Villains en Vogue: How Karl Lagerfeld’s Dark Origins Reveal the Influence of Fascism on Fashion

Posted inDesign Criticism

Content Warning: This post contains references to sexual assault, xenophobia, eating disorders, child abuse, Nazism, anti-Semitism, white supremacist violence, fatphobia, and fascist policy.

On the first Monday in May, I mixed myself a gin and tonic, curled up in front of my laptop, and joined millions of viewers watching celebrities strut down an oddly beige carpet. It was this year’s installment of the Met Gala, widely considered the year’s biggest night in fashion. Each year’s massive, Vogue-sponsored event— a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Institute— is defined by a theme, with past examples ranging from 2018’s dazzling Heavenly Bodies to 2019’s perplexing Notes on Camp.

This year’s theme, “In Honor of Karl,” raised eyebrows before the show even began. Attendees were expected to pay tribute to the “iconic” Karl Lagerfeld, who, before his death in 2019, was the head designer of fashion houses Chanel, Chloé, Fendi, as well as his own label, Karl Lagerfeld.

Karl Lagerfeld in his signature suit, gloves, and sunglasses, 2014
via Wikimedia Commons

In the days leading up to the gala, a slew of articles recounting Lagerfeld’s legacy set a darker than usual backdrop for the star-studded event. For many, Lagerfeld is inseparable from his Islamophobia (he claimed Muslim migrants taking refuge in Germany were the “worst enemies” of the Jewish people), sexism and excuses for abuse (“If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!”), and above all, his hatred of fat people, especially women. “No one wants to see curvy women,” he whined in one interview. “You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.” For him, they didn’t deserve nice things to wear: “The world of beautiful clothing is about ‘dreams and illusions.’” But what was that “dream,” exactly?

When I learned that the 1930s-born German designer’s parents were members of the Nazi party, it clicked. He derived his vision from the fascist aesthetic ideal of an Aryan paradise. While of course, we can’t blame Lagerfeld for what his parents chose to do with their lives, what’s gone unexamined is how the values he learned during his upbringing in a dedicated Nazi family directly influenced the standards he helped set for women’s appearances decades later.

Years after the end of the war, the dairy fortune heir would tell a myriad murky tales of how he grew up, intentionally keeping the details obscure. But since his death, we have learned he was raised by a sadistic, abusive mother with strict expectations of diet and appearance inside a house that flew a Swastika-emblazoned flag during the 1938 annexation of Austria.

Lagerfeld’s mother’s expectations for the young Karl to maintain a certain weight fit in with her politics, as Nazis were obsessed with sculpting “perfect,” “healthy,” “Aryan” bodies. Propaganda images showed svelte German women and slim, blond, grinning men with bulging muscles. The only areas of the ladies’ bodies that could put on some weight were the hips and the breasts to create an hourglass shape believed to make them “ideal” mothers to birth an infinitely growing, “superior” race. Heavier set looks were much more common in women’s magazines, where propaganda was aimed at wives to help out with the war effort. Imagine a bizarro, Nazi version of Rosie the Riveter, and you wouldn’t be far off.

Uniforms of the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel), the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth.
via Wikimedia Commons

But elite Nazi wives like Magda Goebbels disparaged the robust, Germanic farm girl look, mocking it as out of date. Doing her part as the wife of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Magda served as an honorary president of the German Fashion Institute. Nazi wives like her (often dressed by the likes of Christian Dior), eventually determined true “Nazi chic.” Magda would say that “the German woman of the future should be stylish, beautiful and intelligent.” While there was always contentious disagreement among leading Nazis over what the ideal Aryan aesthetic should look like, Christian Dior later said that by 1940, “Hitler wanted to transfer the French couture to Berlin.” A glance at German fashion advertisements from the Third Reich reveal the style that rose to the top: an “Aryanized” French couture look, ideally be worn by narrow-waisted blonde women.

A gymnastics performance by Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), the girls’ wing of Hitler Youth
via Wikiwand

Lagerfeld’s mother was all too eager for her family to fit the mold. Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley once even said Lagerfeld described her as strapping him into his bed as he slept so he would not be able to get up for midnight snacks. She told him she did it because she wanted him to lose weight: “You look like me, but not as good.

For the Nazis, embodying the perfect “Aryan” aesthetic was a political matter. “Your body belongs to the nation!” blared Nazi slogans. “You have the duty to be healthy! Food is not a private matter!” Robert Proctor writes in The Nazi War on Cancer that Nazi “nutritionists” encouraged the consumption of cereals, vegetables, and fresh fruit while discouraging the consumption of fats, meats, and sweets. Far from an innocent interest in the wellbeing of the country, these directives were meant to display the superiority of the “Aryan race” above all others. The regime used food to control their populace: to go to bed with a grumbling stomach meant you were fighting for a neverending Nazi reign. As World War II progressed, housewives were expected to cook “onepot meals,” cutting down on rations as the country’s supplies dwindled, even as Nazi leaders continued to dine lavishly.

