Exhibit provides retrospective on clothing-maker that defined a generation.

ATA 521 (photo credit: ERETZ ISRAEL MUSEUM)
ATA 521
(photo credit: ERETZ ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Some Israelis today look like they stepped out of the pages of “Vogue” magazine. Tel Aviv boutiques carry the latest looks from Paris and Milan, and suburban teens can head to the mall for a new pair of form-fitting jeans from international stores like H&M or the Gap.
But, for Israelis who came of age in the state’s early days, fashion meant a sturdy pair of khaki shorts and a shapeless work shirt. Israel has been transformed from a pioneer society to a post-industrial, post-modern society, and cultural modes, including norms of dress, have changed, too.
A new exhibit currently on view at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum, “ATA : Factory, Fashion and Dream,” provides a look back at the development of fashion in Israel through the story of Israel’s iconic clothing company.
The exhibit, which opened October 10 and which will run through March 2012, uses a selection of clothing samples, photographs and archival material to tell the 40-year story of ATA , the textile factory that turned into the nation’s favored brand of clothing.
For Israelis who can still remember the 1930s and 40s, ATA recalls the simple pants and work shirts favored in those years by everyone from youth movement members to David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister. For those better acquainted with 60s flower power, ATA is remembered as the makers of pop-art inspired mini-dresses that were both “groovy” and surprisingly well-made. When the company closed in 1986, the name ATA passed into history and to contemporary eyes its clothes appear, at best, a little bit retro and, at worst, old fashioned and anachronistic.
Yet, as this display proves, studying past fashion choices can be more than a little enlightening. Fashion historian Dalia Bar- Or, who wrote her doctorate at the University of Haifa on Israeli society through the lens of the ATA brand, tells The Jerusalem Report that “fashion is not merely fun, but often reflects a society’s beliefs and cultural life.”
In the current ATA exhibit, clothing and the textile business become the lens that provide a unique perspective on Israel’s evolution from a struggling new nation that functioned largely through commitment to a socialist agenda to a high-tech power with an increasingly capitalist value system.
The display begins with the early history of the ATA factory, then moves into a presentation of its glory years as a trendy clothing label and finally describes its dramatic demise in the mid-1980s. As one walks through, old radio jingles for ATA products play in a loop in the background and matching vintage outfits catch the eye. Quite a few visitors on a recent Friday morning seemed to forget they were in a museum and gazed wide-eyed at a vintage corduroy dress while calling out excitedly to friends to come over and have a look.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” exclaimed one woman to no one in particular.
Considering the emotional nature of the subject matter, it is surprising that the exhibit itself is quite small, in a modest corner of a permanent exhibit about the postal service.
Yet, curators Monica Lavie and Eran Litvin have made the most of the space, packing lots of small items into one area and organizing the whole display in neat historic order.The aesthetic quality of the exhibit is apparent immediately. Less obvious are the multiple themes deftly woven into the presentation.
While at first the exhibit seems to offer an easy trip down memory lane, a closer look at the content reveals a rather poignant account of early Israeli socialist values fighting a progressively losing battle against capitalist interests. Other thematic threads include the expanded role of marketing in the lives of Israelis and the place of global or pop culture in Israeli national identity.
Co-curator Litvin, who is also a music producer at Kol Yisrael national radio, says that he knew that the nostalgic element would present the initial draw. Yet, he tells The Report, it was always his intent to present a more nuanced view, providing viewers with an opportunity to think about their own lives and choices.
The original idea for the exhibit grew out of Litvin’s own love of history.
Looking through his personal collection of old newspapers, he was struck by the many advertisements for ATA clothes and products that had appeared over the decades. He decided to follow the trail of those ads to other archival material, and discovered the bittersweet quality of the story along the way.
ATA grew up together with the fledgling State of Israel, its own development mirroring the new country’s expansion.
In 1932, Erich Moller, a Czech Jew from a wealthy, assimilated family, convinced his cousin Hans to open a branch of the family’s textile factory in what was then Palestine.
The Mollers had had a successful factory in the Czech town of Babi, but the move to the Middle East presented new challenges.
Although Hans wielded the business power in the family, it was Erich, depicted in the exhibit as the more idealistic of the two, who successfully pushed for the move.
After training some 20 young professionals in Europe, the family with their small executive staff made the move to a modest compound in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa, the source of the factoryʼs name. By the mid-1930s, they had gathered about 150 workers from nearby kibbutzim, such as Ramat Yochanan, Kfar Maccabi and Ein Hamifratz, and were successfully producing fabric. By the early 40s, the factory had expanded into production of simple clothing, such as hats, shirts and pants in a limited choice of white, blue, black and khaki. By 1947, the factory was so successful – selling both within Israel and to other locations in the Middle East – that it opened a larger daughter factory in Kurdaneh, in Kiryat Bialik, also near Haifa.
