SAN FRANCISCO, California — In one of those quirky pop culture moments, Old Navy is marketing a woman’s sweater that resembles the traditional Jewish prayer shawl.
What the San Francisco-based clothing giant, part of Gap, Inc., describes as “Women’s Handkerchief-Hem Open-Front Cardigans,” are light-colored button-less sweaters with black vertical stripes that drape from shoulder to waist. With that classic stripe-on-light look draped just so, the piece could easily be deemed a “tallit wrap.”
The Old Navy “tallit” is the latest in an ongoing conversation about everyday clothing relating to Jewish culture. While some of these occurrences are relatively benign, others create as much public outrage as a designer muttering anti-Semitic comments in public (a la John Galliano). And when these issues catch fire in social media, the viral backlash costs retailers significant financial loss, negative publicity, and possibly legal action against questionably anti-Semitic policies.
The current tallit-wrap could be considered a positive cultural counterpoint to the “Swastika Handbag” and, the even more reprehensible, “Concentration Camp Tee.” Both issued by Zara in recent years, the swastikas on a purse and the shocking combination of a gold star and blue stripes on a pajama-like top produced outrage across social media.
It was a costly mistake that called the company’s larger outlook toward Jews into question. The vehement push-back and negative PR forced the retailer to pull the items from their shelves and issue an apology.
But Zara is hardly alone in its questionable clothing items. Another international retail chain, H&M, suffered similar losses in March 2014 when it marketed a graphic tank top depicting a disturbing line drawing of human skull inside a Jewish star with red and black swashes of color. Among other critics, a Times of Israel blogger shopping in London brought his concern to the company’s attention.
Public condemnation led H&M to promptly remove the item from its global inventory and proffer a quick apology. The company has not made that mistake again.
“Our customers come first and their feedback regarding this issue is the number one priority for H&M,” a company spokesperson told the New York Daily News.
The seemingly positive introduction of the Old Navy “tallit-wrap” is not the first time a major retailer created an item destined for ritual comparisons. Back in 2011, H&M featured a woman’s poncho that also resembled the classic black-and-white fringed garment.
The two tallit-looks have garnered renewed interest on social media as quirky and perhaps unintentional nods to Jewish culture. They also call to mind designer John Paul Gaultier’s 1993 Jewish-inspired ready-wear ensemble for women. The dramatic black black suit so authentically resembled hasidic garb, it even included a shtreiml with an attached pair of faux payot.
The New York Times called Gaultier the first designer to use Judaism as an inspiration for urban wear. His campy fashion show, “Chic Rabbis,” included decorative menorahs lining the run-way, servings of Manischewitz wine and kippot on the models.
Gaultier’s pioneering “Jewish fashion breakthrough” led to the inclusion of the kaputa-ladies pant suit in a “Too Jewish” 1996 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City and in the 2011 retrospective of Gaultier creations entitled “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Fashion’s love affair with Judaism has its dark side, too. In February 2013, the provocative designer John Galliano appeared in public in what some observers called “Hasidic-ish.” His oversized black hat, and long black frockcoat were paired with black knickers and payes.
Controversy exploded when the billion-dollar haute-couture house of Christian Dior fired Galliano after a video went viral in which the company’s head designer made anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bar in 2011. A French court found fined him €6,000 for the offense of publicly voicing anti-Semitism, including his self-expressed “love” for the demised Nazi Fuhrer.
This summer’s appearance of the tallit wrap comes at an odd time in Jewish current events. This week security at the Western Wall denied entrance to a Jewish American woman wearing a skullcap from the iconic place of prayer. The Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch subsequently issued an apology to Linda Siegel-Richman, who is studying this summer at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
One wonders if the Old Navy tallit-wrap might accidentally lead to a similar episode based on its uncanny resemblance to a prayer shawl. (The Times of Israel asked Old Navy for comment about the item but the company failed to respond.)
Add a swastika for good luck
Contrast the tallit-wrap of today to last summer, when the international retailer Zara was accused of anti-Semitism and forced to remove the item it described as a “sheriff T-shirt” from its inventory. The top bore an uncanny resemblance to the prison garb forced upon Jewish inmates of World War II Nazi concentration camps.
Zara’s parent company, Inditex, a leading global clothing and accessories retailer, issued a quick apology, but only after images of the product compared to WWII-era relics evoked public condemnation. The gold star and striped pajama combination was the more offensive of two fashion faux pas committed by the Spanish clothing chain.
Back in 2007, popular dissent also forced Zara to pull a colorful handbag that featured a swastika among a floral design from its wares.
As strange as it may sound, the use of a swastika as a decorative element doesn’t fully shock those familiar with the image’s pre-World War II past. In North America and Europe, the swastika is a distasteful reminder of genocide and facism. But that’s not true everywhere.
The word swastika hails from Sanskrit to suggest good luck
“It was a common good luck symbol, but once the Nazis appropriated it, people stopped using in the west because it was associated with Nazis,” says scholar Eddy Portnoy, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and academic advisor to the the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.
“In places like India and the Far East, they continued to use it because it was long part of their culture and they didn’t have a connection with the Nazis, so they didn’t have a problem with it. If you go to India today, you’ll see swastikas everywhere,” says Portnoy.
In fact, the word swastika hails from Sanskrit to suggest good luck, says Portnoy.
An artist who called himself ManWoman made it his life’s mission to redeem the symbol, under the slogan, “To hell with Hitler,” as shown on his blog and book, “The Gentle Swastika: Reclaiming the Innocence.”
While Zara’s use of the swastika and its association with the image of concentration camp pajamas may be an exception in the company’s history, that is not where the accusations of corporate anti-Semitism end.
The fashion giant’s parent company, Inditex, is now facing a $40 million anti-discrimination suit filed by the company’s former corporate attorney for its North American transactions. Ian Jack Miller, the first and only corporate attorney for Zara’s US and Canada operations, is part of a New York lawsuit.
Miller’s attorneys, Sanford Heisler Kimpel LLP, filed a $40 million discrimination suit, alleging Inditex harassed and later fired Miller, the company’s only Jewish employee, because he is Jewish, American and gay.
The suit accuses the billionaire at the company’s helm, founder Amancio Ortega, the world’s 4th wealthiest individual, as establishing a discriminatory corporate atmosphere that trickled from the top down.
Whether the company’s mistakes with anti-Semitic imagery is also part of that strategy may be teased out in court.