
“I love Hitler” and “People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f****** gassed” were recorded on video at a Paris cafe (Lo, 2011).
When all of this is taken into consideration, using the holocaust to provoke publicity or sell merchandise goes far beyond tastelessness and becomes criminal. Especially when the actual truth about the scope of the holocaust is realized to have been enacted on a far larger scale than the previous historical accounts understood it to be. The New York Times article: ‘The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking’ outlines a new body of research that has brought to light new information: “the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began the grim task of documenting all the ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe.” (Lichtblau, 2013). This research brings to light new evidence into the World War Two death camps: “the lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites” (2013). Over thirteen years “the researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945.” (2013). The research also demonstrates that “Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear” (2013). Regarding the function of these sites: “the documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel” (2013).
On its own, this information is fundamentally disturbing, but when you connect it to the rise in anti-semitism in Europe that can be observed today it becomes alarming: “These are the worst times since the Nazi era,” Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, told the Guardian. “On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticising Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed” (Henley, 2014). Compounded with the fact that: “almost every observer pointed to the unparalleled power of unfiltered social media to inflame and to mobilise. A stream of shocking images and Twitter hashtags, including #HitlerWasRight, amount, (Crif’s vice-president Yonathan) Arfi said, almost to indoctrination. “The logical conclusion, in fact, is radicalisation: on social media people self-select what they see, and what they see can be pure, unchecked propaganda. They may never be confronted with opinions that are not their own”(Henley, 2014).
Add to this the concurrent rise of homophobia globally, with Indiana and Arkansas enacting legislation that allows for legal discrimination against homosexual people, and the rising homophobic violence U.S. and Europe; and the dangerous consequences of hate propaganda can be observed first hand.
Thus, the trivializing and “normalization” of homophobia and anti-Semitism contributes to something far more serious than just offending sensibilities. The repeated unmitigated exposure to this sort of abject iconography can function to create a climate of intolerance and foster hatred. And for that reason “Holocaust Chic” and all forms of abject marketing need to be identified and eliminated when they are being disseminated by unscrupulous people. The consequences are too devastating to be ignored.
Fig. 13. “A young boy offers flowers at a makeshift shrine set on the location where Mark Carson, 32, a gay man, was shot dead in what police are calling a hate crime in Greenwich Village in New York, May 20, 2013” (Bridge 2013).
Bridge, Robert. ‘New York City shocked as anti-gay hate crimes come out of closet. RT.com. May 20, 2013, accessed: April 2, 2015: http://rt.com/usa/gay-murder-greenwich-us-homophobia-511/
Bunzl, Matti. “Between anti‐Semitism and Islamophobia: Some thoughts on the new Europe.” American Ethnologist 32, no. 4 (2005): 499-508.
Gray, Kaili Joy. ‘Please Stop With the Holocaust Chic it is not Actually a Thing’ Wonkette. Feb. 11, 2015. Accessed, April 2, 2015: http://wonkette.com/575808/please-stop-with-the-holocaust-chic-it-is-not-actually-a-thing#PAMDFXcAs6YQVoa8.99
Henley, Jon. Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’ The Guardian. August 18 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/07/antisemitism-rise-europe-worst-since-nazis. Accessed April 2, 2015.
Hilton, Perez. ‘Tila Tequila Denies the Holocaust! Shocking!’ Perezhilton.com. Dec, 24, 2013, accessed April 2, 2015: http://perezhilton.com/2013-12-24-tila-tequila-holocaust-denies-denial-denier#.VR63xMxbzn4
Jensen, Erik N. “The pink triangle and political consciousness: Gays, lesbians, and the memory of Nazi persecution.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 1 (2002): 319-349.
Lichtblau, Eric. ‘The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking’. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/sunday-review/the-holocaust-just-got-more-shocking.html?_r=4&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=2&adxnnlx=1387896635-qWDFlUJ6ZTpz+bK2A7SK+g. Accessed April 2, 2015.
