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Vishniac Inspires High Fashion

For once, pre-Holocaust photographer conjures appropriate nostalgia

Alana Newhouse
June 10, 2010
Rebecca Thomson’s prize-winning, Vishniac-inspired collection.(British Vogue)
Rebecca Thomson’s prize-winning, Vishniac-inspired collection.(British Vogue)

Here’s one pairing I never thought I’d encounter: Roman Vishniac and Pierrot proportions.

Last night, Rebecca Thomson, a 22-year-old graduate of the Manchester School of Art, took home top prize in London’s 2010 Graduate Fashion Week Gala for a collection that, she said, was inspired by Vishniac’s iconic pictures of Jews in prewar Eastern Europe.


Thomson is not the first designer to plumb Jewish life for sartorial inspiration. But, with only a few exceptions—including Alexandre Herchcovitch, whose work I profiled a few years ago—most fashion minds have used Jewish culture as a crutch, passing off a fetishization of insularity and faux-quaintness as a replacement for genuine art. (A moment of silence, please, for Monsieur Gaultier’s fantastic 1993 mishap.)

Given this history, it is almost strange that no designer had been inspired by Vishniac before. He was, after all, one of the main people responsible for the two-dimensional caricature of pre-Holocaust Jewish life, a shtetl nostalgia that has nearly colonized pop culture’s ideas about that time and place. His images—or rather, the ones we knew of until recently—seem almost, well, tailor-made for Gaultier-ian exploitation. I can see the runway set already: “Shtetl Chic: Resort 2012.”

I am pleased to report this isn’t the case: Thomson’s collection is beautiful and sumptuous, and telegraphs none of the threadbare desolation I feared. The clothing is indeed driven by nostalgia, but not the nostalgia for some dangerously insipid idea of the Jewish “shtetl.” Rather, it is the nostalgia for the artisanal, the hand-tailored, the romantically local—qualities that are, in fact, remarkably modern. That she found that freshness and modernity in Vishniac’s pictures—and not even the newly discovered ones!—is a wonder, and a delight.

Also, check out that bow. Who doesn’t love bows?

Britain’s Got New Talent [British Vogue]
Related: Out of Focus [Tablet Magazine]
A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac [NYT Magazine]
Schmatte Chic [Slate]

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.