Calories For Dignity: Fashion in the Concentration Camp

ABSTRACT - This paper examines the existence and purpose of fashion in the Nazi concentration camp. I propose that the costly pursuit of fashion represented a crucial drive to regain human dignity: an urge that was almost as essential to surviving the lager as satisfying hunger. The significance of fashion in Auschwitz and other concentration camps suggests that the desire to enhance one’s personal appearance is elemental, and that its pursuit is central to feeling human.


Jill G. Klein (2003) ,"Calories For Dignity: Fashion in the Concentration Camp", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 34-37.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 34-37


Jill G. Klein, INSEAD

[I would like to thank Russell Belk, Kent Grayson, Andrew John, Michael Solomon, and John Sherry, for their helpful insights and comments on this project. This paper is dedicated to my father, Gene Klein, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz at the age of 16.]


This paper examines the existence and purpose of fashion in the Nazi concentration camp. I propose that the costly pursuit of fashion represented a crucial drive to regain human dignity: an urge that was almost as essential to surviving the lager as satisfying hunger. The significance of fashion in Auschwitz and other concentration camps suggests that the desire to enhance one’s personal appearance is elemental, and that its pursuit is central to feeling human.

"By day, I’m dressed like a person of quality: no patches on my striped pants and jacket, a well-cut cap with a peak in front, shoes that are almost wearable." (Paul Steinberg, writing of his experiences as a slave laborer in Auschwitz in Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning, 2000. He was 17 in 1944.)


It seems impossible that fashion would be important in a concentration camp, but it was. Some prisoners in Auschwitz, malnourished as they were, traded bread fr tailoring services, soup for a better pair of pants. Understanding this desire to be fashionable in the most dire of circumstances may tell us something fundamental about human motivations, and, by extension, about needs and goals underlying consumer behavior.

I propose that this costly pursuit of fashion represented a crucial drive to regain human dignity: an urge that was almost as essential to surviving the lager as satisfying hunger. The significance of fashion in Auschwitz and other concentration camps suggests that the desire to enhance one’s personal appearance is elemental, and that its pursuit is central, if not to being human, then at least to feeling human.

In their choice of clothing, consumers strive for a strong congruence between self-image and product image (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982). In most concentration camps, however, the choice of clothing was not up to the prisoner. Uniforms were issued, heads were shaved, and prisoners were made to look as much like each other as possible. Aside from the dehumanizing impact of the attire at Auschwitz, the uniforms were wholly inadequate for cold conditions, as the fabric was very thin and was often full of holes. (Also, many prisoners were not issued underwear.)

With the loss of possessions, particularly one’s personal clothing, came the loss of individuality and personal dignity. Other factors, such as constant, overwhelming hunger and barely survivable (or deathly) workdays also facilitated this process. As Elie Wiesel (1960) relates:

"I now took little interest in anything except my daily plate of soup and my crust of stale bread. Bread, soupBthese were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time."

In the next section, I briefly describe some key aspects of life at Auschwitz, including the social hierarchy. This serves as a foundation for the following sections in which I examine ways in which prisoners struggled to regain their individuality through the acquisition of possessions and fashion through trade.


The following is a short description of some key aspects of concentration camp life, based on multiple memoirs and personal interviews. This provides the context for understanding the value of items such as a bowl of soup, an easier work detail, a tailored pajama jacket, or a small morsel of potato. My description focuses on Auschwitz concentration camp, which was actually composed of multiple camps in close proximity (e.g., Auschwitz I, Auschwitz IIBBirkenau, Buna, Monowitz). These were both extermination camps (particularly Birkenau, which housed four gas chambers) and slave labor camps. While all of the large Nazi extermination/labor camps had unique structures and cultures, they shared many similarities, as they were all facets of a centralized system created by the Third Reich.

The uniforms that male prisoners were given looked much like striped blue and white pajamas. [Throughout the Middle Ages, striped clothing was the attire of Jews, and other groups considered outcast, as depicted in literature and paintings. Striped clothing at that time symbolized evil and the disturbance of order (Pastoureau 2001).] Women were assigned either striped dresses or plain gray dresses. [There are some reports of prisoners simply being given the old civilian clothes of arrivals who had been sent to the gas chambers.]

"Most of the prisoners were given a uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison (Frankl 1963, p. 31)."

Food allotments differed depending on one’s work detail, the availability of supplies, and other factors, but generally consisted of a piece of bread in the morning (sometimes with a pat of margarine), along with imitation coffee (but often there was no morning bread). The evening meal consisted of a bowl of watery soup and a piece of bread. One’s place in the dinner line (or connection to the soup server) was crucial in that soup iven from the bottom of the pot might include a chunk of potato or even a small piece of meat.