Lo, Danica. ‘I LOVE HITLER: John Galliano’s Racist, Anti-Semitic Rant At La Perle Caught On Camera’. Businessinsider.com. Feb. 28, 2011. Accessed April 2, 2015: http://www.businessinsider.com/john-galliano-racist-rant-anti-semitic-video-2011-2#ixzz3WGxoYt2W
Menkes, Suzy.“ Auschwitz Fashions Draw Jewish Rebuke”. The New York Times. Feb 4, 1995, accessed April 2, 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/04/news/04iht-suzy.html
Plant, Richard. The pink triangle: The Nazi war against homosexuals. Macmillan, 2011.
Rosenberg, David. “Personal Remembrances of the Kent State Shootings, 43 Years Later.” Slate. May 4, 2013, Accessed April 2, 2015: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/05/04/may_4_1970_the_kent_state_university_shootings_told_through_pictures_photos.html
Roy, Jessica. ‘Urban Outfitters’ Awful Blood-Spattered Kent State Sweatshirt Is Now for Sale on eBay’ New York Magazine. Sept. 14, 2014, accessed April 2, 2015: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/09/urban-outfitters-kent-state-sweatshirt-on-ebay.html
Thurman, Judith. “The Misfit” The New Yorker. July 4, 2005 Issue, accessed April 2, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/04/the-misfit-3
Unknown ‘Rise in number of violent homophobic crimes being reported to police’ The Guardian. Nov, 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/26/rise-violent-homophobic-crimes-reported-police
Zborowska, Agata. “Uses and Abuses of History: A case of a Comme des Garçons Fashion Show.” Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty 5, no. 2 (2014): 233-252.
Urban Outfitters ‘Pink Triangle’ Tapestry. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-10/urban-outfitters-chided-for-tapestry-looking-like-holocaust (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig.1. Tapestry and concentration camp uniform with pink triangle to denote homosexual prisoner. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2015/02/11/urban-outfitters-under-fire-for-tapestry-eerily-similar-to-concentration-camp/ (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 2. Homosexual prisoners in a concentration camp during World War Two. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://awiderbridge.org/living-survivors-of-the-holocaust/ (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 3. Homosexual prisoner mug shot from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://histclo.com/essay/war/ww2/hol/kz/ic/a/auchw/kza-pi.html (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 4. ‘Kent State Sweatshirt’. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/09/urban-outfitters-kent-state-sweatshirt-on-ebay.html (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 5. John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. Photograph Jeff Philo, May 4, 1970. Available from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/05/04/may_4_1970_the_kent_state_university_shootings_told_through_pictures_photos.html (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 6. ‘Eat Less T-Shirt’ June 2010. Image from the Urban Outfitters website (since removed). Photographer unknown. Available from: http://theweek.com/articles/480961/14-urban-outfitters-controversies (accessed,
April 2, 2015).
Fig. 7. Outfit from the ‘Sleep’ collection, 1995, Comme Des Garcons. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/07/15/top-runway-faux-pas.html (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 8. Outfit from the ‘Sleep’ collection, 1995, Comme Des Garcons. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://www.au.timeout.com/melbourne/art/events/2562/95-in-paris-the-outsiders-are-officially-in (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 9. Cal McCrystal, “Outrage at ‘death camps’ pyjama fashion”, Independent on Sunday, 5 February 1995; Photo: Herbie Knot.i. (Zborowska, 2002: 235). (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 10. Tila Tequila picture on her Facebook page that accompanied her post “Zionist Crime: The 6 Million Holohoax” (she has since been permanently banned from the site. (Ackerman, 2013) Photographer unknown. Available from: (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 11. Vivienne Westwood modeling her ‘Destroy’ t-shirt, 1979. Photographer unknown. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3720788.stm (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 12. Sid Vicious ‘Racism in Punk’ Musicbanter Photographer unknown. Available from:http://www.musicbanter.com/punk/12592-racism-punk-11.html (accessed, April 2, 2015).
Fig. 13. “A young boy offers flowers at a makeshift shrine set on the location where Mark Carson, 32, a gay man, was shot dead in what police are calling a hate crime in Greenwich Village in New York, May 20, 2013”, (Bridge, 2013) Photographer AFP Photo / Emmanuel Dunand. Available from: : http://rt.com/usa/gay-murder-greenwich-us-homophobia-511/ (accessed, April 2, 2015).
@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization