The Nazi concentration camps had a principle of Vernichtung durch Arbeit – destruction through work.
However, for the 23 women of the Upper Tailoring Studio at Auschwitz, work meant salvation of a sort.
Created at the command of Hedwig Hoess, wife of the concentration camp’s feared commander Rudolf, the dressmaking workshop was “a haven of style and colour in the midst of horror and filth”.
While other sewing workshops at the camp used Jewish slave labour to sew or repair uniforms, the depraved instructions of Frau Hoess were simple: to create the most elegant evening gowns to be found in Europe.
Seamstress Hermine Storch later reported: “The sewing room produced not only beautiful everyday wardrobes but also elegant evening gowns, the kind of which the SS ladies would probably not have imagined in their wildest dreams.”
The sewing room produced not only beautiful everyday wardrobes but also elegant evening gowns
Award-winning author and fashion historian Lucy Adlington has based her new young adult novel on the real, untold stories of seamstresses such as Storch – inventive women who were forced to create chic couture to order, despite being stripped of their own identities and dressed in rags.
“Because many of the persecuted Jews were highly skilled artisans, it wasn’t uncommon for high-ranking Nazis to use their skills even as they condoned their degradation,” says Adlington.
Known in German as the Obere Naestube, the Upper Tailoring Studio was staffed by women saved from the gas chambers because of their sewing skills. Some had been high-fashion seamstresses before being transported to Auschwitz, others had been fashion designers. They included Alida Vasselin, a French corsetière who had been arrested for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets in the corsets she sewed, and Marilou Colombain, a sergeant in the French Resistance.
Jewish seamstresses were forced to make haute couture gowns for Nazi officers
“Their forewoman was Marta Fuchs who was described as a ‘capable, intelligent and wonderful’ person,” says Adlington. Each of the seamstresses in the team was tasked with creating two dresses a week from looted fabric. They were also required to alter clothes from the massive stockpile of plundered possessions taken from the Jews on arrival at the camp.
Promptly at noon on Saturdays, SS officers…