Over the next four decades, the company continued to produce clothes that Israelis came to rely on as a good investment: the clothes were affordable but well-made and long-lasting. In the 60s, when more fashion choices became available for Israelis, the company attempted to compete with bolder, more trendy looks.
ATA survived for the next 20 years with this strategy, but the ever-expanding range of clothes in Israel became too much contend with, and in 1986, they had to close for financial reasons.
As Lavie and Litvi n set out to tell the factory’s story, they assumed they would find a wealth of documents preserved by the ATA company itself, but soon realized that no records had been saved.
Other archives yielded some documents, and the curators also interviewed many individuals who had worked at the factory before it closed in 1986. Clothes and design sketches came courtesy of the Shenkar College of Design in Tel Aviv and provided the tactile element that promised to touch the public emotionally.
For Litvin, the fact that the exhibit evokes pleasant feelings associated with the past is expected and even welcome. However, his hope is that visitors will walk away with more than a warm feeling. “I love nostalgia but it’s a trap. It’s pleasant but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Monica [Lavie] and I wanted to move beyond nostalgia, to look at ATA as a metaphor for the country in the last 50 years,” Litvin explains in a telephone interview.
Photographs presented in the exhibit depict the factory’s early years. Samples of khaki shorts and pants from the factory’s early years – shapeless by contemporary standards – are shown alongside the original sketches for the clothes, on loan from Shenkar College.
Litvin explains that Shenkar procured the rare sketches in a slightly mysterious way.
In 1986, when the ATA factory was in the process of closing, the respected fashion institution received an anonymous phone call relaying the fact that clothing samples and sketches were being thrown in the trash.
Some of those salvaged at the time are now on display publicly for the first time.
Of particular note are the displayed tembel hats, the dome-shaped caps, made with fabric scraps, that have come to symbolize Israel’s early pioneering spirit. Given their iconic status, it is truly amazing to see an original pencil sketch for the design of these legendary hats.
The story of how the factory got its name also evokes the spirit of the time. When famous early Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, visited Erich Moller, Agnon asked why the factory’s name, ATA , was spelled differently than the city in which it was based, Kiryat Ata. Moller admitted that his knowledge of written Hebrew was limited and when he registered the name of the new factory, he had not known that Kiryat Ata was spelled with the letter “ayin” at the end. He had chosen to spell the factory’s name with an “aleph” because it was simply more visually appealing.
Agnon, who was committed to the development of modern Hebrew, immediately turned the misspelled word into an acronym standing for Arigei Tozeret Artzeinu (Fabric Products of Our Land), which became the company’s official name.
Prosaic as it all may seem, the business tensions within the Moller family presented a different side to the story. In 1948, Erich was forced out of the company by his cousin Hans. Although the workers remained loyal to Erich, Hans successfully seized control.
Then in 1957, the factory was shaken by a 103-day strike by the workers demanding better pay and objecting to Hans’s attempt to fire workers and thus lower costs. Letters between Hans Moller and the Histadrut labor union reveal an early clash between private business, on the one hand, and the socialist values of many Israeli workers, on the other.
Hans, the consummate businessman, saw his own interests as clashing with those of the Histadrut, which he viewed as “pure evil.”
Although the exhibit does seem to suggest here a struggle between the “good” collective and the “bad” individual, working conditions in the factory are described with a deliberate and obvious measure of objectivity. Archival documents show that after only three months, workers were tenured and became permanent employees with considerable job security, a benefit few in today’s work world enjoy. Still, other realities, such as scant vacation days and only two months of unpaid maternity leave seem almost cruel by today’s standards.
It is also interesting to note evidence of the company using public relations in a targeted way as early as the 1940s and 50s. A publicity photograph shown in the exhibit depicts a smiling female employee handing out cups of milk to ATA workers. The factory claimed it provided a cup of milk to each worker in response to complaints of ill health due to cotton particles in the air. The truth, however, revealed in an accompanying wall text, was more complex. Nearby kibbutzim had difficulty marketing their dairy products, so the heavily publicized milk distribution may have been a marketing ploy.
“We tried to show that it’s not black and white. It’s not that everything was great in those days [before privatization] and now it’s bad,” Litvin observes.
Bar-Or, who wrote a lengthy article in the exhibit catalog as well as many of the wall texts, describes Hans’s attitude to the workers as “condescending.” “He was always trying to educate the workers, to teach them to be better,” she notes. Yet despite the fact that Hans lacked Erich’s more engaging personality, he too cared deeply for the company.
“I call the early decades of the company the time of ‘Mollerism.’ I always joke that I miss the time of Mollerism. When the Mollers left the company, the Zionist core of the business also faded,” Bar-Or says.
