Israel Museum exhibit puts decades of Israeli fashion on runway

‘Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress’ goes beyond glamour to examine ideology and social dynamics

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The inverted runway of 'Fashion Statement; Decoding Israeli Dress' exhibit at the Israel Museum, which opened June 13, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The inverted runway of 'Fashion Statement; Decoding Israeli Dress' exhibit at the Israel Museum, which opened June 13, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Visitors get a sense of walking the runway at the start of “Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress,” the Israel Museum’s first large-scale exhibition about the country’s fashion history, which opened Wednesday.

A stroll through the gallery brings viewers close to curved rows of dressed mannequins, a visual timeline of Israeli fashion that displays the roots and influences of  the designers who have shaped the way Israeli women (and some men) dress.

This Jerusalem exhibit “mirrors the tapestry of Israeli society,” said head curator Daisy Raccah-Djivre.

This historical fashion show starts with the camel-colored wool desert cloaks created by Fini Leitersdorf, who famously said that Israeli fashion had to be created for the local climate and lifestyle rather than the Hungarian culture into which she was born.

The iconic desert coat of Fini Leitersdorf for the Maskit label (Courtesy Israel Museum)

The desert theme and draped garb of various designers is followed by Yemenite-influenced embroidery of Maskit, then themes borrowed from religious garb, such as the black-and-white stripes of the prayer shawl and the Star of David cutouts in a long black jacket made by designer Tovaleh, and the red-and-white weave of the kaffiyeh, used by Three as Four, a trio of designers who are Palestinian, Israeli and Russian.

“There were themes that kept repeating themselves,” said Efrat Assaf Shapira, one of the three curators of the exhibit. “There were encounters that could only be here.”

A woman’s keffiyeh-inspired dress and cape by designer Rojy Ben Joseph (Courtesy Israel Museum)

While the museum is known for its massive collection of more than 500,000 items, its holdings do not extend to fashion costumes and the 150 outfits displayed in the exhibit had to be collected from far and wide, said Efrat Assaf-Shapira, whose team of curators worked for the last two years researching and gathering pieces from individual collections, mostly local designers.

It created the question of whether Israeli fashion even exists, said Assaf-Shapira.

“Is there such a concept?” she asked.

Given that Israel is only 70 years old, it’s a question that is frequently asked about other facets of local culture as well, such as food and art.

Still, the roots of Israeli fashion are reflected in the country’s pioneering history, which is often mirrored in local art and design, reflecting the effect of the early residents of this country on later generations of thinkers and creative types.

Classic khaki shorts and a sky blue shirt made by ATA, the brand that mirrored Israel’s early Socialist idealism (Courtesy Israel Museum)

That period is introduced in the second gallery of the exhibit, showing the years when the Hebrew term for fashion, ofna, was coined, and clothing was largely limited to plain button-down shirts, pants and the iconic kova tembel, or fool’s hat, for providing shade from the sun.

Those sturdy outfits — made by ATA, a brand that recently experienced a Tel Aviv revival — are placed in marching order on mannequins, joined by classic moving images of the early pioneers working in the fields and dancing the hora.

Those simple, plain shorts, pants and shirts were potent imagery of the Socialist aesthetic of the pre-state period,  fashion that was also influenced by the Bauhaus movement of architecture, which designed straight, simple lines and facades in its buildings and homes, said Noga Eliash-Zalmanovich, another curator.

The other side of fashion in pre-state Israel of the 1930s and 1940s (Courtesy Israel Museum)

There was also a more Westernized view urging that Israel be the Paris of the Middle East, building on its European roots and creating a couture that showed it was as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as any other country.

That view is displayed on a turning carousel of mannequins dressed in the silk dresses and gowns of the 1940s and 1950s, silhouettes augmented by a running video of models and runways from those times.

Later on, during the he 1960s and 1970s, the fashion world became industrialized with brands and textile factories supported by the Israeli government, a period shown mostly through a video in the third hall for lack of real archival examples, said Eliash-Zalmanovich.

A couture styled dress by Gideon Oberson, a longstanding designer who began with swimsuits in the era of Gottex and moved on to a ready-to-wear line (Courtesy Israel Museum)

Still, there are iconic moments shown in the video, including one hard-to-find shot of Jackie Onassis dressed in a full-length Beged Or coat, international supermodels wearing Gottex bathing suits, and familiar visuals from Rosh Indiani, Castro and Topper, all name brands of the 1980s.

The local fashion industry fell apart as a result of the country’s economic crisis of the 1980s, only to revive again in the 1990s with graduates from the design schools of Shenkar, Bezalel and Wizo, and names like Ronen Chen, Sigal Dekel, Gideon Oberson, Dorin Frankfurt and Naama Bezalel emerging on the local scene.

That era is exhibited in the final hall, where 14 carefully chosen designers are represented with their most iconic works in terms of fabrics, shapes and cuts, demonstrating where the industry has arrived today.

The draping, layers and conceptual feel of Sasson Kedem, the designer behind the Kedem Sasson label (Courtesy Israel Museum)

“It isn’t easy making it as a designer today,” said Eliash-Zalmanovich. “Many designers are working in their living room, trying hard to move into a studio and make it big.”

The outfits displayed in the final gallery are by the local designers who are recognized names today, and some of the international Israeli names as well, like Alber Elbaz, who headed the French design house of Lanvin and Alon Livne, who started out in wedding dress design and moved onto the celebrity stage by dressing Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton.

The exhibit, said Ido Bruno, the museum’s new director, is about the industry and cultural interpretations of fashion.

“It’s not just about glamour and the top tier of society,” said Bruno. “It’s rather an expression of ideology and the dynamics of society.”

The exhibit at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum runs through April 29, 2019.

read more: