The History And Meaning Of Jewish Dress, At The Jewish Museum


The first item encountered in The Jewish Museum’s superb new show is a bulky black chadur. Jewish women in mid-20th-century Herat, Afghanistan, wore this long wide garment when they’d go out in the street. While local Muslim women covered themselves with colorful one-piece wraps with a netted opening for the eyes, the Jewish women wore black, covering their faces with a white netted and embroidered veil. This custom of concealment was brought to Afghanistan by crypto-Jews who came from Mashad, Iraq, and continued their practice of Judaism even after they were forced to convert to Islam in 1839. They had reason to hide.

The exhibition, “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,” shows how fashion is about both veiling and unveiling, revealing and concealing. Most of the more than 100 garments, from the 18th to 20th centuries, are made of rich fabrics, spirited designs, detailed handiwork of another era and colors that remain vibrant.

Each dress has a story behind it, and each is a work of art. Some of the stories are spelled out — how a silk velvet dress worn in early 20th-century Mashad, Iran, has a European-inspired skirt resembling a ballet tutu, or how an embroidered garment that was part of an Italian bride’s trousseau was handmade by nuns — and others leave details to be imagined.

“I always keep in mind that this clothing belonged to people. They wore it; they went through some kind of journey. The human aspect of it appeals to me,” says Claudia Nahson, Morris and Eva Feld Curator at The Jewish Museum and supervising curator for the New York presentation. It seems as if something about the original owner is imprinted in each item.

The exhibition is drawn from the collection of The Israel Museum, the world’s largest repository of Jewish costume, collected since the 1930s. Efrat Assaf-Shapiro, exhibition curator for The Israel Museum who was in New York for the opening, explains that many of the garments were found through fieldwork done in immigrant communities, with the aim of locating traditional garments before they disappeared.

“I always keep in mind that this clothing belonged to people. They wore it; they went through some kind of journey. The human aspect of it appeals to me.”

This is a season of looking at the language of clothing anew, with the Museum of Modern Art’s show “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” (through Jan. 28) featuring more than 100 pieces of clothing and accessories that have had an impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Levi’s 501 jeans, a biker jacket and a range of borrowed and bought kippot. The next exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, opening on May 10, is about the connections between fashion and faith, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The Jewish Museum show is more about tradition than faith, about the ways Jewish dress has developed, in connection with place and waves of migration, and as an expression of identity, culture and belonging.


Most of the dresses are set gracefully on headless forms, and some items are shown behind glass. Wedding dresses, in various shades of white — a European influence — as well as full color, may have been handed down from one generation to the next. A wedding sari, in brocaded silk embroidered with silk and silver threads, was worn by the women in the Bene Israel community in India. Many of the outfits seem quite small, and were worn by very young brides. In 19th-century Tunis, Jewish brides were encouraged to gain weight before their wedding day, as a round appearance was the ideal, a sign of prosperity and fertility. The women’s trousers — part of the wedding ensemble — shown here are wide and sewn to expand.

Many items, from places like Algeria, Greece, Libya and Morocco, were quite similar to what non-Jewish women may have been wearing. But, looking closely at some styles, the wanderings and displacements of Jewish communities are evident. A “Great Dress” from Fez, Morocco, with its deep green velvet wide skirt and braided ribbons at the edge, has roots in the Jewish community of Spain. Its decorative-style embroidery — in metal thread on the bodice — is a Spanish tradition that Jewish women brought to Morocco.

Women dressed in layers, and many unseen elements, whether undergarments or patterned inner linings, are also made with great care and fine decoration. Many of the outfits would have much current appeal for their stylishness, workmanship or folkloric qualities.

Many of the outfits would have much current appeal for their stylishness, workmanship or folkloric qualities.

Sleeves that billow, way beyond the fingertips, are a feature of many garments. Assaf-Shapiro points out that sleeves were a sign of wealth. No one is going to work in the fields or prepare food with sleeves that cover their hands. Some of the very-long-sleeved dresses were ceremonial, like a wedding dress from Iraqi Kurdistan, made by a bride and her father in the 1930s, from raw silk with silk-thread embroidery. The pair spun the silk, then dyed, wove, designed, sewed and embroidered the dress, including its winged sleeves.

A mourning cloak, or faranji, from late 19th-century Uzbekistan is green silk — a color of mourning — with a bright yellow Ikat print silk inside. The back features two long non-functional joined sleeves sewn on as decoration.

Also exhibited are festive wedding leggings from Yemen, men’s belts and sashes, Polish bodice-pieces elegantly embroidered with pearls and sequins, worn on the Sabbath and other holidays. There are children’s aprons with protective talismans, a boy’s bar mitzvah coat from Uzbekistan, a chasidic rebbe’s silk Sabbath coat and a groom’s outfit from Iraqi Kurdistan, adorned with diamond-shaped amulet symbols thought to have protective qualities.

Just as clothing can have an afterlife, the cycles of life and death are seen throughout the exhibit.

Several items that were repurposed from one thing to another, like a baby’s coat made from a woman’s dress in Turkey, and a Torah mantle made of a velvet wedding gown embroidered with gold threads from the Ottoman Empire, reminded me of my grandfather the tailor, who was creative and talented in recycling the exquisite clothing he made. These refashions were both practical and symbolic, connecting the new wearer with the person no longer wearing the garment, perpetuating memory.

Just as clothing can have an afterlife, the cycles of life and death are seen throughout the exhibit, for example in the spiral pattern embroidery that’s on a women’s jacket from Marrakech, Morocco, and is also found on tombstones, on Jewish bridal dresses and on burial shrouds. There are silk printed mourning scarves (and one of which is reproduced in the gift shop, for sale). Some women would donate their scarves to the synagogue, to be tied to the finials of the Torah scroll.

In Tetouan, Morocco, a bride and groom would have burial shrouds prepared before their wedding, and wear those garments underneath their wedding clothes, as a stark reminder of their mortality.

Assaf-Shapiro says, “The exhibit is also a way to remember. These things keep on living.”

“Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress,” from the collection of The Israel Museum, is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., through March 18, 2018.