State of Israeli Fashion
Tel Aviv’s fashion week is torn in two, but politicization has been stitched into the country’s fabric since 1949
In April 1949, as the newborn State of Israel was struggling with an economic crisis brought on by the cost of its War of Independence and made worse by mass immigration of Jews from Islamic countries and post-World War II Europe, the Israeli government launched an ambitious austerity program known as “Tzena.” First came rationing of food and raw materials, followed by controversial restrictions on the public’s access to clothes. A point value was attached to each item of clothing based on the price of the imported materials required to produce it; every citizen was allocated 100 points for clothes and 50 for shoes.
A letter sent to the new Ministry of Rationing and Supply at that time, by an office clerk whose summer shoes were broken beyond repair, shows the severity of the rationing measures: The clerk had money to buy new shoes but not enough points, she complained, and was forced to wear her heavy winter boots year-round. “Since I renew my wardrobe only once in three years, I believe it is not an exaggerated request,” she wrote.
That same month, dressed in satin and seated in the first row at the gala of the then-trendy Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, the wife of Israel’s foreign minister looked on as the new country rolled out one of its first fashion shows. Designer Lola Ber was busy translating Dior’s New Look to suit the warm Mediterranean climate, prompting a reporter to gush: “Israeli fashion is conquering the world.”
This sartorial dissonance between restraint and extravagance was again on display last year when Tel Aviv held its first Fashion Week in more than 30 years—just as its streets were taken over by a wave of social protests. In the same breath that Israeli newspapers now covered the public’s outcry against the rising cost of housing and staple foods, they exalted the presence of Roberto Cavalli as Tel Aviv Fashion Week’s guest of honor and basked in a photogenic sea of sequins and stilettos. Despite Israelis’ newly discovered revolutionary spirit, it seemed, we still needed assurance that we are on the cosmopolitan map.
But this assurance was short-lived.
As Tel Aviv was preparing to hold its second Fashion Week this year, promising “to show to the world the breadth of design creativity of our talented Israeli fashion designers,” the industry was abuzz this week with word of a rift: Ofir Lev and Motty Reif, the businessmen behind the initiative, announced Monday that they would go their separate ways and hold two competing events a couple of weeks apart. The one headed by Lev, which opens on Nov. 11, will still be called Tel Aviv Fashion Week (or “TLV Fashion Week”) but will now be stripped of the participation of Israel’s leading designers, such as Dorin Frankfurt, Gideon and Karen Oberson, Dorit (Dodo) Bar Or for “Pas Pour Toi,” Tovale, and others. These designers will instead take part in Reif’s event, which opens on Nov. 26 and is named “Gindi Week Tel Aviv” after its corporate sponsors. Lev could not be immediately reached for comment. Reif, through a publicist, told me that the decision to split stemmed from “business disagreements” between him and Lev and refused to elaborate.
Perhaps it is only fitting that in such a hyper-charged country even fashion has become a source of conflict. And yet one would be remiss to write off Israel’s bustling design scene simply because of business decisions gone awry. In fact, the politicization of fashion in Israel is anything but new.
As historian Anat Helman shows in her impressive, heavily researched book, A Coat of Many Colors, contradictions have characterized Israeli dress culture from its inception. Helman offers a rare look back at what people wore during the country’s founding years and sheds a different kind of light on early Israeli society at large. More important, the book pauses over the inevitable tensions that exist between ethos and reality—tensions that are so often glossed over for the sake of enhancing a national narrative.
We’ve likely all seen snapshots of sun-kissed, sweat-drenched Israeli pioneers in khaki, cultivating a defiant land. What we mostly tend to forget, though, is that by the time Israel was founded, in 1948, the majority of Zionists who immigrated to Israel during or after World War II settled in cities and towns and formed a vibrant middle class that was as far removed from land labor as Jerusalem is from the Jezreel Valley. As Helman shows, even the rationing program, which fit in with the government’s centralist ideology and had been hailed by the public, quickly fell out of favor. A cartoon published in an Israeli weekly in 1950 depicted the famous scene from Othello in which Desdemona is called upon to show her incriminating handkerchief. “Slow now, my friend,” she tells her husband, “Do you have the necessary points?”
Paradoxically, the austere model of dress—with its tattered shorts, plain cotton shirts, and double-striped sandals—continued to be the dominant fashion, or, as Helman calls it, the dominant “anti-fashion,” even after the cancellation of the rationing program in early 1953. This survival was largely due to the outsize influence of the Zionist youth movements, as well as that of Ata, Israel’s most famous clothes manufacturer. This may seem curious: Why would people protest against the government placing limits on style only to then adopt those same limits as elements of personal style? The reasoning, Helman suggests, should be understood less as necessity than as a form of retroactive affiliation, and even nostalgia. The centralist ethos as it was exhibited in clothes, therefore, was somewhat of a stopgap measure, “an attempt to counter an actual relaxation and dwindling of the Yishuv’s pioneering spirit.”
But as everyone who ever wore jeans knows, anti-fashion can often be deceptive; it by no means implies a lack of attention to detail. I remember my father’s childhood memories of “those kids” from the Mahanot Olim youth movement who folded their trouser shorts too high, or those who didn’t know how to “mend their sandals right”—using rope—when they broke.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, pens a disturbing new memoir on mathematics—and survival