The Enduring Trajectory of Jewish Fashion

From the tabernacle to the tabloids

Tops cut out of jacquard tapestry and edged with thick fringe. A capsule of modest house dresses in Laura Ashley prints. The ubiquitous flip-flop. These garments dominate the fashion trends of 02023. Yet they also share an unlikely precedent – one that my time in Jewish day school perhaps should have helped me anticipate: the Torah.

Understanding the history of Jewish fashion is essential not only for the Jewish community but for anyone interested in the dynamics of cultural preservation, adaptation, and the broader impact of religious culture on fashion. Even those who simply want to stay on top of the seemingly inscrutable ebbs and flows of contemporary style might find answers in the sartorial trajectory in Jewish culture.

Jewish fashion offers a unique lens through which to explore the enduring power of religious and ethnic aesthetics without defaulting to caricaturization. These pieces of distinctly Torah-informed fashion do not utilize religious iconography in obvious or over-played ways. Instead, they find their potency in utilitarian design choices, materials steeped in the patterns of a globe-traversing diaspora, and details that carry the weight of sacred signification into even the most secular use cases.

Growing up in a fairly religious Jewish household and focusing more on memorizing my Bat Mitzvah portion than on the aesthetics of Abraham, I never considered the Torah as a potential source of style inspiration. In the contemporary fashion world, though, designers often pull from sources as diverse as horror movies, copies of National Geographic, or retro video games in their search for aesthetic goldmines. Fresh-feeling sartorial semiotics are often sublimated into a “-core,” a shorthand for a coherent aesthetic code centered around anything from ballet to Ivy League schools that originated with the staid “Normcore” in 02014. In response to the oft-asked question “Is nothing sacred?”, the 02010s said “Not in fashion!” with a wave of “Catholic-core” dressing that germinated on Tumblr, largely thanks to a resurgence of the 01999 film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides.

This trend’s zenith was the 02018 Met Gala, themed “Heavenly Bodies” and packed with celebrities festooned in papal gear, Virgin Mary blue, and, of course, omnipresent crucifixes. Catholic-core has had about 2000 years to ferment in the collective consciousness, but most of its manifestations have a distinctly 01980s, Madonna-sountracked ethos to them, perhaps due to that decade’s mainstreaming of a sexy, almost secular side of Christianity — a visual breakdown of the Madonna (original variety)-whore dichotomy.

Yet the connections informing Catholic-core have deeper roots than 02014 or 01989. The religion’s spiritual and operational center being in Italy, where hyper-recognizable ateliers like Gucci, Versace, and Armani were founded in the 20th century, contributed to the coevolution of haute couture and the Catholic power structure. The Pope himself is now outfitted in vestments tailored by Fillipo Sorcinelli, a “hipster” in the purest sense of the word, his tattoos of sacred geometries and high-end perfume making signaling that the “cool factor” of Christianity has permeated to its very core in a way that never struck me in the case of Judaism while surveying the outfits of fellow worshippers in synagogue as a kid.

My own faith’s path to the heights of fashion was a more tangled one. This partly results from the religion’s long-held resistance toward depicting its key figures, and partly from the long history of anti-semitic marginalization of Jews in Europe. Yet while these factors may have prevented Jewish style from becoming an obvious bastion of elite taste, it's precisely why it has gained broad and appreciated influence. The special features that make Ashkenazi Jewish clothing stand out historically can be turned into everyday clothes that capture the magic of garments tied to a sacred tradition. Without resorting to costumey, inappropriate appropriation, Jewish fashion situates contemporary, secular style in a much stronger throughline to Biblical fashion than one might expect.

Early depictions of what Hebraic peoples wore were mainly created by their conquerors. According to Rabbi Dr. David Moster, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (a Neo-Assyrian king who reigned in the 9th century BCE) might be the oldest recovered artifact to depict a figure from Old Testament lore: Jehu, King of Israel (of Book of Kings Part Two fame) and his attendants are engraved into the limestone, offering tributes and bowing in supplication to Shalmaneser III himself.

A panel from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III depicting Israelites carrying tribute. Note the fringes on their garments.

Like a catwalk, the line of Northern Kingdom Israelites wrapping around the obelisk seems designed to show off not only the offerings they had in tow, but their code of style as well. The traditional outfitting of people of Hebraic descent in the Levant and West Asia, from at least a thousand years BCE until the 01920s, mainly consisted of cloaks, tunics, and caps.

FromCostumes of All Nations (01882), illustrated by by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach

A cloak, or mantle, was used not only for coverage and warmth but as a blanket to sleep within. Women typically wore a cloak-like headdress that extended down to their ankles and was used for the same purposes (and, famously, for accidentally inventing the unleavened Matzah eaten on Passover: “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders.” [Exodus 12:34]).

Source: Costume of Old Testament Peoples by Philip J. Watson

Under that top layer and against the skin, people of all genders wore long, simple, short-sleeve tunics akin to housedresses. The famous “Technicolor Dream Coat” bestowed upon Joseph by his ever-loving father was more likely one of these tunics, heavily ornamented with expensive embroidery.

Lastly, the distinctive caps worn by the men on the Shalmaneser obelisk resemble a modern-day beanie. They likely evolved into the kippah, a recognizable symbol of Jewish identity and public commitment to the faith.

The most notable aspect of the Shalmaneser obelisk outfits is that every exposed hemline of the Israelites drips with thick fringe, or tzitzit. In Numbers 15:38-39, God instructs Moses to “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations…And it shall be a fringe for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes…” The first real ornamentation we’ve encountered in Jewish clothing is one that customs instruct people to gather in their hands, kiss, and wrap around their fingers — an intimate reification of connection to god and fellow humans.

The cloak, the tunic, and the cap are all Torah-era garments that have traversed thousands of years, manifesting in Jewish wardrobes in ways both traditional and oblique. According to Rabbi Moster, until the 01920s, many Jewish and Bedouin descendants of Israelites in Ottoman and British Palestine dressed with the exact same formula as was biblically sanctioned.

A group of Bedouin men circa 01900 in Jerusalem. Photo from the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Of course, the dress in biblical times was not nearly uniform, with much room for variation in materials and accessories. In a Torah passage describing an ideal woman: “All her household are clothed in scarlet…her clothing is fine linen and purple…She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant” (Proverbs 31:21-24). Linen was the material of choice for almost every garment due to its breathability in extremely hot weather, and could be dyed to signify status and wealth. Girdles are wide cloth belts often used to “gird,” or fasten into a shorter skirt for mobility, the aforementioned tunic (hence the phrase “gird your loins”).

Source: Costume of Old Testament Peoples by Philip J. Watson

Another facet of adornment in Jewish fashion is the lack of iconographic garments. In Judaism, the depiction of sacred entities is explicitly prohibited. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,” the Torah’s God says, “or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). While Christianity has its crucifix, ichthys fish, images of the Virgin Mary weeping, and more to incorporate into its sartorial canon, Jewish fashion steers clear of any such embellishment, thus creating a trend of adorning garments and accessories with symbols that cannot be taken as profane. A popular tack is the use of florals, fruit, and vegetables as design elements, which has a precedent in the biblical description of high priestly garments, with the sacred apron, or ephod, as the most obvious example: “You shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them” (Exodus 28:33).

A Jewish High Priest depicted in ceremonial robes and breastplate

About 2,000 years after Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk captured the Israelite fashion of the time, Jewish culture recentered to the north, as Jews in the Levant and West Asia began to immigrate – first to Southern Europe and then to Eastern Europe, many to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. In Poland, Jews faced a jarring pendulum swinging between othering and attempts to force assimilation. Even under regimes not actively attempting to kill or expel Jewish populations, legislation alternately followed the West European practice of requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing, such as yellow headgear as mandated by Polish authorities in 01538, and tried to abolish distinctively “Jewish” dress, as the Russian government did in 01804. The general poverty and cultural insulation of Jewish villages, or shtetls, created a new standard for utilitarianism in Jewish wardrobes, producing what is recognizable as an Ashkenazi Jewish style. Mantles became mantl cloaks; animal skins, fur, silk, and satin replaced linen as choice materials to bulwark against the harsh Eastern European winters; the cylindrical, furry shtrayml overtook the beanie-like caps as the go-to headwear; men largely adopted pants, while womens’ tunics morphed into what we would now consider house dresses — still decorated, if printed, with the produce and florals that allowed for idolatry-free adornment.

Isidor Kaufmann's Man With Fur Hat depicts the traditional clothing of Eastern European Jewry in the early modern period.

Two unique accessories to come out of the 600-some years after the bulk of Jewish immigration to Poland were the apron (though it could be argued that the priestly ephod set a precedent for apron-as-statement-piece), worn by women to evoke domesticity and handiness but also to “protect” the world from their sinister reproductive organs; and the harband, a hairband to which was attached fake or real hair, often braided or otherwise ornamented, to be worn over womens’ real hair, a practice that continues to this day in Orthodox communities, where married women cover their hair with wigs, or sheitls.

In the 01880-01920 rush of Jewish immigration to the United States, most immigrants were funneled through New York City, marking it as the Jewish hub of the country. By way of the common immigrant professions of fabrication and garment work, Jewish people filtered into the sphere of fashion design. In the early 01900s, a cohort of Jewish leftist radicals emerged within the fashion world, their presence emblematic of the era's socio-political ferment. Many were influenced by broader movements advocating for workers' rights and progressive ideologies.

