Every Passover in my youth I had something new to wear. My mother shopped exclusively at S. Klein on the Square on 14th Street in Manhattan and Ohrbachs on 34th Street, both noted for discount clothing. Money was often in short supply, but that didn’t stop her from buying me (rarely herself) a new dress or shoes for holidays and other occasions. I adored the clothes, and still have mental images of my favorites. I remember the light blue woolen dress with scalloped button holes that I wore one Passover even though we had freaky hot weather and I suffered in my woolen clothes.
I also remember the pink dotted Swiss taffeta that I donned for my brother’s bar mitzvah party, so beautiful to my mind that it almost made up for my not having a bat mitzvah, and the bright green dress with lace-edged bolero that I paired with navy blue shoes (the only ones I had) one year, when people still considered wearing blue and green together odd.
I have always loved clothes, but in later life I’ve felt somewhat guilty about my ardor. After all, as some of my scholarly friends point out, a writer should be concerned with matters of the mind, not the body. Of course, I worry incessantly about Israel, the situation in Iran and everything else on our collective agenda. But I do love clothes.
It was therefore a great relief, and validation, to attend an all-day event at the Jewish Theological Seminary last month, called “What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion,” an exploration of the relationship of women’s clothing to religion and culture. Chancellor Arnold Eisen, who introduced the program and Carol K. Ingall (looking spiffy in red), the force behind it, laid to rest any doubts the audience may have had about the seriousness of the topic.
The keynote speaker, Valerie Steele, from the Fashion Institute of Technology, traced the history of fashion, showing its constant connection to society. In the 1950s, for example, women were told to dress right to help their husbands get ahead, and many chose conservative clothes that complemented the conservative gray flannel suits men wore. The 1960s youth culture, by contrast, saw men as well as women flaunting bright, decorative garments. The color black has its own history. Associated mostly with mourning in the 19th century, or worn by governesses and shop clerks, it morphed into a symbol of chic in our time, as in the perfect “little black dress.” (I can’t resist reporting that Steele was the picture of chic in her black Chado dress, Akris purse and Manolo Blahnik high heels.)
On an interreligious panel, “Head Covering and Modesty,” three women spoke of what their clothing symbolized to them. A nun, Dr. Mary Boys, dresses in contemporary women’s clothes rather than a nun’s habit, because she does not want to be marginalized. “Choosing what to wear every day keeps me in the world,” she said. Tayyibah Taylor, a Muslim, wears a headscarf so that people can look at her “as an intellectual being first and a sexual being later.” Rori Picker Neiss emphasized the strong influence an Orthodox woman’s community exerts on the kind of head covering she wears, whether a wig, hat or scarf. She herself liked donning a headscarf after her marriage as a sign of her changed status.
At an afternoon session, David Kraemer, Seminary librarian and Talmud professor, showed how seemingly straightforward texts in the Talmud about the adornments men and women may or may not wear on the Sabbath reveal the rabbis’ entire view of the sexes. A man may not wear a sword or a lance as decorations, for example, because they are instruments of war. A woman may not wear strands of wool or a needle that has a hole, because they represent work tools. The men’s prohibitions portray them in an active manner; the women’s passively. The women are delicate; the men, protectors — roles we have struggled to change.
Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, the evening speaker, looked at the moral meanings of clothing for Jewish women in America. In 1922, Rabbi Stephen Wise devoted his Rosh HaShanah sermon to excoriating female congregants who dressed in the “short” skirts of the time (well below the knee). And Jewish journals set out to teach immigrant women good taste, advising them not to dazzle neighbors with too much jewelry or wear diamonds in the daytime. Respondent Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet magazine, focused on Jewish fashion influences on popular culture. Although Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” is not Jewish, for instance, her embrace of clothes and her confidence in wearing them reflect the outlook of strong Jewish women, comfortable in their own skins.
Now, who said fashion is not a scholarly subject?
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.