Israeli attire explained

In Israel, where everyone seems to know everybody, there is less emphasis on first impressions as made by outfits.

Men and women's clothing (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Men and women's clothing
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
There is an old talmudic adage that says “In my city, my name; out of my city, my clothes” (Tractate Shabbat, page 145). Meaning, in your own town your reputation precedes you, but in a new location clothes do make the man.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that in Israel, where everyone seems to know everybody, there is less emphasis on first impressions as made by outfits. Comfort is key, and the formality of social graces and dress codes is usually regarded as unnecessary.
As befitting the generally more casual lifestyle, the local choice of attire is different than abroad. Whereas during morning rush hour in Manhattan, London, Paris and Milan one is likely to spot various suits (some more chic than others), in Israel such formal wear is less common. For men, a button-down shirt and slacks are usually “dressy” enough; for women, most combinations of pants/skirts/dresses would work.
With the exception of the hotel industry and perhaps lawyers appearing in court, suits are not a prevalent fashion choice here. Partly due to the hot summer months and partly due to a more lax dress code, wearing a suit even to a job interview would not be the norm. In fact, doing so might seem slightly out of place, identifying the wearer as someone who isn’t from here. (Not that that’s a bad thing; it just would be noticed as different.) I was recently speaking to a friend who found her new Middle Eastern morning routine refreshing. In contrast to her NYC ritual of blow-drying her hair straight, putting in contact lenses, making sure to find hosiery without any runs and donning an ironed, crisp white shirt, lined pencil skirt, blazer, heels and pashmina shawl, her newfound freedom in Zion allowed for a wrap dress and flat sandals.
While heels are the prevalent footwear of choice for many women in corporate America, here they are more of a special occasion accessory. There was recently a lot of media attention and a petition against El Al, our national airline, for implementing a requirement for female flight attendants to wear high-heeled shoes during passenger boarding – such was the incredulity.
The Israeli Consulate in New York City came out with a “no finger shoes” memo one year after the majority of employees were showing up wearing flip-flops to the office in the summer (the poor wording choice resulting from an unfortunate literal translation of the Hebrew description of na’alei etzba).
Doubtless within many hi-tech offices jeans and a T-shirt are completely acceptable – but that would be true in other countries as well, since the industry fosters a young, informal atmosphere.
In Israel, jeans are often spotted everywhere, from weddings to funerals. In 2007, then-Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik was even moved to spearhead a new rule stating that jeans were not allowed in the Knesset, which applied to visitors and official representatives. It caused a bit of an uproar at the time, which is mildly amusing considering it would seem like an obvious given at the US Congress or UK Parliament.
The nuances of “business casual” or “cocktail attire” and certainly “black tie” are not usually specified on event invitations. “Casual Fridays” don’t apply because Friday isn’t a workday and because it’s pretty much casual Sunday- Thursday around here. It’s not that Israelis aren’t used to being told what to wear; in fact, most Israelis spend a few years of their life not thinking about what clothes to put on while they are serving in uniform. There are those whose fashion choices are driven by religious laws of modesty, which can sometimes look like a version of uniform and other times rouses creativity and local fashion trends such as the “pants under a skirt” look.
Yet with all this talk of casual Israelis, let’s admit that there is a level of dressing down, at least in the US, which is rarely matched in our neck of the woods.
Spotting someone wearing actual pajama bottoms at Starbucks wouldn’t be particularly unusual, whereas it would be noteworthy and a little out of place at Aroma.
It seems to me that the one must-have item appropriate for so many occasions is the white shirt. It’s all about the white shirt! Whether for schoolchildren, required to wear one for Rosh Hodesh or ceremonies ranging from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Independence Day; for men, as wedding wear (even if it is matched with denim pants); for women, who seem to choose white as the color of the season around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – it’s a sign of respect and having put thought into what you’re wearing.
The white shirt is clear, straightforward, easy and stark – as Israelis often are.