November 11, 2019

Jewish Fashion Through the Ages

The well-known Hollywood red carpet query is “Who are you wearing?” But at a fashion exhibit currently making the rounds at Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), the more appropriate question might be “Did they really wear that?”

Indeed, our multicultural ancestors did, and the 22 posters in the Vintage Jewish Fashion Posters exhibition prove it. These men, women and children weren’t playing dress up. The conical gold headpieces (“kufia”) attached with scarves were part of a Jewish girl’s school uniform in Tunisia. Young Fernand Lopatnik of Paris sports a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit for his end-of-school-year photo in 1920s Paris. And that traditional white cotton kemis (ankle length dress) worn by a Beta Israeli would quite naturally be festooned with Stars of David and menorahs … even in Ethiopia. 

“Fashion is something that everyone can relate to and some of these images are so surprising,” said Wendy Westgate, a librarian in the exploration and creativity department at LAPL who helped organize the exhibit. “There are some really surprising fashions and locations in there, and they weren’t all inherently religious, which is good, too.” 

The globe- and era-spanning images depict individuals from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Israel. Viewers can see men and women in uniform, at leisure, posed for formal portraits or cutting loose at festivals. Some are exotic and others not so much. Although you probably couldn’t track down the types of hats worn by the Brumbergs of 1911 Moscow anywhere other than a museum, the young Israeli girls headed to work in Eretz Israel in 1937 are clad in the types of khaki shorts and head kerchiefs that would not be so out of place today.  

Each image contains a paragraph with information about the fashion and the subject. The Queens of the Moroccan Beauty Pageant in 1927, for example, were shot by the noted Moroccan Jewish photographer Joseph Bouhsira. And the white-suited young man cutting loose with friends in Tel Aviv in 1930 is identified as Dov Milchan, father of Oscar-nominated film producer Arnon Milchan.  

“Many patrons have said how wonderful it was for them to be able to share these photos with their children and how it was the starting point of conversations about their own Jewish heritage,” Westgate said. “And it’s so heartwarming, to look at some of the people and think, ‘What happened to them?’ It really tugs at you.” 


“There are some really surprising fashions and locations in there, and they weren’t all inherently religious, which is good, too.”  — Wendy Westgate

Westgate learned of the exhibition from Lisa Silverman, a colleague at the American Jewish University’s (AJU’s) Sperber Library. The images belong to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, and they travel easily. Beit Hatfutsot has eight to 10 “capsule” poster exhibitions on different themes, which libraries or cultural institutions are able to download, reproduce and display.

The Beit Hatsfutsot collection has more than 400,000 images depicting Jewish history, heritage and communal life across the globe. The library received permission from Beit Hatfutsot and the library’s digitalization department created the posters. Depending on their available space, the individual branches are displaying as many of the posters as they have room for.

“I wanted to bring it to the Sperber Library but we don’t have enough people just walking through, and I wanted all of L.A. to see it,” said Silverman, who learned of the opportunity during a visit to Beit Hatfutsot last year. “It has a broader reach and I knew Wendy at LAPL could get it done.”

The exhibition opened in the Robertson Branch at the beginning of May to coincide with Jewish heritage month. After spending two weeks on the Westside, it moved to the Studio City branch and will reopen June 26 at the Woodland Hills branch before moving to Fairfax (July 17-31), Encino-Tarzana (August 7-21) and Westwood (Aug. 28-Sept. 11) as well as a brief stop at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills during the Association of Jewish Libraries conference June 17-19. After the library tour concludes in September, the posters will be permanently housed at the American Jewish University.

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