And of course, Nazis sought to eliminate “diseased” Jews, overweight women, visibly disabled people, and anyone else who did not fit the fascist aesthetic ideal. Sabrina Strings describes in her book Fearing the Black Body how, long before the Nazis, the Western European ideal of a thin white body was derived from the belief that the white bodies were superior to Black ones. Nazi beauty standards developed this pseudo-scientific system further and applied it to a fabricated contrast between “Aryan” and Jewish bodies. Nazi illustrations depicted Jews as obese, shady businessmen and odorous, rat-like creatures that were plaguing Germany and gorging on its riches. “Jewry is a waste product,” the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, shortly after visiting the hungry and sick inhabitants of a ghetto he helped create. He saw eliminating us as “more of a clinical than a social matter.”

Nazi propaganda image showing “dangers” of race-mixing
via Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish woman was a particular threat. She was portrayed as dripping in jewels, parading into town with open legs and a penchant for lying with Aryan men, birthing impure Halbjude, (“half-Jews”). While the ideal Aryan Hausfrau (housewife) was a faithful, slender, submissive spouse and a fruitful, attentive mother, the “Jewess” was a promiscuous, overweight, lazy seductress who didn’t care a whit for her children.

These stereotypes have not gone away: After the murder of activist Heather Heyer during the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, neo-Nazi publications like The Daily Stormer jeered that she deserved to die because of her weight and lack of children.

This perspective is not limited to the far right. The notion of fatness as an infectious disease that threatens all of society is reflected in the introduction to The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. Published in 2004, the book is part biography, part guide on how to follow the extreme diet that Lagerfeld was prescribed by Dr. Jean-Claude Houdret, also known as the “Spoonlight Program.” Houdret, who penned much of the book, writes in the introduction that “there hides a very serious problem in society: obesity is becoming widespread in the world…if famine was a scourge for humanity in the still-recent past, I think that overeating will be a scourge for humanity in the future…how can we protect society from the excesses of individuals?”

Photo by the author from The Costume Institute spring 2023 exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”

The book was written to laud the fashion designer’s dramatic weight loss of more than 90 pounds in just over a year. “Karl Lagerfeld’s case is emblematic and spectacular as it demonstrates the possibility, through determination and willpower, of returning to a harmonious balance,” wrote Houdret. But this diet was no act of self-care. Rather, it was a continuation of the only way Lagerfeld knew how to treat his body: abusing it. “I dieted to punish myself,” he said. Lagerfeld made clear he underwent this extremely unhealthy diet not for nutrition, but completely for his looks.

The pages of The Karl Lagerfeld Diet reveal more fleeting, ominous childhood details. In a surreal “interview section” where Ingrid Sischy asked Lagerfeld if his mother ever dieted, Lagerfeld replied that she did not— because he never saw her eat at all. The only diet he knew of was the one she went on after his birth. “She used to say, jokingly, that I had killed her youth and beauty.”

Karl Lagerfeld’s family is an example of how hateful worldviews like Nazism are often handed down not through care and love, but through abuse. Rather than ever seeking treatment to heal from a difficult childhood, The Karl Lagerfeld Diet shows a broken man in denial.

In countless interviews, Lagerfeld insisted that his childhood was perfect, and he particularly admired his parents for their neatly tailored outfits. “My mother and father were very well groomed,” he said in The Karl Lagerfeld Diet. “I was born to be impeccably turned out and they always encouraged me to be so.” In addition to a detailed description of his slim figure, Lagerfeld emphasized that his wealthy father even had a personal tailor. “I found him very elegant,” he said. Otto Lagerfeld’s image is even featured prominently on page 38, with a caption from Karl stating that he is “wearing a straight color of the type I like.”

Otto’s appearance of “professionalism” would serve him well as a member of the Nazi party, which functioned as an exclusive club mainly populated by the country’s elite: politicians, businessmen, and their supportive wives. By 1945, while many millions supported the Nazi’s political aims, only 10% of Germans were allowed to gain access to the party itself. Lagerfeld’s father joined partly as a business strategy, and to a darkly successful end: his dedication to the party would allow him to hire 80 enslaved laborers from Poland in his condensed milk business.

He was far from the only one. David de Jong’s book Nazi Billionaires outlines how countless business moguls profited from their collaboration with the Third Reich. They forced millions of Ostarbeiter (“Eastern Workers”) and concentration camp inmates into slavery, provided ammunition to the Axis powers, and stole assets from Jewish business owners to fill their coffers during the Holocaust. Coco Chanel herself (who Karl would say was not “ugly enough” to be a feminist) willingly participated as a spy in the Nazi war effort and attempted to orchestrate a full “Aryanization” of the Chanel brand by stealing the Jewish owner’s assets. De Jong describes how these tycoons rarely got more than a slap on the wrist after the war, and how their descendants still profit from that blood-soaked wealth. Karl Lagerfeld’s own parents are said to have blatantly lied during their denazification trials, claiming that they had been against Nazism when they were, in fact, ardent supporters.

