Feb 27

‘Cabaret’ – concentration camp uniform

Reproduction concentration camp uniform – used in William Peace Theatre’s production of ‘Cabaret’, February 2012.

One of the more challenging pieces for ‘Cabaret’ was the concentration camp uniform worn by the Emcee in the final number.  Although it’s fairly easy to purchase reproduction WWII uniforms and clothing, you can not purchase a reproduction concentration camp uniform – for very obvious reasons.

The first challenge was finding the fabric.  In researching the uniforms, it seems that there was no one specific fabric used.   The majority of uniforms featured alternating light and dark stripes, of about 1″ in width.  The most common seemed to be a white/natural stripe alternating with a dark navy or black stripe.  However, there were instances where the stripes alternated in light/dark gray.  I scoured the internet for a natural fiber (cotton or linen), 1″ stripe fabric – with little luck. I ended up using a Moda quilter’s cotton – I would have preferred a natural/black or natural/navy stripe, but this was the closest I could find.

I used a basic modern pajama pattern – time was scarce, and the pajama pattern mimicked the lines of the uniforms perfectly.  I love draping, but don’t feel the need to drape if there is a pattern readily available that has the same lines/cut of the garment you’re trying to recreate.

Once the uniform was assembled… it looked like a set of nice, striped pajamas.  What turns it into the iconic uniform are two things: the prisoner number and the badge.   I ran across this poster on the United States Holocaust Museum’s website – the Germans were organized and precise, and had a color-coded system to ensure that you knew exactly why a person was imprisoned.

A chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps. The vertical categories list markings for the following types of prisoners: political, professional criminal, emigrant, Bible Students (as Jehovah's Witnesses were then known as), homosexual, Germans shy of work, and other nationalities shy of work. The horizontal categories begin with the basic colors, and then show those for repeat offenders, prisoners in Strafkompanie, Jews, Jews who have violated racial laws by having sexual relations with Aryans, and Aryans who violated racial laws by having sexual relations with Jews. In the lower left corner, P is for Poles and T for Czechs (German: Tscheche). The remaining symbols give examples of marking patterns. Circa 1938 - 1942. From the United States Holocaust Museum.

I chose a partial yellow, partial pink star – indicating that our Emcee was Jewish and gay.  Of course, the script doesn’t tell us anything about the Emcee’s background – but the story revolves around such a sense of “other” that it seemed disingenuous to imply that it was ONLY Jewish people who were persecuted.  I hand-stitched the triangles in the star shape on the breast of the uniform, and tattered the edges to indicate wear.

As for the number – 12745 – it stands for January 27, 1945, the day the Russian army liberated Auschwitz.  It’s only on stage for a few minutes, and I doubt that anyone in the audience registered that the number was a date.  However, I felt that it was important to layer this uniform with deliberate, intentional meaning.    Theatre not only entertains – it challenges you to think, remember, and feel.  Objects such as this (and Ernst’s red, white, and black swastika armband) are emotionally difficult to make.  It’s not just a pair of striped pajamas – it’s a symbol of the horrors humans are capable of, and the strength we are able to draw up in ourselves in our darkest hour.  It is remembrance.