Thus, the daily calorie intake was far below what is necessary for good health, and because of this one’s work assignment was crucial. Work could range from light administrative duties (rare among Jewish prisoners) to hard labor such as ditch digging or carrying very heavy bags of cement continuously from sunup to sundown. It did not take prisoners long to realize that survival depended in large part on one’s Kommando (or work unit). That prisoners struggled to get assigned to a relatively easy Kommando, or to switch from a difficult to a better Kommando, is discussed in every memoir of Auschwitz that I have encountered, and was even acknowledged by Rudolph Hoss, the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz, in his memoirs (Hoss 1992).

A well-maintained social hierarchy of prisoners existed (see Figure 1 for a depiction of the men’s camp hierarchy at Auschwitz). The base of this structure was filled with the Muselmanner. These were the "poorest" of prisoners who held no influence, had nothing to trade for food and were too close to starvation to sell food. The Muselmanner was at death’s door and was so beaten down and withdrawn that he appeared not to care. Prisoners higher in the hierarchy recognized that assignment to a difficult work detail was a fast ticket to the ranks of the Muselmanner.



The "average" prisoner would probably not be in the most difficult of Kommandos (at least not for a prolonged length of time), but had no special access to goods or to influence. With some seniority and connections with influential prisoners he might eventually move to the privileged class, or he might fall into the category of Muselmanner due to the prolonged deprivation of camp life, assignment to a difficult Kommando, infection, accident, or a psychological blow (such as the death of a friend or family member who had been a source of social support in the camp).

Privileged prisoners tended to belong to easier Kommandos and often had access to goods. An example would be the Canada Kommando, the name given to the workers who sorted the possessions of new arrivals (suitcases, food, jewelry, etc.). While there were strict rules forbidding prisoners (and SS guards) from looting, it was a common practice. Thus, prisoners who worked in Canada were able to trade their goods for food, clothing, tailoring services, etc.

At the top of the prisoner hierarchy, but under the SS (who, of course, had their own complex hierarchy) were the kapos, prisoners who were given authority over other prisoners by the SS. Also included are the Prominenz, or camp aristocracy. Those in the Prominenz could be kapos, but could also have achieved their privileged status in other ways (perhaps, for example, through black market trading in conjunction with the SS). The demeanor of the kapos ranged from benevolent toward the prisoners to sadistic. Because of their positions, kapos had special access to food and other goods. For example, a prisoner might give a "gift" to a kapo in exchange for an improved work assignment or more lenient treatment. In the early days of Auschwitz, kapos were often "Green Triangles", indicated by the uniform patch that indicated that one had been a criminal. Later, political prisoners and Jews rose to these ranks. [As this suggests, there was also a hierarchy among different types of prisoner (politicals, criminals, Jews, etc.) but the focus here is on the Jewish prisoners, who are widely agreed to have suffered the greatest degradation at Auschwitz (Weirnicki 2001), and thus made the greatest sacrifices for fashion. (Note that all memoir and interview quotes are from Jewish prisoners.)

Seniority was also an important factor. Prisoners who had been in Auschwitz the longest (as indicated by low numbered tattoos) were accorded respect by other prisoners. But achieving this seniorityBmanaging to surviveBwas usually accompanied by having moved up the hierarchy and gaining access to goods, having influence, and working in a lighter Kommando.

The hierarchy depicted in Figure 1 is only a thumbnail sketch. Volumes could be written on the intricacies of the social structure among prisoners at Auschwitz. [The reader is directed to Primo Levis= "Survival in Auschwitz" (1996) for a more detailed description of the camp hierarchy.] The key point is that one’s social standing was crucial to survival. Many survivors rose, at least temporarily, to the status of privileged prisoner. [This appears to be true based on the memoir literature, though I know of no empirical studies that have tested this hypothesis. It is not surprising, however, that memoirists seem to over represent the privileged prisoners: the vast majority of prisoners, the Muselmanner, died in the camps, and kapos, one would guess, are less willing to publicly relate their experiences.] For example, memoirists Primo Levi (1996) and Paul Steinberg (2000) both survived their second winter in Auschwitz by being moved from outdoor labor to indoor work as chemists. Louis de Wijze (1997) obtained the plum job of caretaker for the SS rabbit supply. My father’s reprieve only lasted two weeks, but probably saved his life. He was on his way to Muselmanner status in a satellite labor camp where he spent his days carrying heavy metal railroad lines up a mountain. Because he spoke German, he was selected to carry surveying equipment for a German civilian engineer. This afforded him not only a much easier workload, but through the generosity and bravery of the civilian, stolen food from the SS kitchen.


