When I began writing this particular article, the intention was to honor specific performers who have inspired or otherwise influenced me. The criteria applied to potential candidates is certainly strict, because I am not one who touts false support since I see no point in it. Perhaps others get something out of name-dropping, and I will not deny the fact I mention certain things because that is just the way business works. However, I have always held pride in my honesty, which has gained me some seriously awesome allies who understand my passion and appreciate the skills I have to offer. To write about performers I may admire but do not fully believe in would result in a document that was informational, with very little character or personality I feel I do my best to include. It is that experience which has shaped me into the individual I am, and so offering thanks in the form of a heart-felt homage is something done out of respect. Choosing the subject was difficult enough that I decided to present this article on a less frequent basis to preserve the integrity of its exclusivity towards prominent figures that are not restricted to circus and related cultures.
There are plenty of fashion revolutions which have appeared throughout history, and for me one of the most daring was the German Swing Youth, more commonly known as Swing Kids. During the 1930s and 40s Germany suffered under the fascist rule of the Nazis, where Adolf Hitler attempted to compel the people to follow his ideals which would prevent them from becoming influenced by international movements. Even something as harmless as dancing was considered a menace by Nazi authorities, viewed as a perilous foreign import with roots in “immoral jungle music” and a commodity calculated by the Jewish media in America. They believed that it could corrupt the youth who would be caught up in certain behaviors that yielded offspring of uncertain parentage as a result of having sex with multiple partners. Hitler decided to use the National Socialist Party to physically prevent Germany’s youngsters from straying off the Nazi path.
Swing Kids desired a connection to the swing scene, which manifested in having the correct clothing, listening to the right music, understanding slang and being able to dance. They aspired for a life that was carefree and laid-back like those in America, even though that contradicted the militarized state of Nazi Germany. A deliberate swagger was adopted in direct defiance of the approved straight marching stride, and their attitude was blamed on Jewish Hollywood movies. Swing Kids also hated the Hitler Youth, due to the fact that many used their authority to become Little Dictators, and were fully justified in their low opinion of the HJ. The Nazi solution to what it viewed as an inflated Jewish America forcing decadence upon an otherwise obedient German youth, was to ferociously block American music and culture.
The rebellion against the National Socialist Party began when the Swing Kids adopted liberated ways. They did not have an intention of effecting others politically, and they admired Western Democracies because they saw America and England as places where swing-loving individuals had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Idle conversations with friends, developing new relationships and generally immersing oneself in the swing culture were how Swing Kids escaped from the reality of death camps and military forces that disappeared into Russia and France. Fearing the prospect of having their good lives cut short, they avoided service. Instead, they gathered around a portable gramophone and its companion set of must-have swing records, in public places or while out on a picnic. A police ordinance was put into effect during 1940 that prohibited anyone under the age of 18 to be on the street after sunset. This did not prevent determined Swing Kids, as they had counterfeit identity cards with falsified ages and dressed in an attire that made them look older. Due to a police crackdown following the Hamburg Swing Gathering, large groups were highly discouraged, and so Swing Kids took advantage of air-raid duty by utilizing the various buildings to host parties.
The lifestyle of Swing Kids was in absolute aversion to the anticipated National Socialist concept of youth, to the extent that they adopted American ideals of personal freedom, relaxed living and appreciation of the “lower races”. They were viewed as a serious threat to the Nazi philosophy which sought to isolate Germany, and their reinforced repression caused them to exhibit anti-Nazi behavior which went beyond simply provoking the Authorities. Street gangs were composed of working class youths who acquired aspects of socialist and communist traditions to construct their own character, though there were also groups such as the Edelweiss Pirates who persistently disregarded Hitler Youth norms.
In 1942, Heinrich Himmler wrote a letter suggesting that the ringleaders of the swing movement should be subjected to beatings and forced labor in concentration camps:
My judgment is that the whole evil must be radically exterminated now. I cannot but see that we have taken only half measures. All ringleaders (…) are into a concentration camp to be re-educated (…) detention in concentration camp for these youths must be longer, 2-3 years (…) it is only through the utmost brutality that we will be able to avert the dangerous spread of Anglophile tendencies, in these times where Germany fights for its survival.