The worlds of art, fashion, and design have not come to terms with how the thin, white body standard that persists today is largely derived from Nazi ideals. By the time Karl Lagerfeld took the reins of Chanel, runways throughout the Western world were populated by models so thin you could see their ribs. Lagerfeld, true to his upbringing, helped perpetuate an even skinnier standard of the-thinner-the-better. Any woman that was not denying herself food in order to be sufficiently slim (thus dressable by Lagerfeld) was an affront to his worldview. That ideal was fused with how those women’s bodies could be used like objects, from coathangers to sex toys. Once in the 1980s, Lagerfeld “joked” that his latest fashion line could be called “shaped to be raped.”

Neither the Metropolitan Museum nor Vogue have acknowledged Lagerfeld’s hateful views, much less examined how they may have influenced his designs. We should never have expected that they would, as fashion is rarely criticized on the same glossy pages that promote it. “The job of a fashion journalist is arguably to deliver readers so that advertisers will buy space,” observed Tansy Hoskins in The Anticapitalist Book of Fashion. “The desire to not offend advertisers…partly accounts for the distinct lack of criticism to be found in fashion magazines.”

Photos by the author from The Costume Institute spring 2023 exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty”

Vogue editor Anna Wintour insists that the Met Gala is simply a fundraiser for the Met’s costume department— as if layers of flashing cameras didn’t line the celebrity-covered carpet and millions of young eyes weren’t plastered to their screens to pick out our favorite looks of the night. This year’s event, and its companion exhibition inside the Met, also served to promote the four brands that still boast Lagerfeld’s legacy. The night’s hosts seemed to ask almost every guest the same question: “Why is it so important that we honor such a great man?” The celebrities wearing Lagerfeld’s brands were especially vocal in their fond memories for him. Draped in a flowing peach piece from Fendi, Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie gave a full-throated reply: “Karl Lagerfeld was, and is, rightfully an icon…I feel very, very lucky to be here tonight celebrating him.”

The flash of the gala’s cameras outshone the protestors, including many models, who lined the sidewalk. As Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, told Jezebel: “The choice to honor Lagerfeld embodies the dissonance of an industry that claims to be progressive, that celebrates body positivity and survivors on the one hand, and then reveres figures like [Lagerfeld] without even acknowledging their regressive views.”


Replying to @Oh look, a deli meat YEP this one hurt. It was one of them i had to stop and record because…wow #gwendolinechristie

♬ original sound – Isabella Segalovich

Many viewers were understandably comforted by cheering on the celebrities who visibly resisted Lagerfeld’s ideals. Although it was a beautiful sight to see elegant tailoring for the gala’s plus-size stars— Bryan Tyree Henry looked regal in flowing gowns, and Harvey Guillén served ultimate glamor in sparkling pink— the fat representation on this year’s runway does not equal justice. If anything, it just won these brands more customer loyalty, which will turn into more profits.

The Met’s exhibition, which closed this month, offers more of the same. It packs in over 200 beautiful looks from across Lagerfeld’s career, as well as heaps of uncritical hero worship. Above all, it praises Lagerfeld for his ability to change his style based on whatever the market demanded— a corporation’s dream. Other than his distinctive black suits with sparkling accessories and sunglasses, Lagerfeld did not really have a style of his own. The outfits themselves were unmistakably beautiful, and expertly crafted by the seamstresses under his direction. But walking through the exhibition, I grew weary of the surface-level wall text that offered little context or commentary, contenting itself with the bland theme of “lines”: the ornamental line, the military line, the floral line, and so on. Without prior knowledge, one would never know how Lagerfeld arrived at his aesthetic, beyond what he saw when flipping through fashion books and catalogs.

Andrew Bolton and the costume department have done a disservice to their visitors by not giving a complete history of what led Lagerfeld to design the way he did. This reached a low point in a room full of iPhones playing a bizarre video of Lagerfeld cackling on repeat, interspersed with carefully selected quotes meant to show a humorous, quirky side. Don’t worry about his bigotry, it seems to say. He was just a silly guy!

In an interview with CBS News, Anna Wintour gave the usual tired excuse for avoiding the responsibility that comes along with celebrating fascist aesthetics: “Well, obviously, Karl was a complicated man…[but] it’s not a biography. There are documentaries and books that cover all sides of Karl’s life. We’re really focusing on his work.”

The insistence that “the work” comes above all else is what allows fascist aesthetics like these to thrive in high art and design all these decades after World War II. The Allies may have won the war, but the Axis won the hearts of stealthy billionaires that profited off the deaths of millions. They continue to dominate much of the marketplace, and thus continue to control the aesthetics that both support and are supported by capitalist industry. This is the world in which Karl Lagerfeld remains an icon. At a time when Chanel was failing, he made the suited attire beloved by the Nazis sexy once again. By doing so, he didn’t simply sell unrealistic, Eurocentric beauty standards—he reintroduced the styles that perpetuate white supremacy and authoritarian rule.