Given the experience of having one’s sense of self stripped away, it is not surprising that prisoners sought to regain their dignity. What is surprising is that this struggle occurs even while basic needs, such as hunger and sleep, are barely met. Yet, prisoners sometimes traded precious calories for objects or services that would improve their appearance. Or, more simply, they spent energy, another precious resource, on fashion improvements. Prisoners had tradeoffs to make: maintaining dignity was not free. It is a testament to the importance of human dignity that prisoners were willing to sacrifice so much of so little that they had to fight back against debasement.

A lively economy was in operation in the concentration camps. [For discussion of a World War II P.O.W. camp economy, see Radford (1945); for discussion of an American prison economy, see Szykman and Hill (1993). See also, Goffman (1961).] In many concentration camps, the unit of currency was a slice of bread or a bowl of soup. As Joseph Bau (1998), a prisoner of the Plaszow concentration camp recounts:

"Our world revolved around this ersatz bread; it became a medium of exchange on the black market near the latrine and the accepted currency for any purchase. It was also given to us as wages for our hard work (p. 140)."

Of course, with severe hunger as the norm, there was a powerful market for food, and prisoners who were lucky or opportunistic found many ways to make their purchases:

"The tobacco business I have started, thanks to my English friends [POW’s in a nearby barrack at Auschwitz] enables me to double my daily rations and thus considerably enhances my chances for survival. Without the extra portions in addition to the daily minimum, the outlook would have been very bleak for me. Every day, scores of prisoners succumb to malnutrition, exhaustion and physical violence. At night in the barrack, I can hear them hallucinate and groan. In the morning, trucks loaded with corpses drive to the crematoria of Birkenau (de Wijze 1997, p. 50)."

Not surprisingly, many prisoners kept their eyes open to every opportunity to obtain something valuable. Prisoners referred to the acquisition of goods that fed this economy as "organizing", and sources of these goods ranged from a piece of thread found on the floor to medical supplies stolen from the hospital. It was within this economy that prisoners who had successfully increased their calorie intake (but who were still very under nourished) were able to "buy" fashion, and through this fashion, status.

The prisoners of the Sonderkommando (gas chamber and crematoria workers) were heavily involved in trade because of their access to goods (from the newly arrived prisoners). Filip Muller spent three years in the Auschwitz Sonderkommando:

"Almost every prisoner in the Sonderkommando spent a great deal of energy on organizing, partly because it helped alleviate the harsh living conditions, but also because it drew our minds off the horrors around us. Besides organizing, there was an activity known as Auschwitz fashion, by means of which many members of the Sonderkommando attempted to blind themselves to their desperate situation. In order to make themselves look more like human beings they imitated their torturers by aping their way of dressing (1979, p. 62)."

Judith Isaacson writes of her early days in Birkenau:

"We wanted to cover our nakedness, and unlike Eve in the Garden of Eden, we had to include our nude heads. The going rate for a ragged kerchief soon rose to a day’s ration of bread... Someone had found a needle and I decided to borrow it. Reluctantly I broke off a small piece of bread to pay her fee. Why do I bother?, I asked myself, as I hemmed my kerchief with some unraveled thread. We women were a strange sex I decided: we sustain our sanity with mere trifles. Even in hell. Yes, even in hell (1991, p. 77)."

There were other ways, besides trading, that prisoners were able to re-establish their individuality through fashion. Louis de Wijze joined the Jewish soccer team in the SS-sponsored "league". He recounts his first game at Auschwitz, which was played against the Red Triangles (political prisoners):

"Filled with pride I had entered the field with my teammates. It had been a great feeling to substitute the squeaky-clean, colorful soccer attire and real leather shoes for the smelly prison clothes and the hated number. For the first time in a long while I had not felt like a number, an animal in the herd."

As suggested in the quotes above from Isaacson’s memoir, female prisoners found particularly creative ways to enhance their appearance. In her diary, my aunt Oli Kluszik writes (after describing the hunger she is experiencing):

"I’m sitting on a green bench, four people are busy with something near me. One of them is making an elegant blouse of her shabby shirt The other one is writing camp poems on the paper taken from the factory, the third one is knitting a striped pullover of her undone scarf and the forth one is crouching in front of me beating a nail back into her worn out shoe on top of the covered trench."

