A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of Jew­ish Dress

Eric Sil­ver­man
  • Review
By – October 22, 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

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions