When Judith Barent Cohen wed Moses Montefiore in London in June 1812, her wedding gown was not white or poufy like so many of today’s bridal fashions. Nor did it resemble the filmy, diaphanous, empire-waisted confections worn by Jane Austen’s suite of female characters. Made of an extremely costly cream-colored Chinese silk speckled with an eye-popping array of hand-painted flowers and wispy tendrils of vegetation, it had a silhouette all its own, dazzling the eye.
A little over 20 years later, in 1833, at the dedication of the couple’s very own synagogue on the grounds of their country estate in Ramsgate—a lavish affair that coincided with their wedding anniversary and featured fireworks and “tastefully prepared balloons”—the garment made another appearance: this time as a Torah mantle and as a covering for the reader’s desk to be displayed in their intimately scaled, thoughtfully appointed sanctuary, an interior Moses Montefiore (later Sir Moses) exuberantly likened to paradise.
Where once it had adorned her person, Judith Montefiore’s wedding dress now adorned the Jewish body politic. To mark its transformation from one status and environment to another, the garment had not only been cut down to size, but also boasted several new features, from a surfeit of fringe to the addition of dark green velvet borders.
I learned only recently of the dress while listening to a compelling and vivid online lecture about its history, especially its relationship to the Barent Cohen family’s involvement in the global, imperial economy of the early 19th century. Presented by the acclaimed historian Laura Arnold Leibman, the tale she told touched me to my very quick.
Since my wedding gown, immured in layers of tissue paper, remains upstanding in my closet decades after my nuptials, taking up far too much room, I can well understand the soon-to-be Lady Montefiore’s holding onto hers for 20 years, cherishing its presence. Sentiment colluded with space, of which she had plenty, to make retention the most viable of possibilities. Besides, she knew all too well just how much had gone into the making of the fabric, rendering it a valuable commodity in its own right.
Why, then, after the passage of so much time did milady decide to part with the garment, which, clearly, meant so much to her, and, more strikingly still, to reconfigure it into something else entirely: a public ceremonial object rather than a highly personal form of sartorial expression? Why not simply pass it on to someone else, to a daughter, say, who might have been able to preserve something of its original state and intent even if its buoyant fabric and distinctive shape had faded over time and fallen out of fashion?
It’s here where the otherwise charmed lives of Lady Judith and Sir Moses take a dark turn: They were not blessed with children. Lady M had no daughter to whom to pass on her dress, prompting Sir Moses’ most recent biographer, the Oxford University historian Abigail Green, to speculate that the decision to revamp her wedding dress in the form of a Torah mantle was not just a lovely, thoughtful civic gesture, or, closer to home, a way for its owner to take part in, and contribute her share to, the creation of the couple’s private synagogue.
It was a therapeutic exercise shot through with regret and sadness. “For Judith,” Green tells us, “the gift of her wedding dress marked the end of her hopes of motherhood, and—perhaps—the ways in which observing Jewish customs associated with marriage, death, and fertility helped her to come to terms with loss.”
In this instance, as in many others, the afterlife of a garment was bound up as much with cultural norms and conventions as with personal circumstance. Well into the 19th century, most people routinely made use of clothing and other household goods long after they had given up the ghost. Traffic in both reused and secondhand items fueled the domestic economy, rendering circulation rather than production one of its essential features. Utility, not novelty, was once the coin of the realm, its reach felt in the marketplace, at home and within sacred spaces as well.
In what has become known as “pious recycling”—an especially common practice among Sephardic communities like those from which Moses Montefiore hailed and with which Judith Montefiore became familiar, having observed it firsthand on her travels abroad—articles of clothing, from a gentleman’s embroidered waistcoat to a lady’s wedding gown, enjoyed a second life as a ceremonial textile. In synagogues throughout the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Venice and London, the Torah mantles, ark curtains, and cloths covering the reader’s desk often came into being thanks to the skills of their female congregants, agile in the art of the needle, and the approval of their rabbis, who sanctioned the practice on the grounds that it elevated the material from a profane commodity into a holy artifact. When situated within this context, Lady Montefiore’s donation falls neatly into place: at once a personal statement and a communal one.
While many of the practices familiar to Lady M and her contemporaries have gone by the wayside, thanks (or no thanks) to the rise of mass production and consumption, “pious recycling” has held its own and perhaps even grown in popularity, albeit in a decidedly modern form.
Consider the bridal or wedding gemach, where “gently used” wedding gowns, along with veils and headpieces as well as ensembles for other members of the bridal party, are available for a nominal “rental” fee and a thorough dry cleaning. The Hebrew acronym for gemilat hesed, acts of loving-kindness, the gemach originated as a free loan society and then, over time, expanded to encompass all sorts of goods as well as currency: household equipment, medical supplies, furniture, and clothing.
Privately maintained and operated by women, the bridal gemach is no closely guarded secret, no word-of-mouth phenomenon. These days, it widely advertises its wares, which have either been donated or purchased at cost from the manufacturer, on Facebook and in the pages of Kallah Magazine, its clientele drawn from Orthodox communities, both modern and ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi), Ashkenazi and Sephardic, throughout the United States and Israel. Prospective brides who live on Long Island can avail themselves of the “Best Friends Gown Gmach.” Those who call Monsey, New York, their home are served by the “Wedding Shtick Gemach,” while the nuptial-minded residents of Jerusalem can make their way to the “Shalshelet Chasdei Yaela Wedding Gemach.”
Whatever their locale, these quasi-public institutions enable the bridal party to keep costs down—a financial imperative in those contemporary Jewish communities where families typically have many children and in quick succession. Since resorting to a gemach is volitional rather than imposed, a grassroots phenomenon rather than a rabbinic one, I don’t think it would be out of line to see the bridal gemach as an alternative form and a functional equivalent of sumptuary legislation—the formal, binding pronouncements issued periodically by a community’s rabbis in an effort to tamp down on needless waste and curb excess spending.
What’s more, the bridal gemach’s stock of dresses are far more modest and much more in keeping with the very specific sartorial needs of the community it services than those carried by most purveyors of bridal ware. Even the names given to distinguish one gown from another reflect internal norms: Where manufacturers dub their creations “Blush” and “Enchanted,” here they’re more commonly known as “Schwartz,” or “Bernstein,” after the most recent customers to have worn them.
A win-win for everyone, the bridal gemach, as one Orthodox Jewish woman put it, is “the Haredi answer to Say Yes to the Dress.”
Lady Montefiore would surely approve.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.