The Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The 1930s were an amazing time for fashion. But it was not a good time to be Jewish. A recent exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee wove the two into an exhibit both beautiful and haunting.

Women’s high fashion in the 1930s was an era of stylish hats, matching handbags, and well-tailored dresses. Heda Strnad was busy creating new designs and putting them to paper. Her dreams of becoming a fashion designer kept her busy drawing images of dresses, coats, matching shoes, fabric patterns, and hats with striking accessories. The ever increasing pressures of Nazi Germany forced her and her husband Paul to make the decision to pull up roots from their life in Prague and try and evacuate to America. But to do so, they first needed to show proof of their ability to support themselves and not become a burden on American society. They were lucky and her husband Paul’s cousin, Alvin Strnad lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. .

Hedy mailed her designs on paper to his cousin, hoping he could help them get authorization to evacuate to Wisconsin. They hoped the drawings would help prove that they could be self-supporting in the USA and escape from the ever-increasing dangers of central Europe.

Fast forward 60 years or so. In 1997, the drawings were found by Alvin’s children when cleaning out their parent’s basement in Milwaukee. They discovered that despite Alvin’s best efforts, Paul and Heda were not able to escape the Nazis to freedom in America. They were both killed while still in Europe.  All that remains of their lives are contained in that one letter with fashion drawings tucked inside. The Strnad family donated that letter to the Jewish Museum. What the museum decided to do with it is extraordinary.

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Mr. and Mrs. Strnad. Photo courtesy Jewis Museum Milwaukee
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The letter pleading for help. Photo credit: Milwaukee Jewish Museum

The letter could have easily just been filed away – a footnote to history tucked away in a box on a shelf. For several years, the letter was on display at the museum. Until the comment of one visitor took hold. A visitor to the museum commented that those designs should be sewn. The idea took hold and the story of a woman who dreamt of a world of beauty, colors, design, and grace would soon take flight again. The museum felt these designs needed to be created and shown to the world. The drawings were right there – they just needed creative hands to bring them to life.

Who better than the creative and talented costume designers from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater? The crew of volunteers from the costume department at the theater set about creating these fashion designs based upon Heda’s drawings. Fashion was much more hands-on in the 1930s and the designs required using painstakingly accurate techniques to create. To replicate the drawings, they needed to make the very fabrics themselves including silk screening the intricate patterns. With hand detailing including handmade fabric covered buttons and specially designed shoes, the team brought Heda’s creations to life giving her story a three dimensional reality. Now the dresses have been on display in a fabulous exhibit at the museum and are part of a traveling exhibit to Jewish and Holocaust museums around the country.

Her sad story of dreaming of the future, yet having her future stolen from her in a most inhumane way, is on full display in a way just a letter in a display cabinet cannot do. There is a glory and sense of closure in being able to see her designs completed. Gone but not forgotten is a phrase frequently used. If not for one letter mailed to a cousin for help, Heda and Paul Strnad’s story probably would have been forgotten. Rather than just tucked away in an envelope on a shelf, her story and her husband’s story can be told and appreciated by all who visit.

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The designs were recreated right down to the fabric itself. Photo credit: Milwaukee Jewish Museum
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Detail of workmanship on the costumes created. Photo credit: Milwaukee Jewish Museum

Find more fascinating exhibits at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee’s website. You can visit the Jewish Museum in person on a Great Lakes cruise that visits Milwaukee, Wisconsin:

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Fashion History WW2
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