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
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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