Oli, and her sister Lily Isaacs, prepare a newsletter by writing on scraps of paper stolen from the munitions factory where they work near their camp in Germany. Each Sunday, they go from barrack to barrack to read their work to the other inmates. Their publication is called the "Grey Paper" because all of the women wear gray dresses. In jest, they include a section on fashion:

"Do you have a grey broad-shouldered shirt and you don’t know what to use it for? Our drawings will show you our gathered, pleated, broad-shouldered skirts with a slit, decorated with a monogram. The blue and white-striped shirt-blouse inlets, decorated with various buttons, are very fashionable."


Thus far I have referred to fashion acquisition as a method for restoring human dignity in a context where multiple forces are at play to debase and degrade. We can refer to this function as self-enhancement. The purpose of maintaining one’s appearance is to maintain the sense of being human. Thus, one function of fashion in the camp may have been purely emotional and inner-directed: improving appearance made the prisoner feel better, more human, and perhaps, more strongly attached to their former life.

Utilizing Holbrook’s typology of consumer value, this purpose of fashion would be referred to as self-oriented because the consumption experience is valued for the effect it has on the self. Other-oriented value is outward looking, and consumption is valued for the effect it has on other people. In the latter case, the consumer hopes to gain status or esteem in the eyes of others (Holbrook 1999). Similarly, in Russell Belk’s (e.g., 1988) theory of symbolic consumption, people see their possessions as an extension of themselves. Belk distinguishes between consumption encodingCself-image developed through one’s own consumption, and consumption decodingCthe inferences that others make based on one’s possessions. [It can be difficult to disentangle self- versus other-directed motives. An article of clothing might affect self-esteem both directly, through self-directed value, and indirectly, through status enhancement in the eyes of others. An example of this interplay is the idea, proposed by Solomon (1999), that the need to display status objects plays a role in self-identification.]

There is ample evidence in the memoir literature that, in addition to direct influences on self-esteem, fashion played an important signaling function. In particular, it was a mechanism for showing one’s place in the status hierarchy. As Solomon (1999) points out, possessions can be used to convey relative status to others in a social group. There are many mentions in survivor memoirs of feeling superior or "luckier" than the new, incoming prisoners (e.g., Steinberg 2000).

In summary, two functions of fashion were clearly operating in the camps: fashion increased esteem and allowed one to recapture a sense of human dignity, and it also signaled to others one’s status within the camp hierarchy.


In this paper, I have endeavored to show that fashion existed in Nazi concentration camps, and to explain why and how this phenomenon might have developed. I view fashion in the camps as foremost an attempt by prisoners to regain their status as human beings. Thus, while fashion is often thought of as a hollow or frivolous marketing generated phenomenon, this research suggests that fashion can serve as an important expression of individuality, and as an essential tool for establishing one’s dignity in the face of powerful dehumanizing forces.

Fashion is one way of enhancing self-esteem and demonstrating one’s individuality (Snyder and Fromkin 1980), but there were other avenues taken by prisoners in the camps. Prisoners fell in love, formed close friendships, shared resources, and discussed literature and poetry (Hirschman and Hill 2000). Many mentions of such activities in memoirs are followed by descriptions of their humanizing effects.


In this paper, trading in the camps was documented. Future work should tie this activity to theoretical frameworks within consumer behavior. For example, theories such as symbolic consumption (e.g., Belk 1988) and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow 1970) can be informed by the phenomenon of fashion in the camps.

As mentioned above, there were many activities that camp inmates participated in that served to preserve human dignity. Of particular interest to consumer researchers is the prevalence of sharing and gift giving in the camps. For example, those who had access to additional food often traded some and gave the rest to others (usually friends within a social clique). Family members who were together in the camps often shared their resources. Sometimes total strangers helped each other. While the atmosphere of the camps could be extremely competitive, there are abundant examples of altruism. Thus, helping others may have played an important role in the reestablishment of human dignity.

Another issue surrounds the role that possessions played in the return to life outside the camps. Here is a late entry in Oli’s diary (written for her fiancee):

"I’m writing to you relieved and happy as the sun has broken through the clouds and we’ve been liberated. I’m wearing a new dress instead of the coarse grey one, nice high-heeled shoes instead of the clumsy wooden ones and I’m going around smiling."


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Snyder, C. R. and Howard L. Fromkin (1980). Uniqueness: The Human Pursuit of Difference. New York: Plenum Press.

Solomon, Michael (1999). "The Value of Status and the Status of Value," in Consumer Value: A Framework for Analysis and Research, Morris Holbrook (ed.), London, Routledge.

Steinberg, Paul. (2000). Speak You Also. A Survivor’s Reckoning. New York, Metropolitan Books.

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Wiesel, Elie. (1989), Night. New York, NY: Bantam Books.



Jill G. Klein, INSEAD


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30 | 2003

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