Jewish “Dress Code” Explored in CJM Exhibition

by Jean Schiffman

A traveling exhibition from Israel explores ways that Jews in the diaspora adapted, fashion-wise, to their environments—the ways they remained distinct, the ways they blended in.

If the idea of a Jewish woman in a burka seems far-fetched, consider this: As recently as the late-19th and early-20th centuries, upper-class Jewish women in Baghdad, when leaving the home, wrapped themselves in silk cloths and a head cover and concealed their faces with a fine-mesh black horsehair veil (their Muslim neighbors wore a full, black abaya and the Christian women left their faces uncovered).

Indeed, when “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem” first opened in Israel (under the name “Dress Code”), what was most surprising to visitors was that the wraps and veils from Central Asia—the chador, izar and burka—were worn by Jews.

The layers of history and tradition, of artistry and social identity, represented by—well, clothes—seem infinite as seen in this exhibit, opening August 30 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. It shows, through the sensorial medium of textures, colors, fabrics and craftsmanship, as Israel Museum curator Efrat Assaf-Shapira describes it, the ways that Jews in the diaspora adapted, fashion-wise, to their environments—the ways they remained distinct, the ways they blended in. The 2014 exhibit went from Jerusalem to New York’s Jewish Museum; its only other stop in the United States is here, opening a few weeks ahead of the de Young’s “Contemporary Muslim Fashions” in September.

The Baghdadi woman’s wrap (the izar), and the accompanying headcover and veil, are among the exhibit’s more than 100 garments on display, organized into four main sections. They stretch from an 18th-century German prayer shawl (damask and silk brocade, richly embellished) to a Hasidic rabbi’s sabbath coat from the early 21st century and a 1947 New York wedding dress (opulent white silk with Burano lace and pearls) and represent cultures from four continents in more than two dozen countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen and including Ethiopia, India and Algeria.

The Israel Museum has about 10,000 items of clothing which it has been collecting since the 1930s; it drew from that collection but also from rare garments donated by many families. It was a meticulous process, says Assaf-Shapira in an email exchange, to work through such a treasure trove of items to choose the ones that would most significantly tell the story of Jews in the diaspora as a whole.

“The unique thing,” says CJM organizing curator Heidi Rabben, “is that this is celebrating a Jewish history less well known—the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia—plus Europe and one garment from the U.S.” She points to some items with curious backstories: a pair of richly embroidered women’s bridal bloomers from Tunisia that include a three-meter-long waistband: brides were encouraged to be pleasingly plump and were even woken up in the middle of the night, in the weeks prior to the wedding, so that they could eat fattening snacks. Or, a Torah ark curtain that was once a woman’s dress; among Sephardic Jews in Ottoman Empire Turkey, families often donated such clothes to the local synagogue or community, for repurposing.

Of the exhibit’s thematic sections, the largest is “Exposing the Unseen,” zeroing in on the embellishments that reveal, or symbolize, a deeper meaning. For example, a woman’s late-19th-century Bukharan coat speaks to a long-gone tradition. Of colorful brocaded silk, the coat features a lining of ikat-dyed silk and cotton; ikat, described in the wall text as “an intricate resist-dye technique in which threads are repeatedly bound and dyed before they are woven to produce patterns,” involved indigo and can be traced back to pre-Inquisition Spain. It ultimately became solely the purview of Jewish craftspeople; as the Jews were expelled from Spain and migrated to places like Uzbekistan, explains Rabben, where Muslims considered indigo dye unclean and lowly (it smelled and stained), the trade was relegated to the Jewish minority. It was, for a while, a particularly successful endeavor for them, as travel through the Silk Road dispersed the practice throughout Asia. A pair of women’s bloomers from early 20th-century Uzbekistan also features ikat-dyed silk and embroidery.

In “Through the Veil”—focusing on outdoor coverings worn by Jewish women in Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan—a Herati chador is an example of an item that originated among Jews in Muslim Iran and was brought to Afghanistan by crypto-Jews (those required to convert to Islam but who continued to practice in secret) who fled to Herat at the beginning of the 19th century. Like a burka, the chador had its own distinctive design and color: black, with a white netted and embroidered veil.

“Clothing That Remembers” includes undergarments of a bridal couple in Morocco—it was customary to wear linen shrouds beneath wedding clothes to symbolize the fleeting nature of this life; later they’d be buried in them.

“Interweaving Cultures” shows how Jewish fashion changed according to locations, cultures and political and social events.

Examples from Ethiopia are more contemporary; as described in the exhibit’s wall text, the Jews of Ethiopia did not come into contact with worldwide Jewry until the early 20th century, at which time they began embroidering Jewish religious motifs on clothing.

And, says CJM’s executive director Lori Starr, “I don’t know how many people are aware that Jews have had a vibrant presence in India and there are existing Jewish communities there.” She points to a white, mid-20th-century wedding sari. It was Queen Victoria who introduced the notion of the white wedding gown at her own wedding in 1840, so, observes Starr, it ties the colonial past of India to the present-day U.K.—“just one object with so many stories within.” Every garment tells a story not only of the past and the connections between cultures but also what you don’t normally see—what’s underneath the outer garments, like the bloomers beneath the Tunisian wedding dress. “It’s about what is revealed and what is concealed,” she says. 

Assaf-Shapira points out the striking craft and creativity that we see in the array of garments—which includes belts, buckles, sashes, socks, leggings, bodices and more—and “their ability to tell so much about the people who wore them, about communities and traditions some of which no longer exist.” Dress, she says, is a universal language. And, as the image of Jewish women in veils clearly shows, and as Starr points out, people have always dressed in a style appropriate to where they live.

Aug. 30-Jan. 6

The Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission St., San Francisco