The fashion industry, which once rallied under the united colors of Benetton, has fallen in love with the Aryan ideal.
When I was eight years old my family traveled to Chile for Christmas. The country was then under Agosto Pinochet’s reign of Friedmanite-directed neoliberal terror. The night of our arrival, we had to evacuate from the Santiago Sheraton because of a bomb scare. The next morning a major subway station experienced a severe explosion. All in all, it was an exciting trip — to say the least.
Two weeks into our Chilean idyll, my family decided to rent a car and head to the northern part of country. We passed through leper colonies, and through towns where most of the residents had tuberculosis. On Christmas Eve, a policeman flagged our truck down to hand us a card on which was written, “Merry Christmas from the police. We are your friend.”
Perhaps one of my strangest memories of that trip across the northern half of Chile was staying in a picturesque inn on a lake run by tuberculosis-stricken refugees from Germany. My mother groaned audibly when they handed my brother and I a bowl of hand-picked cherries in welcome. They were quite happy we had chosen to spend a few days at their humble inn, because we were Austrian, you see, and they, being German, were delighted to be visited by their noble Aryan cousins (that and it was black-fly season, so no person in their right mind would dare rent a cottage during such a pestilence). These Germans weren’t just regular old refugees fleeing mad dictators or the random pogrom, but Nazi sympathizers laying low in Chile until, as they explained in cheerful Hochdeutsch, “the Reich is reestablished and they can return home.”
Even as a child I found it strange that all those ruddy, coughing Germans still believed that the Third Reich would rise Phoenix-like and call its children home to fight for race and Fatherland. They seemed more than delusional with their belief in this macabre fairy tale. But against the otherworldly backdrop of a crystal blue lake surrounded by smoking volcanoes, it seemed possible that perhaps they were right, and we would once again be haunted by those dark, angular figures in leather overcoats brandishing Lugers and bringing slavering German shepherds to heel.
A recent New York Times photo essay on model scouts in Brazil reminded me of those exiled Germans who, for all I know, are still waiting, the hope of a resurgent Heimat beating in their consumptive chests. The photo essay depicts the wanderings of a model scout from São Paolo named Alisson Chornak, who conducts research into the ethnic composition of certain small towns in the Rio Grande do Sul region, which was colonized predominantly by Germans, in order to locate tanned, Teutonic young women to transform into fashio models.
Before setting out in a pink S.U.V. to comb the schoolyards and shopping malls of southern Brazil, Alisson Chornak studies books, maps and Web sites to understand how the towns were colonized and how European their residents might look today.
The Times piece details how Chornak finds one promising specimen, a girl named Michele Meurer, who lives with her family on a tobacco farm. He takes her from her parents and whisks her to the big city to live with 11 other girls eager for their 15 minutes of fame. But the article reveals that loneliness and homesickness drove Michele home again, into the arms of her parents, who probably never really understood who they were handing their daughter over to.
In his search for young, tawny Aryans to stable as clotheshorses for the fashion industry, Chornak is really no different from the character of Abel Tiffauges in Michel Tournier’s 1970 novel The Ogre. Abel is a maladaptive French mechanic who, by happenstance of all sorts, ends up aiding the SS in collecting blond, blue-eyed children from Polish villages. His job is to find those children who appear to be of Germanic heritage and bring them to the SS training school in an imposing castle to be “repatriated.” The Ogre documents events that were quite common during World War II. Scouts really did search out children of Germanic heritage among the Slavs of Poland. And these children really were taken from their parents and housed in orphanages where they could be properly reared as true Germans.
The natural parallel between searching for blond-haired, blue-eyed models in Brazil (some of whom may have been the offspring of people like the refugees I encountered in Chile) and the dark work of Abel Tiffauges cannot be passed over without comment. It confirms my suspicion that the fashion industry and fascism are birds of a feather. Indeed, by designing the very uniforms that still enthrall Hollywood today, the fashion industry played a large part in promoting fascism in Europe. And, on the very same page as the photo essay featuring the model scout Chornak, The New York Times ran an article entitled “Off Runway, Brazilian Beauty Goes Beyond Blond,” which itself features careful closeups of glimmering, long blond hair and vacant blue eyes that bespeak of a dangerous fascination that still grips the Western world.
To dwell on how fascism and fashion go hand in hand seems trivial nowadays, given the fact that one can longer deny that we live in a fascist state.
Certainly this argument is nothing new. In fact, it seems like most people know that fashionistas are also fascists, even if they can’t define the term. But it is interesting how we seem stuck in some eternal return of the same twentieth century horror. Whether it’s corporate fascism, or simply a Versace spread in a magazine, it seems we can’t get out of some infernal loop begun well over a century ago. To dwell on how fascism and fashion go hand in hand seems trivial nowadays, given the fact that one can longer deny that we live in a fascist state. It used to be fun to write things to that effect (“This isn’t the land of the free! We’re all enslaved! Now let me get back to reading my Orwell.”) while only half believing it, knowing you could still kind of trust the press to uncover wrongdoing and could still read what you liked. Now, however, in light of the fact that Goldman Sachs and British Petroleum have very conspicuously been given free rein over matters of state, it can only be written with a surreal sort of resignation that we really aren’t free anymore. Fashionable or unfashionable, we’re all fascist subjects now.
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