As readers will know, the adage “clothes makes the man” is as relevant today as it was in the time of ancient Greece and Homer. One of the staples in The Daily Mail is coverage of male and female fashion and the sartorial habits of those in the headlines, from Boris Johnson to the Arcadia tycoon Philip Green.
Dress codes have changed dramatically over my lifetime and continue to do so.
The top hat and morning suit used to be de riguer in the wardens box and for Shammash, while the bowler hat (I have inherited my father’s) was standard wear at the levaya, high holidays and more Anglicised communities on Shabbat.
Rabbis liked their canonicals and the chazan treasured his kosher mitre.
Most of this formality has been swept into the sea. The requirement at most Jewish charity dinners was a minimum of black tie. Lounge suits have replaced that attire and how long will it be before that catch-all – the smart casual – displaces the suit. In dressing down, the Jewish community is following broader society. Even in the most formal settings there has been change.
After several ballots, the Athenæum decided recently that when the mercury rises, jackets and even ties can be removed.
There are two main reasons for modernisation of shul attire. The first is common to the rest of society. Climate change means previously temperate zones such as the UK are experiencing extreme hot weather. This has turned some synagogues, such as my own sanctuary in Richmond, into hothouses. Even though the brick and glass skylight construction is relatively modern, no one thought it worthwhile to put in air conditioning. The result is a hothouse which encourages people to dress down.
On a recent steamy Shabbat, it was noticeable that the only member of the community not to leave his jacket and tie at home was the rabbi.
The second force for change is Israel. Since my first visit to Israel in the 1960s I have noticed more formality. Shorts among citizens were much more common in the more pioneering days.
But Israel has striven to become a more Western and business-like democracy and less casual in its outlook. Long trousers, suits and even ties have become prevalent.
The standard synagogue-going clothes tends to be dark slacks, drifting into denims, and white shirt. There is a prevalent view in UK communities that what is fine in Israel is now acceptable here.
At a recent Shabbat at Western Marble Arch, the whole gamut was on display. Younger people, I assume tourists, in shorts. Established members, some taking part in the service, in slacks and patterned shirts.
A well-known business person in dark T-shirt, slacks and elegant slip-on suedes without socks. Even a Chasid, who arrived in a long silk coat, abandoned it for his shirtsleeves. At least half the chaps were without ties.
At the daily morning minyan, there has been a lively and friendly debate as to whether it is appropriate for the person leading the service, normally a mourner or someone marking a family Yahrzeit, on the hottest of summer days to daven in shorts.
Needless to say, everyone has a view. A visitor, from a modern Orthodox community at Raanana in Israel, offered his perspective. In his synagogue, shorts are definitely out for anyone leading the service and not encouraged among community members. In some strange way Israel, the ultimate casual society, had become more formal than London!
And where am I in this debate? I am always reminded of the Hebrew words above many Aron Kodesh: “Know before whom you stand.” That for me requires some measure of reverence.
It’s up to the individual to determine what they deem fitting, but there should be sensitivity as to what might disquiet others.