Clothing and Jewish Women

by Dr. Carol K. Ingall and Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz

For more than a year and a half, we have been thinking about clothing as a religious and cultural barometer.

This is not to say we’ve been mulling over the legendary relationship between hemlines and economic robustness. Instead, we’ve been discussing the overwhelming power of fashion and clothing in American culture. Witness the popularity of Sex and the City, Project Runway, and What Not to Wear. The attention generated by the Metropolitan Museum’s 2010 exhibit, American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, followed by its blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, speak to the power of clothing to teach and delight.

As scholars of American Jewish history and the history of American Jewish education, we can’t help but view the fashion tsunami through the prisms of our own fields. Clothing was crucial to Jewish cultural transformation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to Americanizing Jewish women, and to helping them fit in through the democracy of dress.

The recent commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire highlighted the plight of the immigrant girls – most of them Jewish or Italian – who made clothing for their more acculturated co-religionists. For those lucky enough to endure the degrading conditions, their exposure to the right clothing and American gentility were their passports to respectability. Like Samuel Slater, who memorized the plans of British cotton mills and their machinery and brought them across the Atlantic, launching the American industrial revolution, these young factory workers would memorize or surreptitiously draw the patterns for dresses and blouses and make them for themselves and their friends. Wearing the right clothing was the first step to acceptance.

Anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell calls these girls “cultural pioneers,” conduits for bringing trend-setting fashions to urban immigrants who wanted to look like the women who had made it in America, both culturally and economically. Thus clothing was simultaneously the great leveler and means for advancement for American Jewish women.

Not only were dresses and blouses indicators of Americanization, but so were hats, furs, and jewelry. Sometimes these women, so eager to pass as American, went too far, evoking the opprobrium of their Christian neighbors, their rabbis, and those Jews who had preceded them. Jenna Weissman Joselit’s delightful book A Perfect Fit cites the advice of Rosa Sonneschein, publisher of the magazine American Jewess, to downplay jewels because of the danger of looking “vulgar.” Prell’s “ghetto girls” were the forerunners of the woman Gilda Radner immortalized in her “Jewess jeans.” They were the suburban Jewish American princesses of the post-World War II era.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, Orthodox Jewish groups, growing anxious about Americanization and its excesses, consciously cultivated distinctive dress for women as well as for men. In striking contrast, photographs of traditional weddings taken in the 1930s often depict men without kippot, or indeed head coverings of any kind. Women wear stylish dresses, revealing their collarbones and arms. Today, traditional Orthodox communities interpret tzniyut – modesty – far more strictly than their ancestors did. And savvy business owners have met this demand by offering online sites for women who want to be covered from head to toe, and bridal shops sell dresses made by well-known American designers that are built up by special tailors and seamstresses to cover shoulders, elbows, and décolletage. The sumptuary laws that regulated excess in dress in medieval and Renaissance European Jewish communities have been replaced by local poskim (rabbinic decisors) and minhag (tradition) in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Cleveland. Orthodox schoolgirls are readily recognizable by their uniform: body-hugging top under a loosefitting blouse, knee-length skirt, and stockings. Women in these communities know precisely how to communicate their place in it through their clothes.

In every era, clothing can be read as a way of highlighting gender distinctions between Jewish men and women, as simultaneously restricting and sexualizing women, or as a symbol of Jewish pride (much as wearing a hijab can be read in Muslim communities). It also presents us with questions: What messages about self-representation do our clothes convey today? In what ways do our clothes encode our gender and our Jewishness? What should women rabbis wear when they play and pray? How do we balance looking professional and looking attractive?

In today’s youth-obsessed culture, women worry about looking too much like their teen-aged daughters on the one hand, or looking frumpy on the other. What are clothing norms in workplaces? As scholars of Jewish culture, we are interested in synagogue policies about head covering and tallitot, and about women wearing pants on the bimah. Synagogues, women’s volunteer organizations, professional associations, and academic institutions should address these questions.

Always a source of delight and anxiety, clothing is a source of never-ending fascination. More important, dress and fashion serve as a mirror that reflects the society we inhabit and the values we hold. We will discuss these and related issues on Sunday, March 11, in an all-day conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Admission is open and all our readers are invited to join us there.

Dr. Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor Emerita of Jewish Education and Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz is the Irving Lehrman Research Associate Professor of American Jewish History and Walter and Sarah Schlesinger Dean of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies, both at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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