A Cultural History of Jewish Dress

Bloomsbury  2013


This fascinating book analyzes the sig­nificance of Jewish clothing in biblical and rabbinic literature and everyday life. Silverman is a “symbolic anthropologist” and his analysis of Jewish clothing is complex, nuanced, and comprehensive. Each chapter covers a specific time period and il­lustrates how Jewish dress functions in that era and how it is shaped by the historical and religious emphasis of that particular period.

According to Silverman, Jewish clothes have served as historical markers, symbolic signposts, and indicators of gender, ethnicity, power, resistance, status, and religious observance. Jewish clothing has often been a response to the dictates of the non-Jewish world, including the marking of Jews as a pariah people. “Derisive Jewish dress codes” made their first appearance in the Islamic world in the mid-ninth century. In Islamic theology, Jews and Christians are classified as dhimmis (protect­ed and subservient subjects). Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil required distinctive dress for Jews (and Christians) to avoid confusion with Mus­lims. Jews were assigned “honey-colored garments, unique buttons on their caps and a pair of patches atop their sleeves.”

In Christian Europe, derisive dress codes first appeared in 1213 when Pope Innocent III required that Jews (and Saracens) be “marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.” Use of “derisive dress” to mark Jews as outcasts quickly followed in England in 1218, when King Henry III and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered Jews to wear “two white tablets made of white linen or parchment.” In 1227 in France, Canon Three of the 1227 Synod of Narbonne required Jews to wear an “oval badge” on their chests. Forty years later, in 1269, Louis IX required Jews to wear yellow patches on both sides of their garments. The Church also “un-dressed” Jews. In 1466 Pope Paul II added a novel event to the Roman Carnival footraces, by including a contest by naked Jews. “Sometimes the unclothed Jewish runners were force-fed so they would collapse and vomit” reports Silverman. All these practices were harbingers of the humiliations and terror in Nazi Germany.

The Jewish community itself has been a major factor in shaping distinctive Jewish clothes. Such items as Hasidic fedoras, yarmulkes, wigs, and modest dress have become traditional dress for some Jewish communities. Distinctive clothing serves as “fences” within the Jewish community. These “fences” are believed to keep Jews apart and protect them from the corruption of the profane world. At the same time, distinctive dress indicates Jewish communal uniqueness and piousness. Not wearing distinctive Jewish garb also carries a message. It often signifies that its wearers want to blend in to the larger society and do not want to draw attention to their Jewish identity. Adherents of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century urged Jews to wear modern, non-distinctive clothes and to fully engage in the modern world and adopt the new values of that period--individualism, citizenship, style, and consumerism.

Silverman’s analysis is not always as serious as the previous ex­amples. Silverman has a delightful sense of humor, which particularly shines in a truly funny chapter on yamulkas. His next to last chapter, entitled “Jewtilicous,” includes a discussion and photos of the latest “Jewish” fashion including funny t-shirts such as those emblazoned with the words “Strictly Ghetto” set on a silhouette of black hatted men; a t-shirt with only one word, “Sephardilicous”; and racy low-rise panties emblazoned with the word “Tush” written in Anglicized Hebraic script.

I loved reading A Cultural History of Jewish Dress. Silverman raises intriguing questions and provides detailed information about Jewish practice and belief through a different prism—through the symbolism of clothes worn by Jews. He does this without being pedantic or pompous. His observations and analysis encourage the reader to view Jewish texts and Jewish clothing in a very different way. I recommend this book to all readers who would like to have another vantage point to understand the Jewish experience.

Eric Silverman is associate professor of anthropology in the American studies and psychology/human development departments, Wheelock College, Boston, USA and a scholar at the women’s studies research center, Brandeis University. Bibliography, glossary, index, notes, photos (b&w).

Related: Jews and Fashion Reading List

Have You Read...