An exhibit at the Jewish Museum poses a metaphysical question about the clothes we wear: “Clothing is intended to cover our bodies, but it also uncovers. To what extent is our choice of dress freely made, and how do our surroundings affect our decisions?” Titled Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, the show presents a collection of Jewish attire from around the world and across time in an effort to depict the diversity of the Jewish community, but also in the service of deeper philosophizing.
The exhibition was organized by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who lays claim to the largest collection of Jewish dress in the world. This includes a chader (a woman’s wrap) from mid-20th century Afghanistan; a cloak worn by Jews in the small but influential Iraqi-Jewish community around the 1920s and ’30s; and a silk Sabbath coat worn by a Hasidic rabbi in the 21st century. Other piece come from as far back as the eighteenth century.
The collection is striking, firstly, for revealing the far-flung Jewish communities around the world. (Writer’s note: I’m personally Jewish, and did not know there were Jews in Uzbekistan, India, and Greece.) And the clothes on their own are beautiful works of craftsmanship. Delicately brocaded and ribboned, flaring sleeves, gilded embroidery: they’re proof that fashion need not be couture to be considered high art.
A wide range of colors and motifs reflect the diversity of each community’s host culture, from South Asia to Western Europe to Africa. That these garments all belong to a single religious group is captivating, and causes one to consider the visual cues that draw them together.
Indeed, many of the pieces on display attest to the Jewish identity of their former wearers, little signifiers of Judaism. But other garbs give no hints, and instead are merely identical to what the non-Jews of that country were wearing.
For clothing is not a simple thing, merely determined by time and place: it’s an intricate social morae, driven by a wealth of concerns both personal and political. With Veiled Meanings, there’s some attempt to uncover the meaning behind this most common of facades.
Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress
Through March 18, 2018
The Jewish Museum
5th Ave & E 92nd St, New York, NY 10128