Giving the country a dressing-down

“Fashion Statements” serves as a time-tunnel guide to the country’s sociopolitical and cultural evolution

Contemporary local designers marry cutting-edge technology with traditional handicrafts (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
Contemporary local designers marry cutting-edge technology with traditional handicrafts
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
In London, back in the Swinging Sixties, British pop group The Kinks released a tongue-in-cheek number called “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” It was a not-so-gentle swipe at the British fashion scene of the day, and mod culture in general although, surprisingly, the industry aficionados and patrons came to like the song.
The Kinks’ single came out in 1966, at a time when London, with its thriving polychromic madcap Carnaby Street scene, was considered to be where it was really at. Meanwhile, pre-Six Day War Israel was basically little more than a backwater of contemporary Western culture, with not much in the way of envelope-pushing garment design.
Then again, some posit that we are what we wear, and that the threads on our back mirror the national zeitgeist. If that is indeed the case, we have come a long way in this part of the world over the past century or so, as amply conveyed at the “Fashion Statements – Decoding Israeli Dress” exhibition currently on show at the Israel Museum, devised by curators Daisy Raccah-Djivre, Tamara Yovel-Jones, Efrat Assaf-Shapira and Noga Eliash-Zalmanovich.
The pretext for the garb spread is the 70th anniversary of our existence as an independent political entity, although the layout goes back to the pre-state era. One of the prevailing themes across the whole display is the thought and creativity local designers invested in their work, and their efforts to integrate in the locale, on various planes – cultural, religious, ethnic, political and ecological. Take, for example, Rojy Ben-Joseph’s Keffiyeh Collection. Today, it is pretty safe to say that wearing a keffiyeh on, say, Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv or Jaffa Road in Jerusalem might raise a few eyebrows, if not the general level of tension in the immediate surroundings. However, back in the halcyon days of the immediate aftermath of Israel’s stunning military victory in the Six Day War, in certain quarters there was a feeling of the dawn of a new era, and of unprecedented possibilities for a more inclusive regional way of life.
As the relevant exhibition sign text notes: “The keffiyeh is charged with national and political meaning, and the story of integration into, and then rejection from, local fashion reflects the evolution of the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.” Succinctly put.
Although many of us may have to stifle a chortle or two if we happen to catch a glimpse of some catwalk action – let’s face it, fashion designers do tend to come up with some really wild and wacky numbers which, probably, none but the extremely well-heeled would consider wearing and, even then, primarily within their own socioeconomic comfort vicinity – couturier creations do tend to feed off everyday life, and reflect that right back at us. While the confluence of keffiyeh material and tzitziot fringes may seem a little unnatural, if not to say downright naïve, Ben-Joseph’s Keffiyeh Collection cotton dress is a deftly worked item that, while interfacing seemingly diametrically contrasting cultural baggage and aesthetics, the end product has a special charm to it.
There are numerous eye-catching spots in the show, which spans generous temporal tracts, and imparts a sense of the protean roller-coaster ride this country has experienced across the last eight or so decades. Sumptuous is an epithet that springs to mind, in certain parts of the layout, which occupies three display halls, while nostalgia, fun, thought-provoking and fascinating also fit the descriptive bill.
The exhibition’s chronological opener is a real blast from the distant past, harking back to pre-state days when an influx of Ashkenazi Jews kick-started local interest in something other than utilitarian attire. The arrival, in the 1930s, of European industrialists, tailors, seasoned couturiers and professional photographers gave birth to the notion that the residents of Mandate Palestine, at least those who had more than a couple of mils to rub together, could begin to think beyond the confines of the clothing practicality box. One excited reporter for the Hayarden Revisionist movement newspaper wrote, in 1935, of the establishment of “a local fashion, and publishing a local fashion magazine in Eretz Israel,” adding, with one eye on a bright future, “Tel Aviv will become the Near East’s fashion center, as Vienna and Paris are for Europe.” Heady expectations indeed.
The journalist may have been getting a little ahead of himself, but things did, to a degree, get going here. While, we’re not exactly talking Parisian-style volumes or standards, a slew of manufacturers, such as Meshi Sacks, Scharf Furs and Stefan Braun gave tactile vent to local fashion aspirations. Meanwhile, designers like Lola Beer, Oded Provisor and Yehuda Dor targeted well-off locals looking to strut their stuff in public.
Fast forward a couple of decades or so, and the clothing sector of the infant state received a welcome boost with the establishment of Maskit, with now 101-year-old Ruth Dayan at the helm. The new company flew the national flag from the start, marrying traditional crafts with envelope-pushing fashion design, and quickly took on iconic status. The exhibition features several Maskit products that resonate Dayan’s ideological credo of helping to provide new immigrants with employment by making good use of their handicraft skills. That took in various strains of artisanship, including weaving, silversmithing and embroidery. In so doing, Dayan also helped to preserve the traditional crafts new immigrants from Asia, North Africa and Europe brought here. That ethos comes across in a fetching puff-sleeved dress which is described as being “adorned with Bethlehem embroidery on cotton,” and dating to the late 1960s-early 1970s. Palestinian motifs were also brought into the design fray.