When Hans died in the early 60s, it was his wife Zipporah’s business acumen that helped ATA reinvent itself. Hans had been virulently opposed to the company entering into the fashion side of the clothing business. His vision was of a company that manufactured inexpensive yet well-made clothes in simple lines and colors, a path that was followed until his death. At that time, Zipporah turned to Israeli designer Lola Beer for a new line of fashionable women’s dresses in bright colors, inspired by the mood of the era.
Together with the move toward trendy designs came the increasing use of marketing with an emphasis on the self, as opposed to the collective. Samples of Beer’s dresses are mounted on a wall surrounded by print ads from newspapers and magazines of the era. A 60s green corduroy mini-dress with front pockets is stylish and youthful, contrasting with the more somber ATA look of previous decades. An ad from a playbill for the 60s run of the Israeli version of “Fiddler on the Roof” shows a model posing in the sculpture garden of the Israel Museum with a tagline reading: “With ATA , you’re in fashion.”
However, Zipporah’s influence was short-lived and the company eventually went public and passed through a series of different managers, many of whom made attempts to keep up with the times. In the exhibit, a psychedelic dress from the 70s hangs next to print ads of models wearing ATA flair pants, showing a much more body conscious aesthetic than in previous decades. White, flowing cotton suits from the 80s, one with a mini-shirt that shows the belly button, are shown.
This seems to reflect a totally different Israel, almost unrecognizable from the early part of the century. Indeed, by the 1980s, ATA advertisements had become so sophisticated that the clothes become almost muted or unimportant. It is hard to connect these self-centered images with the previous photos of youth movement members in khaki tembel hats.
Even the ATA men’s line, never as fashion forward as the women’s clothes, was carefully marketed from the 60s on, presented as a departure from the previous generation’s pioneer garb. A pair of pleated men’s pants, made of a mix of cotton and Dacron, is shown in an ad with the tagline, “For men who have moved on from khaki.”
Despite the move towards a more fashionable style, ATA clothes in the later years remained “inexpensive and well-made,” according to Litvin. “You can see it.
They last a long time.”
However, the quality of the product was not enough to stop the factory from closing in 1985, leaving close to 3,000 workers unemployed. While the trendier looks had done relatively well, ultimately consumers decided that the couture looks they could find in Tel Aviv boutiques were preferable to the ATA version.
“In the wake of the Six Day War, a wave of influences from outside of Israel hit the nation. People wanted clothes that were more colorful. Even clothes for men changed. The ‘macho’ look of the pioneer period was no longer in, and ATA could not keep up with the fast-moving fashion industry,” Bar-Or observes.
The ATA cloth diaper, produced into the 80s, is a perfect example of being out of step with the contemporary consumer culture. “They made these beautifully sewn, designer diapers. Now, I ask you, who in the 80s was going to buy them?” chuckles Bar-Or.
She adds that problems in the management culture also kept the brand from taking off in later years. “Decisions were made really slowly and it was no longer a business run for love of clothes, but just any other business, being run to make a profit.”
As they worked on the exhibit, the curators became aware of the significant link between recent events and this dramatic piece of history. After this past summer’s protests with Israelis demanding social justice, reasonable prices, and an end to economic concentration in the hands of a few, it is particularly poignant to watch the shock on the faces of the factory employees as they realize the government will not intervene to save the factory and their jobs. The government’s decision not to get involved helps define the switch from a socialist ethos, in which the government acted as a kind of equalizer and the current era, in which corporate realities carry the day.
“We started work on the exhibit two years ago, but the protests this summer came just in time. The decision on the part of the management to close the ATA factory was a real moment of crisis for the workers. No one believed the government would allow such an institution to close,” Litvin notes.
Although the exhibit emphasizes the fact that the factory’s end proved painful for its employees, it would be unfair to say it presents a simple case of the ATA workers as victims of capitalism. For Litvin and Lavie, the exhibit is not about identifying the perpetrator, but about marking the passing of a certain kind of Israeli identity.
Asked where in today's culture one can see evidence of the sense of idealism associated with early pioneer life, Litvin responds, “It has simply drifted away. With the end of ATA also came the end of an era of idealism. We can’t return to the past, and maybe we did lose something along the way. It is a little sad,” Litvin acknowledges.
Bar-Or points to the changing mentality of Israel’s working culture, from labor of love to labor for salary, that is so apparent in the history of ATA . However, she also says that the recent protests and renewed community activism provide some evidence of a return to earlier values.
“I’m very optimistic. Some people say I am naive, but I believe that when you talk about things, something good comes of it.
This summer, when I went to visit the tent city in Haifa, I felt like I was going to an Independence Day celebration some 30, 40 years ago. It had the same spirit. The cynics say nothing good came of it, but I think people woke up. I believe that going forward, more people will stop and think when they vote for Knesset representatives and they will read the fine print a little more,” she concludes.
Litvin, too, sees hope in the fact that many visitors have responded to the exhibit in an unusually visceral way.
“People feel we returned them to their old clothes, but also to a sense of longing for the Israel of old,” he concludes.