Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe

Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe

A fascinating look at traditional Jewish clothing and its origins, from all around the world

Women's upper cloak ('abay), Baghdad, Iraq, early 20th century; Gift of Ayala Dabby (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)
Women's upper cloak ('abay), Baghdad, Iraq, early 20th century; Gift of Ayala Dabby (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)

A few words from the curators:

The first comprehensive exhibition of its kind, Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe at the Israel Museum brings together an array of traditional apparel from the 18th through the 20th centuries from the Museum’s world-renowned collection of Jewish dress. The exhibition features over one hundred costumes from four continents in a visually rich display that showcases the colors, textures, history, and symbolism of clothing. Opening the door to garments deep within the Jewish wardrobe, the exhibition presents clothing as representative of such universal human themes as identity and memory. Dress Codes offers a cross-cultural celebration of the history of Jewish dress and the ways in which traditional clothing has stimulated fashion design throughout history and continues to inspire the styles of today.

“Our treasury of Jewish dress – the richest of its kind in the world – was assembled over many years and holds a special place of pride among the Museum’s collections – most especially as a testament to the trappings of Jewish life and their universal context,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “We are delighted to be able to present so comprehensive a display reflecting the incredible depth and diversity of our costume holdings as a vivid illustration of the myriad ways in which the history of Jewish dress informs and is informed by the broader history of world fashion.”

The exhibition is organized around five themes, providing a framework for exploring the range of clothing on view:

Through the Veil

The extent to which a woman is concealed by her clothing raises the recurrent question of free choice versus social pressure and has inspired a long-standing debate over whether such symbols of modesty represent a positive assertion of religious identity or a form of coercion. The theme of “Through the Veil” explores this tension through items of women’s clothing from Central Asia. Influenced by local Islamic cultures, the wraps, cloaks, and facial veils on display were worn as outdoor garments by Jewish women. In addition to covering a woman’s body and face as an expression of modesty, these trappings reveal important aspects of her identity relating to religion, status, and place of origin. In the mid-20th century in Herat, Afghanistan, for example, the everyday attire of the Jewish women differed from that of Muslim women. While Jewish women wrapped themselves with a black chader and hid their faces behind a white netted and embroidered veil, Muslim women covered themselves with a wide, colorful one-piece wrap (chader burkah) that hid their bodies from head to toe, with only a netted opening for the eyes.

Jewish women’s wrap (chader) and face veil ( ruband) Herat, Afghanistan mid-20th century (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)
Jewish women’s wrap (chader) and face veil ( ruband) Herat, Afghanistan mid-20th century (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)

Exposing the Unseen

This section of the exhibition provides an opportunity to examine the fine and often hidden details of clothing. Underclothes, linings of garments, and icons stitched into clothing – whether hidden or in plain view – can be carriers of intriguing cultural symbols, often understandable only to some. These garments or details, often elaborately crafted, sometimes paradoxically drew attention to the very thing they were intended to obscure. Highlights include items worn by women in the Baghdadi community in India that blend traditional dress from Baghdad with strong Victorian influences. A bodice or brassiere, worn under the shirt and visible through it, accentuates the bosom, while also covering it.

Fusion in Dress

In many different places in the world, the melding of fashions imported from afar with local costumes led to innovative creations in dress. A fascinating example of this early fusion is a popular Persian women’s costume from the early 20th century that recalls a tutu. The Shah, following a trip to Paris in 1873, brought home with him an enthusiasm for European styles, particularly of the costumes he saw at the Parisian ballet. Over the years, the influx of Western culture into traditional societies gradually merged with local clothing traditions to create a new fashion vernacular. In later years, this trend became reversed, with Western cultures embracing non-Western garments as exotic and authentic sources of fashion inspiration.

Women's kerchiefs, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, early 20th century (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)
Women’s kerchiefs, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, early 20th century (photo credit: Courtesy/The Israel Museum)

Little Women and Little Men

Many of the children’s garments displayed in this section of the exhibition appear as miniature versions of adult clothing, a reflection of children’s roles in traditional societies, in which they were considered adults-in-the-making from an early age. Because of the higher value often placed on boys by traditional societies, superstitious attempts were made in some communities to confuse the evil forces intent on harming young boys by dressing them in girls’ clothing. In addition, babies and toddlers often wore special amulets to protect them from harm, due to fears of child mortality. Such is the case with the dress from Yemen illustrated here, worn by a girl after her recovery from smallpox and covered with amulets to keep its wearer safe.

Clothing That Remembers

Clothing often serves to perpetuate the memory of the dead, sometimes after being redesigned to fulfill a new role. From the late 19th century, it was a common practice for Sephardi Jewish women in the Ottoman Empire to donate precious dresses and trousseau items to the synagogue, where they would be transformed for ritual use. The exhibition features examples of these items, including a bindalli bridal dress alongside a Torah ark curtain created from a similar dress. The tradition of donating such items to the synagogue endured long after the original dresses had become dated, and transitional bindalli fashion thus remained alive in Sephardi synagogues long after the passing of the brides who wore these dresses.

The exhibition is on view from March 11 through October 25, 2014.