According to popular wisdom, Hugo Ferdinand Boss, founder of the Hugo Boss fashion brand, was responsible for designing Nazi Germany’s military uniforms, most notably the sleek, menacing black SS uniform. It’s one of those bits of trivia that most WWII buff know. To come clear right at the beginning, it’s not true. Boss did not design the infamous uniform, and probably not any other military clothing, either. He did manufacture them, however, being one of many companies to do so. In this article, we’ll look at the truth behind the story.
Hugo Ferdinand Boss (1885-1948) served as a corporal in World War I, then established a clothing company in 1923, initially producing traditional garments then expanding into work- and sportswear. At the time, the German economy was in ruins due to the war and the punitive reparations forced on the country by the Versailles Treaty. Boss’ company struggled and failed, leaving him with a mere six sewing machines after dealing with his creditors in 1931.
At the time Boss joined, the Nazi Party was increasing its influence by leaps and bounds. Part of the decision was pragmatic: as a party member with industry experience, he had already manufactured some brown SA uniforms in the past, he could secure some commissions for himself. It’s also quite possible that Boss, like many German businessmen at the time, felt that only Hitler could fix the country’s economy.
A 2011 study commissioned by the Hugo Boss company to objectively assess its own past suggests that he might also have believed in Nazi ideology, though the exact nature of his private political views is unknown. Whatever his reasons, hitching his cart to the Nazis paid off: he became a regular supplier of SA, SS, Hitler Youth and military uniforms, making 1,000,000 Reichsmark (some $400,000 at the time) in 1940 alone. Note that as far as it can be determined, neither he nor his employees designed any of them.
During the war, the company employed 140 forced laborers (mainly women) and, for a time, 40 French POWs to round out its workforce. Conditions for these workers were questionable at best with poor hygiene, no medical care and little food, though Boss tried to improve on the last one by trying to get them additional provisions. While some company officials treated the women very harshly, it would appear that Boss personally felt at least a little bit of compassion and responsibility for these people and provided them with conditions that were somewhat better than most other forced laborers experienced.
One notable case is that of Josefa Gisterek, a Polish woman. In December 1941, she tried to go home to her family without a vacation permit but was captured by the Gestapo, taken to Auschwitz and severely beaten. When Boss found out where she was, he used his Nazi contacts to have her returned to the factory. Once back, Gisterek was assigned to a devout Nazi foreman who overworked her to the point of physical breakdown and she had to be given a three-month medical leave to recover. When that time was drawing to a close, Gisterek committed suicide rather than go back to the factory. After learning about this, Boss not only paid for her funeral, but also covered the travel expenses of attending family members, a gesture no other factory owner would have done for forced laborers.
After the war, Hugo Boss had to undergo the denazification process. He was found to be an “activist” and a “supporter and beneficiary of National Socialism.” He was stripped of his voting rights, his right to own a business and was charged a heavy fine of 100,000 German Marks. After an appeal, he was reclassified as a “follower,” a lesser category. The company was taken over by his son-in-law Eugen Holy and Hugo Boss died of medical complications arising from a tooth abscess in 1948.
At this point, you might ask who actually designed the SS uniforms if it wasn’t Hugo Boss. The uniform had two creators: Karl Diebitsch, an SS officer with formal art training who also designed numerous other pieces of Nazi regalia, and graphic designer Walter Heck. Heck’s exact contributions are unknown but it’s certain that he created the distinctive SS symbol comprised of two lightning-like Germanic Sig runes. The symbol that became a mark of terror and one of the foremost emblems of the Nazi regime was first featured on a lapel pin designed by him in 1929, for which he was paid 2.50 Reichsmark (about 25 cents).