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.
The most extreme cases of the austere style were, of course, the kibbutzim. Although they accounted for less than 5 percent of Israel’s population by the early 1950s, the kibbutzim exerted a cultural influence far beyond their numbers. The kibbutz, a village where the means of production were collectively owned, modeled itself in part on the Soviet example and, like the Soviets, attacked fashion for perpetuating class distinctions. For their anti-fashion, the kibbutz’s male members favored pants that may be patched, a simple buttoned shirt and, while working the land, a tembel hat—the floppy bell-shaped cotton cap that became the kibbutzim’s trademark. Linguists have speculated that the name tembel, which in Hebrew slang nowadays means “stupid,” may have derived from the Turkish word for “lazy”—an ironic statement that seems plucked right out of today’s hipster scene.
Working clothes for young kibbutz women in the 1930s and ’40s were quite similar to the men’s (buttoned shirt, head kerchief or hat, and shorts—with an elastic band on each thigh to deter peeping toms), rendering the kibbutz one of the first Western societies in which gender distinctions did not apply. At a time when American wives were largely confined to their homes, female kibbutzniks dedicated their lives to “the Religion of Labor” in the same way that male kibbutzniks did.
Yet by the 1950s this seemingly genderless utopia underwent a transformation as kibbutz culture became increasingly heterogeneous. Basic clothing for women started including items once deemed hopelessly bourgeois, such as nylon stockings. Helman quotes a veteran female kibbutz member who, in 1952, was already reminiscing about the previous decades: “In those days we did everything we could to blur the lines between ourselves and the male members. If I tell you that I had never ironed a dress, it was not only because I had neither spare time nor an iron, but also because I believed that such ‘vanity’ might distract our minds from the essence of our lives.”
This sense of a society in flux also played out on the national stage, when Israel’s first-ever beauty queen competition was held in 1950. While the contest winners became instant celebrities in a country of fewer than 1.5 million people, critics lamented the infiltration of American culture and the changing definitions of womanhood. In 1952, Dvar Hapoelet, Israel’s oldest women’s magazine, asked its readers: “Isn’t it time we review our ways? Does the idealist pioneering girl really have to leave the stage for a beauty in an evening gown or swimming suit?”
In less than a decade since its founding, Israel nearly doubled its size, as immigrants, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, landed on its shores, often fleeing their countries of origin with little or no belongings. Much has been written on the subhuman conditions and condescending attitudes that awaited these immigrants when they arrived. Not surprising, perhaps, the xenophobia expressed by Israelis from European origins tended to be cloaked in cultural terms: “We are facing a revolution in the composition of the Yishuv,” Helman quotes a worried journalist writing in 1950. “Immigrants from Eastern countries are ‘taking over’ the Jewish street and ‘threatening’ to become a majority within a few years time. These immigrants will inevitably change our values, ways of life, customs and manners—in the street, the office, the cinema. They might change our tastes in clothing and in food.”
Many veteran Israelis wrinkled their noses not only at the conservative dress of the new Israelis but also, of course, at that of Israel’s Arab population. At the same time, there was also an Orientalist fascination with the dress of people from “Eastern countries,” notably from Yemen. Fini Leitersdorf, one of Israel’s first fashion designers, dubbed this new Israeli melting pot “ideal,” calling for “Sabra simplicity, Eastern colorfulness, and Western sewing techniques.”
These inner contradictions, so prevalent during Israel’s founding years, would seem to be the inevitable byproduct of a society that is still sophomoric. And, as Helman shows, they were thrown into starker relief by the public’s attitude toward dress culture, where an “ambivalence about fashion, a combination of attraction and negation, was expressed vividly in the Israeli press.” She continues: “Righteous condemnation of high fashion, fashion shows, and beauty queens was presented alongside excited and exciting reports and photographs of high fashion, fashion shows, and beauty queens, sometimes by the very same writers.”
Sixty years on, as Israel celebrates both the second anniversary of its Fashion Week and the second anniversary of its (now tepid) social protest movement, this sense of ambivalence can still be seen in the collections of many of its leading designers. Dorit (Dodo) Bar Or, whose fashion line “Pas Pour Toi” sounds deceivingly French, has described her sartorial inspiration as a rather improbable mixture of “Golda Meir, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Umm Kulthum.” Judging from her designs, sold in the trendy Neve Zedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv and known for their loose-fitting black kaftans with gold embroidery and high-end Egyptian-like galabiyas, one gets the sense that she wasn’t entirely kidding. Dorin Frankfurt’s collection, meanwhile, often harks back to the days of Israel’s pioneers, showcasing ’50s-style swimsuits and austerity-era-based blouses. Whether these collections authentically represent the Israeli woman is of course debatable, but at the very least their playful chic stands out.
Over the last few years, however, the most original designs seem to have consistently originated not in the studios of seasoned designers, but rather in the classrooms of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Israel’s leading fashion school. Last year, the Shenkar runway stole the show with its collection of prankish evening gowns that had missing swaths of fabrics and proportion-defying cuts, which seemed to challenge the usually understated Israeli style while at the same time smartly embracing it.
The Shenkar collection brings to mind the words of an Israeli fashion critic. “Rather than copying models from abroad, an attempt was made to infuse novel motifs into our fashion and to contribute something new to world fashion,” the critic wrote in the Jerusalem Post. The year was 1949, and the occasion was the opening of Hadassah, Israel’s very first fashion institute.
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