Two women strikers on picket line during the February 01910 "Uprising of the 20,000", garment workers strike, New York City.

This convergence of political and sartorial activism found expression in the clothing industry, where Jewish leftist radicals engaged in initiatives such as workers' strikes and labor organizing to address issues of exploitation and unfair labor practices. In November 01909, over 20,000 predominantly Jewish women employed in the garment industry orchestrated an 11-week-long strike that is credited with initiating a five-year period of upheaval, rendering the garment industry one of the most well-organized trades in the United States. The Lower East Side of New York City, a hub for both Jewish immigrants and the garment industry, served as a crucible for these developments and became a mecca of cutting-edge style that continually churned out the most thoughtful, progressive fashion on the scene. Jews such as Calvin Klein, Tory Burch, and Isaac Mizrahi dominated the fashion world of the 90s and into the aughts, but it was in the 02010s when designers’ Judaism started to make a more apparent emergence in their work.

Batsheva Hay founded her eponymous brand in 02016, bringing the silhouette of the house dress into the realm of cutting-edge fashion, its lineage from the tunics of ancient Jewish dress and its play on Talmudic ideals of modesty, or tznius, setting a new standard for casual dress-wearing that favored high necks, loose cuts, and materials that recalled centuries-old Eastern European garb — moiré, liberty prints, and satin are recurring standbys. Carly Mark’s Puppets and Puppets released its first commercial collection in 02021, with a standout accessory: a leather purse stretched into the ruby sphere of a patinated pomegranate. The brand has since released a series of food-related handbags, one of its most popular referencing a more contemporary, New Yorkian Jewish food, the black and white cookie.

Source: Vogue

As is made obvious by the success of these two brands’ ventures into garments with strong connections to the historical trajectory of Jewish fashion, the secularization of Jewish motifs is inevitable in the 02020s style sphere. Brands such as Marland Backus have delved into the creation of hair accessories made out of faux hair, much like the above-mentioned harbands. Fringe was declared an across-the-board trend in 02022, while skullcaps have dominated the commercial sphere for the past year or so.Even the flip-flops that seemed omnipresent this past summer can be traced back to leather thongs, the footwear of choice in biblical times.

This continuity in Jewish clothing styles has been influenced by a historical interplay between high and low culture materials and silhouettes, originally stemming from fluctuations in the economic and social status of Jewish communities. Over time, it evolved into something of a tradition, passed down from generation to generation among the Jewish Diaspora. The media's portrayal of Jews as both wealthy and frugal, when wielded negatively, can be damaging and violent. However, within Jewish communities and families, there is often a recognition of the humorous juxtaposition of styles that seems to embody this stereotype. It's a common sight to find a Jewish grandmother who staunchly refuses to part with her well-worn sandals from the 01960s, paired incongruously with a designer handbag. These stylistic contradictions serve as a testament to the endurance of cultural quirks and inside jokes, becoming an aesthetic unto itself.

Recently, the fashion industry has been actively moving away from appropriating overtly racial aesthetics in light of the broader discussions about racial inequality. Many white fashion enthusiasts have become more conscious of the need to scrutinize the roots of the latest trends, recognizing that the cultural appeal of a trend often originates in a context that may exclude them from fully embracing it. While some trends remain free from racially charged associations, they may also lack the distinctive element that tends to drive appropriation in the first place: a visual link to something sacred or bearing a rich history.

Unlike some trends that rely on eye-catching, easily recognizable (and usually holy, thus not appropriate for day-to-day wear by someone not in the community) symbols, such as the rosary with crucifix worn by Madonna on many an 80s red carpet, Jewish fashion draws its strength from a deeper, more subtle well of tradition and history. Its beauty lies in its ability to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular, creating garments that resonate with timeless allure and without the need to caricaturize or parody the culture in question.

This renaissance of Jewish-inspired fashion highlights the enduring pull of garments deeply rooted in tradition. Jewish fashion's historical trajectory, from the Israelite people's ancient clothing to its evolution in Eastern Europe and subsequent migration to the United States, paints a vivid picture of cultural adaptation and preservation. It is a testament to the resilience of traditions that have endured through millennia, while also embracing new elements and influences. As Jewish fashion continues its under-the-radar influence on the contemporary fashion world, it serves as a reminder that clothing can be more than just a form of self-expression. It can be a bridge connecting past and present, tradition and innovation, and faith and fashion. In a world often focused on trends and novelty, Jewish-inspired fashion stands as a symbol of the enduring power of culture in the ever-evolving realm of style.

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