In 2020 we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 (1939-1945). As part of the research for a new exhibition about textiles and clothing made and worn during the war, the TRC has been looking into the fascinating history of the Dutch company of Hirsch & Cie, Amsterdam.
This line of research was suggested by the identification of two Hirsch & Cie garments in the TRC’s collection. The first is a blue silk dress with a hand embroidered collar (TRC 2007.0718), while the second is a blouse (TRC 2007.0885). Both garments date to the early 1940’s and were donated to the TRC by the family of Westerman Holstijn, who used to live in Leiden.
The item of particular interest is the blouse, because at first glance it looks normal – but it only has a front, the back is a piece of net. It dates to a period when textiles were scarce and many garments were still made of good cloth, but only at those places where the cloth was visible (such as the front of a blouse), but made of another material (in this case net) at places hidden by other garments.
But who was the company of Hirsch & Cie and what story can they tell about life during the war? The fashion house was named after its original founder, the Jewish entrepreneur, Leo Hirsch (1842-1906). The first establishment was in Brussels, followed by subsidiaries in Amsterdam, Cologne, Dresden and Hamburg. The company of Hirsch & Cie Amsterdam was founded in 1882 by Sylvain Kahn and his colleague Albert (Sally) Berg, who previously had worked together in the main subsidiary in Brussels.
The Amsterdam company was established at the Leidseplein and was involved with exclusive haute couture, and it provided clothing to the Dutch royal family as well as the Dutch social, commercial and intellectual elite. The company, for example, is regarded as having staged the first fashion show organised for an invited public in The Netherlands in 1912. This was part of the celebrations following the opening of Hirsch & Cie’s new and very grand building, with numerous floors filled with expensive and fashionable items.
Although they initially only dealt with haute couture, gradually their lines also included prêt-à-porter (confection), and literally everything a fashionable lady could need or want from underwear, via a dress, to a fur coat or hat, and not forgetting accessories such as jewellery, make-up and perfume.
The company was owned, run and in many cases staffed by people with a Jewish background. So it was not surprising that in the late 1930’s the company was involved in supporting Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany, such as the fashion designer, Richard Goetz. In 1940 the Germans invaded The Netherlands and at first the company, at least in public, adapted to the new regime, even advertising the company’s products in Dutch fascist magazines and newspapers, as well as staging a fashion show directed at German tastes and including German fashions among the items for sale. With respect to its Dutch customers, however, they continued to sell fashionable items, including Parisian garments and perfume. In addition, they were involved in making garments in Amsterdam itself. However, as the war progressed and textiles became scarce, the company encouraged people to bring their own cloth to the shop and have it made up into suitable garments.
In 1941 the German authorities issued a Verwalter (a form of decree taking over the property), and the Jewish directors of the company were forced to leave. The remaining Jewish employers were confronted with more and more people being arrested, taken to camps such as Westerbork and in all too many cases onto Auschwitz. Only a few came back.
In 1943 the Hirsch & Cie building was officially closed and not long afterwards, its stock and moveable interior furnishings, were shipped to Germany, or simply vanished. After the war there was simply an empty shell of a building, which was in a very poor condition.
Money to refurbish part of the building was found, and the Amsterdam fashion house was reopened, but instead of occupying of the floors, a considerable part of the building was rented out to other commercial groups. Efforts were made to build up a fashionable clientele similar to that which supported Hirsch & Cie before the war, but the clients had gone, and for many years there was not the money to support such an elite firm on the scale as it used to be. Then changes in fashion, and especially the concept of youth fashion, in the 1960’s caused a further decline in the company, as it was seen as being old-fashioned. In 1976 Hirsch & Cie shut its door for the very last time.
Source of information: Knoop, Femke (2018), Hirsch & Cie Amsterdam (1882-1976), Hilversum: Verloren.
Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 18th April 2019.