The bygone weeks I have read Primo Levi ‘if this is a man’, known for his absolute expressive account of life in Auschwitz. While the things he has to go through are really inhumane he also shows us that there is some kind of humanity even in the darkest of circumstances.
While Auschwitz is not really the place to learn more about clothing it really is a telling place about humanity and how people react to the circumstances. In one of the first chapters, Primo really don’t want to wash. The water is cold and dirty, there is no soap and no towel. In other words, if there is a shower in hell, this would be it. But then he meets Steinlauf, who wants to know why he isn’t washing. Primo tells him that there is no point, it’s meaningless. He will not smell better, he will not feel better, and it’s a waste of energy. Steinlauf has a completely different opinion: “While the lager (camp) is used as a big machine to reduce all of us to animals, we must not become beasts. That even in this place, one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness. And to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, not only of our bodies but also the skeleton of civilization”. It’s really telling that Steinlauf wants to uphold even the most basic forms of civilization. To cling at it so to speak. Some people may use their way of dressing as a way to keep to a certain standard.
Later on, Primo Levi talks about Alfred L. He is an older Jewish man, who, though thin and weak-looking, manages to survive and set himself apart from his comrades at Auschwitz by keeping himself as groomed and proper-looking as is possible in a labour camp. By putting on the appearance of importance, power, and dignity, Alfred L. is eventually promoted to a position of authority amongst the Jewish prisoners, increasing his chance of survival.
For instance: While everybody else doesn’t want to be the first in line when receiving soup because everyone knows that that’s the least nutritious, he does. Why? Because Alfred wants to be noticed.
Nobody washes their uniforms, but Alfred does. So everybody looks scruffy and filthy he appears almost royalty like. Thus Alfred is noticed, and because he appears to be important he becomes important. Primo Levi writes this story to demonstrate the importance of appearance in the camp.
I have no intention to write a book commentary I do want to point something out. What makes Alfred L’s way of surviving so effective? Because nobody else does it. In a way, Alfred capitalizes on the fact that his fellow inmates have no dignity and don’t pay any attention to their appearance.
While a lot of people, me included, see the disappearing of the suit and tie as something negative. While this may or may not be true. I think one positive sign is that it’s easier to make yourself stand out. Make a positive appearance. You don’t even have to wear a suit or tie. But because you know how to dress and you know what looks good on your body you are already a full two steps ahead of the competition. I don’t say it was hard to dress properly in the 1930s but it was definitely harder to make a really good impression. Most of the time you needed some money to make sure that the quality of your clothing was of a certain standard. Of a certain taste and of course, it was harder to differentiate yourself from the crowd. It’s easier to do that today.
So while we are complaining about the world around us, and to a certain extend I do, because it’s no fun seeing badly dressed individuals all around you. It also gives us a great opportunity.
What do you think? Let me know!