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Cabaret - Concentration Camp Uniform

Reproduction concentration camp uniform - February 2019

Reproduction concentration camp uniform – used in NCSU University Theatre's production of ‘Cabaret’, February 2019.

One of the more challenging pieces for ‘Cabaret’ was the concentration camp uniform worn by the Emcee in the final number. 

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 was able to source a yarn-dyed woven striped linen that was remarkably close to many of the extant uniforms in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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.  The script doesn’t tell us anything about the Emcee’s background – but the Kit Kat Klub of the 1998 script openly embraces everyone, and it seemed important to honor sexual orientation as well as religion.  I hand-stitched the triangles in the star shape on the breast of the uniform, and tattered the edges to indicate wear. The uniform was heavily distressed using acrylic paints in washes and dry brushing - the Emcee was in a heavy spotlight at the end, and the heavy distressing was necessary so the effect could be seen in the bright light.

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 moment, 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.

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