Emile and the Detective (Germany, 1954)

Figure 1.--German boys in the 1950s were still commonly wearing short pants, even when it was chilly out and a jacket was needed.

"Emil and the Dectective" is perhaps the most famous of all the children's books written by Erich Kästner. The German title is "Emil und die Detektive". This not very notable children's film does provide a good overview of the clothes West German boys were wearing in the 1950s. The film centers on a group of children so there are many scences showing the ordinary clothes worn by German boys. Movies made in Germany provide some insights into contemporary boys clothing. Because of the language barrier, these films have not been widely circulated in the United States. I know little about the movies, but they do provide useful glimpses into clothing trends.


"Emil and the Dectective" is perhaps the most famous of all the children's books written by Erich Kästner. The German title is "Emil und die Detektive". The most noticeable aspect of the production of the German 1954 version is that the plot requires a hundred or more junior extras quite extensively used throughout the film and there has been no requirement for any special costumes the kids being told when and where to turn up thus making it a pretty reliable glimps of the styles at the time

Erich Kästner (1899-1974)

Erich Kästner was a famous German writer of children's stories. He is probably best known for his book Emil and the Detectives. He was popular both in Germany and other countries, mostly within the German speaking world. He was well known in the Scandnavia and the Netherlands, but less so in France and English speaking countries. He was drafted at the age of 17 and was apauled both by the brutality of German military training as well as the War itself. Thus he became a life-long pacifist and as the NAZIs appeared on the political landscape, anti-NAZI. He worked as a journalist and began writing children's books. Most of his best books in terms of popularity were published during the Weimsar era.


HBC's movie consultant provided the following information on this film: " I am begining to realise that this childrens fable is one that was introduced to me quite young, I think by a smashing teacher I had at primary school who read the book to our class a bit at a time and it left a lasting memory for me. I have since mentioned the book/film to several people over time and none of them had heard of it whereas I had always thought it was as well known as Tom Sawyer or Winnie the Pooh. The plot is about a young boy who is sent for some reason by his parents to his grandparents house someway away alone, using a tram (street car). The original story was set in the 1920s, the German production in the 1950s. Emil was carrying a large denomination bank note pinned inside his jacket. Emil falls asleep during the journey and a thief who has noticed the boy alone manages to pinch the money. The rest of the story is about how he manages to recover the money aided by a lot of help from many other youngsters. (The pin holes in the bank note prove that it belongs to Emil.)" Another reader tells us a bit more, "The reason why Emil is travelling alone is that he is spending his summer vacasion with his Granny in Munich. It was felt that he would have a happier time with his relations and cousin than in his sleepy village. The large denomination bank note he is carrying is for his granny. It is the extra money she will need to care for Emil and buy food etc. His mum works as a hair dresser. He knows she does not have much spare money so it is quite a terrible thing to have it stolen. [This is oine example of Kästner's working-class background expressed in his stories.] The thief is not a simpleton but a clever crook who has robbed a big bank of lots of money. This is the flaw in the story. Of course involving Emil and the other children is one reason the story has such appeal to children. Why should a notorious bank robber waste his time stealing from a kid. It is a bad mistake because Emil and the children of Munich capture him."

Figure 2.--In this pictures boys can be seen wearing patterened kneesocks, lederhosen, and suspender shorts. Many of the boys in this film were not costumed, but rather just wore their ordinary clothes.

Clothing Insights

The 1954 version of the Kästner's Emil was a more elaborate production than the 1931 original. It included a very large number of child extras. We suspect thst the children came to the set in their oiwn clothes and were not costumed. Emil may have been costumed, but we doubt if the other children were. The producer may have given them some guidance, but this we do not know. Thus the clothes they wear are a relsatively good reflection of popular children's fashions in the mid-1950s. Some of the insights concerning clothing noted in the movie include:

Sailor suits

German boys by the 1950s are no longer wearing sailor suits. This was once a style which dominated German boys clothing.


Most boys wear colored shirts of various colors and styles. A few boys wear American-looking "T"-shirts.


German boys are still commonly wearing lederhose. A few boys wear long panmts, but most wear shorts even though it is no real hot out because some boys are wearing jackets. The shorts look rather baggy. The most common colors are khaki and black shorts. Several boys wrar suspender shorts.


Few of the boys are wearing sneakers. This still seems to be a mostly American style. The boys seem to be wearing mostly leather shoes. One boy wears sandals.

Figure 3.--Most of the boys here wear short pants. One boy wears white kbeesocks. Most wear colored ankle socks. One boy is barefoot.


None of the boys are wearing long stockings. Most wear ankle socks, usually colored ankle socks. A few wear knee socks. One boy wears patterned kneesocks. Another boy wears white kneesocks. While some boys wear white knee socks, few wear white ankle socks.

Reader Comments

My Dad worked for the American Battle Monuments collection in the Netherlands after World War II. Our relatives lived in the Netherlamds. I went to school there and fondly remember the my boyhood there with my Dutch friends. I found your netsite while searching the internet for "Emil and the Detectives". I saw this movie while attending school in Maastricht the Netherlands, . We attended the movie as a class and I remember the German version as a great all-time movie.

Other Productions

There are four versions of this film: German (1931), English (1935), England (1947), German (1954), and U.S. (Disney, 1964. HBC is familiar with the last two which are loosley similar. The fitst Kästner film to be made into a film was "Emil and the Dectectives" (1931). It was made in Germany before the NAZIs seized power. After that there would be no more productions in Germany until afer World War II and the defeat of the NAZIs. The only British film to be called 'Emil and the Detective' was made by a British film company in 1935. Emil travels to London in this version. The 1935 English language version of Emil was also released in the United States. This version is proving hard to find. The British Ealing film titeled "Hue and Cry" (1947) is loosely based on this story. Disney, however, always takes diabolicle liberties with any film adaptation. The clothes of the characters in the Walt Disney 1964 film are interesting. Some children seem to be dressed similar to children in the 1930s. One boy wears a Peter Pan collar and this makes his dress look old fashioned. The story line is changed from Emil getting robbed to Emil and the children stopping a heist at a large bank.


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Created: December 27, 1999
Last updated: 5:36 PM 8/14/2009