The Israel Museum in Jerusalem boasts a collection of more than half a million artifacts, but until recently, few items related to Israeli fashion were among them.
Two years ago, when the museum decided to devote an exhibition to the history of Israeli fashion in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary, its curators needed to search outside the museum’s walls.
“Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress,” which opened last month, is the largest-scale exhibition of Israeli fashion ever mounted in an Israeli museum. It begins with the desert-inspired clothing and khaki shorts of the early pioneers and ends with runway-ready haute couture created by contemporary Israeli designers.
In between, it examines the ideological tug-of-war between those who favored utilitarian clothing and those who wanted to dress like well-heeled Europeans and Americans.
Starting a collection nearly from scratch “felt like we were inventing the wheel,” said Daisy Raccah-Djivre, the head curator. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is there such a thing as Israeli fashion?’ ‘What is Israeli fashion?’ ”
After sifting through a range of archives and consulting with fashion experts, the curators discovered that Israeli fashion does have a unique history rooted in both its immigrant culture and Middle Eastern landscape.
It “mirrors the tapestry of Israeli society,” Raccah-Djivre said. “We see a special genealogy from one designer to another.”
Curator Efrat Assaf-Shapira said Israel’s status as the Holy Land played a significant role in the early years of Israeli fashion, even before the establishment of the Jewish state. “You see it in the materials, the colors, the typography,” Assaf-Shapira said.
All three are reflected in the earth-tone wool “desert coats” designed by Hungarian-born Fini Leitersdorf. In the 1950s, she joined the famous Maskit fashion house launched by Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe Dayan. Created to employ new immigrant artisans from around the world, Maskit designed high-end clothing, rugs and other items.
Alongside the desert coats in the exhibition stands a sleeveless white gown adorned with dozens of light-colored seashells found on Israel’s long Mediterranean coast.
In the years before Israeli homes had air conditioning, Israeli clothes were often “less tailored” due to the country’s high temperatures for much of the year, Assaf-Shapira said. “We see a lot of sun,” even in designs by Israelis living countries where the weather is often dreary.
Israel’s multiculturalism is reflected in several segments of the exhibition. One group of designs incorporates elements of a tallit, either via stripes reminiscent of a prayer shawl or with clusters of ornate silver or gold on the upper bodice.
Another grouping incorporates the intricate embroideries of Yemenite artisans who arrived in the 1940s and early ’50s, and the Bucharans and Uzbeks who made aliyah in the 1980s.
Still another grouping reveals the influence of Palestinian and Arab culture on Israeli fashion, with Jewish designers incorporating either Palestinian-made embroidery or cloth patterns of traditional Arab keffiyehs — the head coverings worn by many Arab men in parts of the Middle East — into their clothes.
These brightly colored, richly textured clothes stand in sharp contrast to the famously unadorned clothes worn by kibbutzniks and many other Israelis from the early 1900s through the 1950s.
Displayed in the second gallery alongside period footage of farmers and factory workers, and young people dancing the hora, the simple dresses, short-sleeved shirts, pants and shorts are remarkably bland, perfectly capturing the priorities and ethos of that time in history.
“What we found striking was the ideology that set the aesthetic,” curator Noga Eliash-Zalmanovich said, pointing to more than a dozen tan, khaki and light blue outfits made of cotton, many of them manufactured by ATA, the first Israeli company to design and manufacture textiles and clothing locally. “Material asceticism was considered a virtue. It resonated with the pioneering spirit.”
Not all Israelis dressed this way, of course. Directly opposite these socialist-inspired clothes, a revolving platform showcases richly designed dresses from the 1940s and ’50s.
In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, European Jews who immigrated to Israel established couture businesses, continuing the professions they had in their home countries. Fashion magazines, which were launched in the 1930s, were full of Israeli-designed clothes made from expensive fabrics.
Suddenly, magazines like Vogue were devoting entire issues to the fashion — from Gottex swimsuits to Beged Or leather goods — emerging from Israeli factories and showrooms.
The fashion industry underwent great changes in the 1960s and ’70s, when, thanks to generous support from the Israeli government, Israel began to manufacture a sizable amount of clothing. For a time, clothing became the country’s second-largest export industry. Suddenly, magazines like Vogue were devoting entire issues to the fashion — from Gottex swimsuits to Beged Or leather goods — emerging from Israeli factories and showrooms.
This “golden age” of Israeli manufacturing came to an end due to domestic economic woes and the relatively high costs of manufacturing in Israel compared with the Far East.
The exhibition ends on a high note, with 14 cutting-edge pieces created by some of Israel’s most famous designers with an international reputation and clientele.
One dazzling three-dimensional design was created by Noa Raviv, whose 3-D clothes “blur the line between art and wearable fashion,” Eliash-Zalmanovich said. “There’s a lot of research into new materials, new markets, new ideas.”
Alon Livne, whose bridal gowns are coveted the world over, also has designed custom-made gowns for celebrities including Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian.
Eliash-Zalmanovich said that for every household-name designer there are many others working out of their living rooms, dreaming of opening a studio. “It’s not easy making it as a designer today,” she admitted.
The curator expressed hope that “Fashion Statements” will inspire fledgling designers and the public. “We hope the exhibition will start a conversation about fashion in Israel. About creativity. About possibilities. About the future.”
“Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress” will run through April 29, 2019.
Michele Chabin is an award-winning journalist who reports from Jerusalem.