I was reading the fall issue of Esquire Gentleman recently, experiencing the slightly pleasing, slightly lulling sensation of an American fashion magazine, when I came across a photo of Adolf Hitler in a pin-striped suit.
It was part of an article on old-fashioned pin-stripe suits, like the ones worn by the Duke of Windsor or Al Capone, who were also featured. The article was by John Weitz, the fashion designer, and it focused quite solemnly on fashion: “None of the shops had a stock of civilized, natural shouldered, single-breasted suits with unpleated trousers. I was shattered.”
The archival photographs of men in pin stripes were full of interesting period detail–there seemed to be a bad tooth fronting the Duke of Windsor’s smile; Al Capone’s hand was particularly hairy.
Adolf Hitler is pictured in a light gray suit with wide chalk stripes. His hands are especially interesting: his right hand grasps his left wrist, and his fingers are more visible, more human, than in any other photograph I’ve seen. His collar is bright white, and stands out against the suit.
The caption reads: “The biggest gangster of all: Even Hitler couldn’t resist the chalk stripe suit out of uniform.” Even Hitler, as though heinousness ordinarily confers upon one a distressing lack of taste.
The men pictured in the article are The Duke of Windsor, Joseph Cotton, Al Capone, a nameless and attractive young male model, a young John Weitz pictured in China in the forties, a smiling Cary Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The list evokes the sort of test question found in the back of grade school text books: Which one does not belong?
Al Capone is a particularly galling member of this line-up. He occupies a fairly exalted position in American culture, a remnant of the rough and tumble beginnings of the century, part Bugsy Siegel (ethnic gangster visionary), part Edmund Wilson (they got him on income taxes), all filtered through a Robert DeNiro performance. Capone was a gangster, Hitler an even bigger gangster. Both guys tried to corner the market (Capone: Liquor; Hitler: everything) and both did bad things (Capone: he killed people; Hitler: he killed lots of people). Hitler in pin stripes suggests it’s all relative.
I pondered the photograph and a tremendous sense of dread swept over me. I thought: Oh no, not another indignant Jew! I am Jewish and I am, on occasion, indignant, but rarely do the two entwine. For many people they entwine quite often; it’s a literary genre all its own, one whose cannon I’m not eager to enlarge. But the visual vocabulary of fashion magazines serves as an indicator for what we are allowed to take seriously, and this trivial lapse of taste seems to deserve comment.
Fashion magazines are about mirth and attitude and a slightly hedonistic preoccupation with surfaces. Hitler is not about these things. Hitler and fashion is interesting to contemplate; Hitler as an example of suit styles defies contemplation.
Note to the Esquire Gentleman editors: That feature on white linen, how about the Ku Klux Klan?
Bright colors are back. How about a piece on the Khmer Rouge?
Wide collars? Why not the death scene from Jonestown?
The whole message of fashion magazines is that fashion matters. To enjoy them one must enter a certain credulous state, no matter how outwardly catty or critical one may be as you turn the pages. Thus I did not respond right away to Hitler the Gentleman. I was lulled, much like duck, duck, goose: Style, Style, Style, Style, Hitler! There was a pause between seeing the bland innocuous photo, and the comprehension of this man and the historical events connected with him. I registered the mustache like a vaguely familiar corporate logo. But then it clicked, and I was suddenly in no mood for a fashion magazine, be it about ladies or gentleman.