The bold opposition to all things expected of them easily makes the Swing Kids a movement that I can identify with, though there was certainly severe punishment that awaited those who refused to fall in line with the Hitler Youth. Everything from their clothes and hair to the music they listened to and the words they spoke were done in defiance of the Nazis, to a point where Swing Kids openly mocked them. While the 1993 film captured the aesthetics of their lifestyle, it is seen as a typical sensationalized version loosely based on facts, with dance scenes that were certainly spectacular but not an accurate representation of moves the Swing Kids actually knew. However, I find that there are some redeeming qualities such as the soundtrack and a few very poignant scenes which are responsible for motivating me to write this article. One of them is when Christian Bale’s character is suiting up in his swing clothes, knowing full well he could be heading into potential danger. The following guide is my interpretation of this classy appearance, slightly modernized with heavy tones of decadence and an overall air of dandyism.
Swing Kids were effortlessly distinguished due to their prominent demeanor and eccentric clothing, which included one of the flashier traits in the form of an ostentatious haircut, considered to be a signature characteristic mandatory among their members. The hair was copied from styles seen on favorite movie idols and made Swing Kids very contemporary in the trends of that time. Males grew “whips” of long locks in rebellion of the standard short military cuts seen among their peers. These pieces sometimes reached a foot in length and were combed back using sugar water. Females directly disobeyed the universal braided hairstyle deemed acceptable by allowing their tresses to grow long and loose.
Selecting the appropriate clothing to correlate with foreign swing trends was complicated for the Swing Kids, as their muse was scarce American and English film clips or magazines. The film stars were decked out in the latest fashions with mannerisms which coordinated with their idol status, and Swing Kids imitated them. [German movies portrayed an atmosphere of peacetime and luxurious living – audiences disliked films with propaganda so the industry avoided them, instead providing an appealing escape from the war.] Clothing and accessories that Swing Kids felt were essential in creating suitable wardrobes were difficult to find, so cheap quality and second-hand items became alternatives. However, many Swing Kids also implemented their talent of creativity, and some even resorted to theft in order to obtain whatever could not be purchased. This criminal activity certainly pales in comparison to the fact that Nazis were busy slaughtering millions of people, but should not be overlooked in examining the actions of Swing Kids as a resistance to the Nazi regime. These rebels flagrantly celebrated their differences from mainstream society, and within the movement itself, individual clubs were distinguished by wearing handmade identity badges.
Recreating the swing style for men begins with an elegant purple pinstripe double-breasted suit jacket reminiscent of the 1930s zoot suit, which Swing Kids often had altered to tuck in at the waist for that Hollywood “tough guy” look, and it is coordinated with a pair of deep rise trousers worn baggy and with the cuffs turned up. Layering a soft yellow-and-white striped cotton dress shirt with white collar and cuffs is a nice way of adding contrast to the ensemble. The light grey vest is optional as it is likely to be tossed aside when the urge to hit the dance floor. A sleek black tie with diagonal white stripes captures the pattern of the suit while a boldly printed handkerchief should find its way folded into the suit pocket. Vintage styled suspenders and ostentatious shoes with crepe soles are essential for comfort, especially while dancing.
Accessories are just as crucial to the Swing Kids aesthetic, as they truly capture the personalities of the individual wearing them and varied depending on the cities in which they lived. The 1930s style Trilby is a toned down version of the fedora and makes a wonderful all-purpose hat, while carrying an umbrella was almost obligatory and added to the Anglophile favoritism. A traditional English bent Apple shaped pipe and light grey wool trench coat are excellent ways of finishing off this look – tucking a foreign newspaper into the pocket is an extra bonus for authenticity. This vintage maroon and gold paisley print scarf with fringed edge and a pair of purple diamond patterned trouser socks ensure that the ensemble is loaded with flamboyance. If one finds a tie to border on the side of boring, a brilliantly hued striped silk Ascot is considered to be fashion forward and brings a hint of aristocratic flavor. Speaking of which, a set of Cuba Black cufflinks, mother of pearl vintage sword tie pin and the Frederique Constant Art Deco mens wristwatch are an easy means of giving the outfit a personal touch.
As mentioned earlier in this article, women were also quite active on their stance against the stereotypes of traditional beauty, mainly by wearing excessive makeup and leaving their hair loose rather than braiding it. However, I feel many of the things covered in a previous guide could also be applied to Swing Kids style for women. Overall, the ostentatious attitude may have been based on fantasy and coveted care-free lifestyles, but considering the circumstances that surrounded the movement, one can understand how it was far more appealing than the alternatives. For all these reasons and more, the Swing Kids aesthetic is one that I feel can be incorporated into Carny Style while paying homage to those who were persecuted for their love of swing.
Photo credit: 1 – tommcmahon.net, 2 – portalleganyhs.wikispaces.com, 3 – questgarden.com
4 – queensofvintage.com, 5 – swingkidsproject.weebly.com, 6 – return2style.de
Resources: German Swing Youth, Swing Kids