The curators mixed and matched genuine vintage clothes alongside retro items, such as Dorit Frankfurt’s 2015 outfit which conjures up the folklore of mountain-dwelling Georgian Jewry. The creation in question is a gorgeous affair, comprising quilted velvet, Gobelin weave and viscose lace, with floral shapes on a cape-like outer layer.
As the then-young country looked for a national identity, and its place in the Middle East, natural surroundings also served as influential tangential points, including early attempts at embracing local landscapes and history, with a bunch of coats in various shades of brown referencing the regional desert vistas. Again, that was very much part of the Maskit philosophy. The exhibition texts note that “Bedouin tents and the colors of the Negev were among the sources of inspiration” for one of the garments on display, adding that “the coat evokes the style of dress prevalent in the Mediterranean region and the Arabian Peninsula since ancient times.” What local residents of yore would have made of the fashion item is anyone’s guess but it, and its ilk, were apparently something of an international hit around half a century ago.
Here and there the exhibition honchos have worked some fun anecdotal information to the textual underpinning. In the context of the aforesaid brownish coats we are told that: “Women traveling abroad for Maskit are known to have come back without it.” The “it” refers to one of the coats which, apparently, a Maskit sales executive packed in her suitcase, to drum up business among some affluent potential patrons in the US. It seems that the employee was forced “to give it away to someone who fell in love with it – such as the actress Katharine Hepburn.” Having a four-time Oscar-winning thespian turn up to some public event or other, in one of your products, no doubt attracted very desirable media attention for Maskit. It may not have been an international marketing ploy, but it certainly did the trick.
Spreading the curatorial net across such an expansive time span has got to bring nostalgia into the game plan, and that is well catered for by some evocative film footage. The Austerity section, which covers the first decade or so of the fledgling State of Israel, is accompanied by some clearly “promotional” black-and-white footage which shows young, suitably robust-looking and animated halutzim (pioneers) tilling the soil and rejoicing in the simple ideology-driven kibbutz life. The adjacent lineup of throwback clothing includes – how could it not? – a mannequin wearing a bucket hat, which is generally endearingly known is these parts as a kova tembel. There is other apparel in shades of axiomatic Zionist blue, which will be familiar to anyone who served a stint as a kibbutz volunteer back in the day. In fact, the kova tembel is a far more recent work, made by in the last couple of years by Roni Bar, incongruously using Japanese cotton, but the national ambience of yesteryear is duly conveyed nonetheless.
To any Sabra over the age of, say, 45 or anyone who made it here by the early ’80s the name Ata should ring a bell. Just in case you pertain to neither of those categories, Ata was the country’s leading textile company which first set up shop in the 1930s, when a certain Erich Muller, from Czechoslovakia, came to British-controlled Palestine and set about founding a sizable clothing production concern. Initially, the company was driven by the prevailing socialist ethos, producing sensible and durable work clothes. By the mid-1950s the local and global arena had moved on, and Ata slipped into the design sector of the clothing market, and began supplying dresses, suits and a range of leisurewear for Israelis and for export.
Things went pretty well for two or three decades, but capitalist, competition-fueled reality eventually reared its merciless head and, after a bitter standoff with the beleaguered workers, Ata closed down. That, and the demise of other textile concerns here, is presented at the exhibition, in footage that spans the ideological and material chasm between the socialist mind-set of the incipient state and the more bottom-dollar-based tenets of the free market. The What Character Will the Country Wear? section of the exhibition opens with some delightful video clips of now scarcely believable shots of glamorous models clad in gaily hued swimwear, flowing frocks and sumptuous-looking coats and headgear, interspersed between sobering reality checks of the day, with shots of dormant looms and industrial strife.
Meanwhile, local fashion leaders such as Gideon Oberson, Riki Ben-Ari, Jerry Melitz and Yovel-Jones were busy flying the national flag on the global fashion scene, while “Fashion Statements” closes by bringing us bang up-to-date with some intriguing left-field offerings such as an emoji-looking creation by Amir Marc, and even some 3D printed items.
In many ways, “Fashion Statements” serves as a time-tunnel guide to the country’s sociopolitical and cultural evolution, augmented by some delectable period-setting black-and-white prints by preeminent national photographer David Rubinger. The latter include some somewhat comical, but undeniably charming, shots of fashion-challenged Golda Meir doing her best to look natural in her suspiciously spick-and-span kitchen, while her footwear smacks more of a red-carpet foray rather than any attempt to produce some vitctuals for the family. And, of course, no clothing-based take on Israel’s cultural narrative would be complete without David Ben-Gurion striding purposefully to some important event, clad in his trademark, definitively proletariat outsized knee-length pants. The legendary prime minister could never be accused of promoting sartorial elegance, but the Rubinger photograph captures the formative national spirit in succinct fashion.
“Fashion Statements – Decoding Israeli Dress” closes in January 2019. Gallery talks are scheduled for August 21 at 7 p.m. and August 29 at 12 noon. For more information: