How Jewish immigrants stirred up fashion Down Under

A Sydney Jewish Museum exhibit tells rags-to-riches stories of Jews in the Australian schmatte trade

'Dressing Sydney' runs through December 31, 2013. (photo credit: courtesy)
'Dressing Sydney' runs through December 31, 2013. (photo credit: courtesy)

SYDNEY — In Lithuania, Jacob Bloch’s customers ordered shoes from him directly. When he moved his family to New South Wales in the early 1930s, he noticed the proliferation of shoe shops but recognized a gap in the market for ballet shoes. “This ordinary shoemaker from a tiny shtetl in Lithuania created a world-renowned ballet and dance shoe company,” says his daughter, Betty.

Bloch leveraged his Russian language skills to secure shoe contracts with some of the main dancers of the Ballet Russes when the company came to Australia in the 1930s, and he moved from the shop in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, where he worked by candlelight to save electricity, to a larger space in Taylor Square. When Betty and her husband Gershon Wilkenfeld took over the company, they opened a store in London’s Piccadilly Arcade and several more stores in Australia.

Rags-to-riches stories in the schmatte trade aren’t new. But the 100 narratives, including that of Bloch, presented in the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibit “Dressing Sydney: The Jewish Fashion Story” (through December 31, 2013) offer some new wrinkles in addition to the typical refrains. Some of those unique aspects to Sydney’s Jewish fashion story relate to Sydney’s climate and landscape.

When Susan Karas, a designer for John J. Hilton (whose marketing line was “It’s a honey, it’s a Hilton”), arrived in Australia, she thought she had gone back in time, Sydney Jewish Museum curator Roslyn Sugarman writes in the catalog.

“The ladies dressed in a funny way. They were dressed in mostly white hats, panama hats, and white gloves,” Karas said. “It was a completely different lifestyle, and my eyes popped. I said, ‘I can’t believe that I came into a country like this,’ but I very easily got used to that atmosphere and fitted in. First thing, I went and bought a white hat and white gloves!”

Husband-and-wife team Joseph and Aneta Weinrech had other thoughts on the monochromatic palette they encountered when they moved to Sydney. As they went to the city for coffee one day, they noticed the Farmers department store stocked many different kinds of white blouses. The two purchased drip-dry fabric on York Street, and upon returning home, Joseph took the bedroom door off its hinges and placed it on the bed to create a workspace. Aneta drew the patterns and Joseph used a small knife they had purchased to cut the fabric; a Czech Jewish woman sewed the clothes.

John J. Hilton leaflet (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)
John J. Hilton leaflet (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)

When the Weinrechs brought their colorful creations to Farmers, they were asked for their company’s name, which they hadn’t thought about. The buyer suggested Rainbow Blouses, which they registered for 20 pennies.

“Sydney’s story is not one of high fashion per se,” writes Peter McNeil, associate dean for research and professor of design history at the University of Technology Sydney and professor of fashion studies at Stockholm University, in his catalog essay.

But the “beginnings of an Australian fashion ‘type’” developed prior to World War I, according to McNeil. “Australians acquired specific tastes that did not mirror those of the British; elements of nationalism were evident in design, such as the use of novel and exotic materials, including platypus fur for the clothes of the well-to-do,” he writes.

Where the women’s clothing industry in Australia had concentrated on Melbourne prior to World War II, an influx of European Jews into Sydney before the war — about 9,000 Jewish immigrants arriving between 1933 and 1940 — shifted manufacturing to sports and summer wear. (Another 17,000 Jewish immigrants came Down Under between 1945 and 1954.)

Australian artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) “who advocated for better use of color palettes, noted that the ‘colors of the sea’ worked in Sydney but not in London,” McNeil writes.

“There is considerable evidence that émigrés introduced new and brighter colors into everyday clothing,” he adds. “They also helped to create the demand for lighter clothes, such as finely knitted garments that were part of contemporary European fashion aesthetics, modern lines in coats, and the youthful lace that adorned the short mod dresses of the 1960s.”

Jacob Bloch and daughter Betty Wilkenfeld (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)
Jacob Bloch and daughter Betty Wilkenfeld (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)

One of the most interesting threads through the exhibit is the religious component. “Although universally proud of their Jewish heritage and firmly faithful to the culture of Yiddishkeit, many in the industry did not actively practice their religion and worked on Shabbat (the Sabbath),” Sugarman notes in the catalog. “However, they held the value of the family, education and hard work as the unbreakable Jewish ethic. Most closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

Even though they didn’t show up to synagogue three times a day, the designers and fashion entrepreneurs of “Dressing Sydney” drew upon their Jewish identities in other ways, Sugarman adds. Some lent money to their employees to help them buy homes, while others donated percentages of their earnings to charities — some of them Jewish.

“Dressing Sydney,” which is packed with quotes from the oral histories the museum collected and a variety of pieces of clothing and jewelry, features several other narratives, from the politics surrounding Australian clothing outsourcing and tariffs, to humorous stories of Jewish wit.

Grete Menkes & Elsa and Otto Philippsohn (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)
Grete Menkes & Elsa and Otto Philippsohn (photo credit: Sydney Jewish Museum)

When a Melbourne company tried to charge Walter Philippsohn (Phillipsons of Botany) for not only freight, but also the box that contained the knitwear, Philippsohn called them up and said he had the check ready, but that he would charge for the envelope, Philippsohn’s nephew Peter recalls.

And when a customer who wasn’t well off came in the shop, Walter would tell Peter in Yiddish “Er is ein bovel fresser,” or “that’s somebody who would eat garbage.” Peter knew then to show the old stock that the company wanted to move to the customer, rather than the best quality clothing. “It could be because the person was a credit risk,” Peter says. “They’d say, ‘If we’re going to lose on this guy let’s lose on something that we’re going to have to mark down anyway.”

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