Monday, October 28, 2019
For some years, I evaluated reproduction WWII German wool uniform items, and reenactor claims and opinions about them. In the end, my conclusion was that at the time of writing (2019), the products of any of the major suppliers generally fall within the wide original range of size and manufacturer variation seen on surviving original uniforms. In this sense, it is my opinion that with regard to cut and tailoring, virtually any of these products (generally speaking) are usable for reenactment purposes that require uniforms that are extremely close to the originals. The only currently manufactured uniforms that I regard as completely unusable are those made out of incorrect materials- specifically, those made by a manufacturer or manufacturers in China from a thin, almost shirt weight wool/polyester blend fabric with a noticeable synthetic sheen. To explain how I came to this conclusion, I will elaborate on my methods of evaluation.
1. Challenges of Evaluating Reproduction Uniforms
Firstly, I should note that there exist many challenges to evaluating reproduction uniforms. Foremost among them, when it comes to field blouses, is the matter of sizing. Original field blouses were sized five different ways, so a field blouse with a given chest length could be long or short, with longer or shorter sleeves, a bigger or smaller collar, and the length from the collar to the belt hook holes could vary independently of the total length. Most manufacturers of reproduction field blouses size these based on chest size only. This fact makes it very hard to make exact 1:1 comparisons between any single original field blouse, and a reproduction counterpart. Even if the chest sizes are the same, the collar could be bigger or smaller, the sleeves longer or shorter, and that could still be perfectly OK as it is simply a sizing feature.
Another major challenge is the range of variation seen on original examples with regard not only to materials, but also cut and tailoring. There was a time when I strongly believed that all wartime uniforms were subject to very strict tailoring controls. This is in fact not the case, and I came to this completely wrong conclusion based on reviewing a sample size of originals that was too small, and also on original documentation that indicated how things should have been- though this was not as things actually were. I believe that the wide observable range of variation seen on original uniforms is largely a result of simple manufacturer variation although there may have been other variables as well.
A further challenge to evaluating reproduction uniforms is the fact that most of the larger manufacturers have produced various runs of garments over time and these runs are different from each other. As an example, the maker At the Front started off making their own uniforms, then sold Sturm uniforms with added insignia and size/maker markings, then offered in-house made "Texled" uniforms in both custom and off-the-rack versions, then finally had their own proprietary brand of imported uniforms. So when someone describes an At the Front field blouse, it could be any of a number of garments that differ from each other in very significant ways. Similarly, the manufacturer Sturm/Mil-Tec released many discrete runs of uniforms with different tailoring details, materials, hardware, etc. And smaller makers, who may have made items on a cottage industry or even totally bespoke custom basis, may have made one garment that is dimensionally perfect, and another that I would judge to be short of the mark, based on a number of factors including customer specifications.
2. The Original Range of Variation
It is immediately apparent to even a casual observer with access to even a very small sample of original uniform pieces of the same type, that there exists a tremendous range of variation among them. One can see major differences in the size and shape of pockets, the size and shape of collars and lapels, the waist taper and sleeve shapes. Even small details such as buttonhole size, the size and construction of belt hook holes, or the stitch count of seams, can vary dramatically from one example to the next. I have previously shared some information on these variations, some specific examples:
M43 Tunic Collar and Sleeve Shapes
Pocket Sizes and Stamped versus Actual Measurements
In truth I really can't say with absolute certainty that these variations are not the result of different patterns being supplied to various manufacturers of the same item. But in any case there can be no doubt that these variations exist, and need to be accounted for when evaluating reproductions.
3. 1:1 Comparisons with Originals, and "What is Best"
As mentioned above, simple 1:1 comparisons between original and reproduction uniform components may be of far less value than one would assume, because a single original example cannot take into account the range of variation. If someone had access to, for example, 10 or 20 original M43 field blouses, he could buy two very different-looking reproductions from different manufacturers, and make the case that one or the other is correct, and the other not, or the other way around, by selecting the original that happened to most closely resemble one or the other- when in fact, both garments could be equally right! The wide range of original variation makes it nearly impossible to say that one maker or another is "the best." If one maker is offering a near-perfect copy of one style, and another is offering a near-perfect copy of another style of the same garment, there is no way to say which is "best." In fact, many original photos show men in the same unit wearing a range of subtly different versions of the same stuff. For a reenactment group, it may be regarded as important to reflect these subtle variations in order to appear more realistic. In such a scenario, using items from a range of suppliers will achieve the desired result far more than looking for a "best" which can never really be said to exist, as criteria for evaluation are largely subjective.
4. Objective Measures of Evaluation
There are, of course, ways to create objective criteria for evaluation as well. When measuring original uniforms and comparing them to originals, I have chosen to look at ratios and proportions, as these are what constitute the "cut" of the garment. For example, we can look at breast pocket size as a ratio of the chest size and this will enable us to determine if the proportions of the chest pockets are within the original range no matter what size reproduction tunic is being evaluated. Over time, I made dozens or hundreds of measurements of very many aspects of a range of original uniform items and looked at proportions and ratios of various measurements as compared with reproductions from a variety of suppliers. Even though I could never claim that the small sample of originals that I worked with, was in any way representative of the full and total original range of variation, I could not find any measurements on the reproductions that I studied, that fell outside of the measured original range by more than a tiny percentage that amounted to a small fraction of an inch.
5. Evaluating Reenactor Consensus Opinions, Myth and Lore
I will give an example of an oft-repeated piece of reenactor lore that could not be proven by comparison with originals, and that is the assertion that Sturm/Miltec field blouses have "suit coat shoulders." I measured very many aspects of the shoulders and arm holes including the shoulder size compared to the chest size, the diameter of the arm holes, the distance across the upper back at the narrowest point, etc., then compared all of these numbers to the other measurements, then compared the resulting ratios to the measurements of a number of Sturm/Miltec reproduction field blouses- and found no measurable difference. There is a lot of reenactor myth and lore about collars and sleeves and other aspects of cut and tailoring and I was not able to verify ANY of these claims. I believe that some of them were rooted in dealer sales pitches and some of them were just things people made up, that sounded believable.
6. Conclusion - A Correct Uniform
So what then is the reenactor to do, if consensus opinions are worthless and no "best reproduction" can be said to exist? The reality is that the fit of a reproduction garment, and the type of insignia and quality and manner of insignia application, in almost all cases will have greater bearing on the realism of a uniform part, than who made the garment. Different makers of off-the-rack uniforms offer different interpretations of the original cut- some are longer, some have more waist taper, etc. Reenactors should either seek out well-fitting uniforms,* or get uniforms that they can have tailored to fit properly. Ordering a custom garment made to your own size specifications is also possible. Insignia application is a large subject of its own but all reproduction insignia are absolutely not created equal, and clumsy or improper application can spoil the look of even perfect reproduction insignia. In the end, it's my opinion that a hyper-focus on tiny facets of material culture tends to detract from what I feel are more important understandings of the human beings who wore these things, their culture, language, and the history of what they were a part of.
* For information on how these things were supposed to fit the wearer, please refer to Wehrmacht Regulations on the Fit of Uniform and Equipment Items