“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” When Mark Twain penned these words in the late nineteenth century, he wasn’t writing anything new. People have always used clothes to make a statement. And even today, the fashion industry is powered by this truism. That’s why the exhibition Dress Codes Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe at the Israel Museum is recommended viewing. It’s more than a peek at the fashions of yesteryear – the exhibits take you deep into the traditions and values of the Jewish community from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.
This is a world where magenta, aquamarine, crimson and salmon replace red, yellow, blue and green. Here, brocade, damask, alepine and lustring rule over cotton, wool, and polyester. Gold thread, elaborate embroidery, cowrie shells and ribbons abound. The exhibition, divided into five sections, is on view until January 3, 2015. It features over one hundred costumes from four continents.
Through the Veil
In Central Asia, influenced by the local Islamic cultures, Jewish women wore wraps, cloaks, and facial veils when leaving the house. In Baghdad, until as recently as 1935, women wore a light, colorful wrap called an izar fashioned by haute-couture designer Menashe Saet, who earned himself the name Abu Izar, father of the izar, for his efforts. Interestingly, as recently as the mid-20th century in Herat, Afghanistan, it was the Jewish women who wore a black chader and hid their faces behind a white netted and embroidered veil. The Muslim women, instead, covered themselves with a wide, colorful one-piece wrap or chader burkah.
Exposing the Unseen
This section of the exhibition includes underclothes, linings of garments, and icons stitched into clothing. I enjoy seeing the brocaded silk man’s coat from Calcutta with the blue hamsa sewn into the red lining as a protection against the evil eye. A man’s coat from early twentieth century Georgia, replete with a row of gunpowder cases emblazoned on both sides of the chest, tellingly reveals the wearer’s preference for a different sort of protection.
Further on, an elaborate gold brocaded silk dress with a sheer lace fronted shirt paradoxically draws attention to the very thing it was intended to obscure. Under the shirt, a silk and cotton bodice with gilt metal thread, embroidery, ribbons and sequins is clearly visible. Amazingly, this type of dress was deemed the height of modesty.
In Uzbekistan, in the early twentieth century, it was the women who wore the pants. A display of printed cotton pants, plangi and ikat dyed in a dizzying array of colors, reminds me of the tie-and-dye designs revived by the hippies of the Sixties.
But it’s the white bridal trousseau items that hold my attention the longest. My eldest daughter got married a few short weeks ago, and I’m relieved that I didn’t need to put the Italian cotton tulle and silk undergarments, embellished with lace and embroidery, on our shopping list. Further along, a different pair of gold pants shows how fashion norms have changed. The pants, made from artificial silk with gilt metal embroidery, have a waistband of at least a meter. The Tunisian bride who wore these in the late nineteenth century was woken up at regular intervals during the night to feast – because, in Tunisian society, bigger was better. Can’t we make fashion aficionado turn back the clocks?
Fusion in Dress
Local fashion has always been influenced by fashion from afar. In 1873, after the Shah of Persia visited Paris, European styles, particularly the costumes of Parisian ballet, were incorporated into traditional Persian dress. On display is a deep-purple silk, velvet and cotton outfit that fuses the two cultures together: the skirt is short and flared, but matching pants ensure that everything that needs to be covered remains covered.