Custom Made: Jewish Fashion from The Israel Museum
You don’t need to be a red-carpet devotee to appreciate The Israel Museum’s world-renowned collection of Jewish costumes—and through March 18, 2018, you needn’t travel all the way to Israel, either. “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem” brings to New York’s Jewish Museum the first comprehensive display of Jewish apparel.
“Clothing is intended to cover our bodies, but it also uncovers,” notes the introductory wall text. The magnificent textiles and garments, backlit with gentle lighting to protect the fragile fabrics, lay bare the threads of individual and communal Jewish lives as well as the effect that local customs and migration had on Jewish fashion. This exhibition of over 100 articles of clothing—adapted from an earlier exhibition at The Israel Museum—is divided into four main sections, and each is a revelation.
All of the clothes on display were once actually worn, said Claudia J. Nahson, the supervising curator from The Jewish Museum. The vestments, which date from the 18th to the 21st century, represent communities in more than 20 countries, from the United States and Morocco to Germany and Ethiopia, and were worn in lifecycle celebrations and in mourning, on the street and at home. Some were clearly designed with Jewish modesty laws in mind; others, in the suggestive phrasing of one exhibition section, “expose the unseen.” All told, this diversity provides a vibrant and powerful portrait of what Nahson aptly summarized as “the global Jewish presence.”
A single item may contain layers of both history and fabric. One dress was sewn in Baghdad in 1891 for the henna ceremony of young Jewish bride Dakhla Rachel Mu’allem (and wow was she young—11!). The dress accompanied Mu’allem to Iran in 1948, when anti-Jewish violence following the establishment of the State of Israel made Iraq too dangerous. Mu’allem passed away in 1960, but when the 1979 Iranian Revolution compelled her children to move to London, the dress went with them.
Examples of local cultural influences—when Jews dressed as their non-Jewish neighbors did, at least to some extent—suffuse this exhibition. “Each costume is a meeting of different cultures,” says Nahson. That’s true whether one examines the Islamic-influenced samples of veils and wraps worn by Jewish women in the Middle East and Central Asia from the late 1920s and 1930s, or a mid-20th century wedding sari belonging to a member of the Bene Israel community in India. That Indian garment incorporates both local custom—the sari form—and the more typically European use of white-colored fabric for marriage dress.
“Veiled Meanings” concludes with a fascinating section titled “Clothing That Remembers,” which alludes most directly to certain ritual garments or, in some cases, the ways in which an article of clothing might be repurposed: On view is an elaborate Ottoman Jewish bridal gown. A community custom was to refashion the embroidered dress into Torah Ark curtains after the death of the gown’s owner. The Jewish Museum’s exhibit includes one such Ark curtain.
The wall text suggests that an entire exhibition of Jewish costumes “is also a commemorative act.” In the case of “Veiled Meanings,” it’s a most worthy one.
Erika Dreifus, the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, writes for numerous publications. Visit her online at https://ErikaDreifus.com and follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish.”