We Are What We Wear?

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

We all have narratives we tell ourselves about clothes. The inherited fur you can’t wear and can’t part with; the dress from a landmark simcha, too fancy for Goodwill, too out of date for the resale shop; that ratty hoodie from Camp Ramah. And more. Please tell us your story on the Lilith blog. You know you’re not alone.

Growing up, girls were supposed to be smart and look good. Or, at least appropriate. The being smart part had some flexibility, the looking good not so much. When I left Winnipeg for Brandeis, in the early 1960s, I sent ahead my trunk full of “appropriate” clothing, all with matching shoes and bags and gloves. Uh-Oh. Not so appropriate for the guitar-strumming, songs-of-social-protest-singing, Army-Navy-store-turtleneck-wearing cohort I discovered on that Waltham campus. Part of every story of social change can be told through our changing wardrobes.

Here’s a more recent story, from just a few months ago. I’m sitting in a Lilith salon at a college campus. About 15 Jewish women students are nibbling on hummus and pita and chewing over the state of the world. The evening’s conversation, which started out about mothers – taking off from a recent issue of Lilith magazine – quickly morphed into something else: What our clothes say about who we are and the people we choose to become. A woman in black pants and shirt gives her name, then remarks that she grew up in an Orthodox community where women dress in traditional, gender-specific, “modest” clothing. “When I started to wear pants, my mother got very worried. ‘If you’re not wearing a skirt, how will people know you’re Jewish?’”

All these signifiers! Think of how uneasy we typically feel when we see, as I did last week, a little boy of about four choosing regularly to wear his sister’s clothes – skirts, barrettes, Mary Janes and all. Why does this register as cause for comment? After all, we don’t startle when we see a girl in “boy’s” clothes, right? Every time we put on more than a fig leaf, we’re performing some aspect of our identity. Getting dressed in the morning can be an intimate act of self-presentation. Do we choose to stand out or conform? Don the costume of femme, freethinker, or corporate striver? Iconoclast or a team player?

Are Jewish women more obsessed with appearance than others? You might think so, from popular culture. Makeup mavens like Estee Lauder and Helena Rubinstein created the face of American women. Jewish designers and “garmentos” (a.k.a. people in the schmatte business) are behind the look of the ready-to-wear in our stores. Rounding out the picture, we’ve got the revolting anti-Semitic rants of uber-designer John Galliano.

That’s the macro picture. But on a personal level, there’s a fair bit to untangle when we consider the subject of Jewish women and how we fashion our selves. Clothing tells the outside world, simply, what we think about ourselves that day. Usually this is our choice.

In other times, other places, Jewish women had to wear clothing that demonstrated what other people thought of us. What we wore marked us as undesirables. Long before the Nazis’ loathed yellow star, there were restrictive clothes imposed by anti-Semitic societies: stiff ruffs around the neck that impeded movement, peculiar hats, unmatched shoes.

Today, some say, Jewish women willingly dress to look like part of a group. A ditty about “Coasties” – rich and spoiled college women – chanted last year on some Midwestern campuses, named the precise fashion labels thought to be favored by Jewish women. And the pejorative “JAP,” for which the markers change every year (used to be ‘designer” jeans, now it’s who-knows-what handbag), is another way to brand and blame Jewish female consumerism. But Jewish women are taking the rap for all women. Doesn’t everyone want to be smart and look good? Yet it’s only a Jewish woman who gets labeled “princess,” a title indicating not regal power but superficiality and self-absorption.

So are we self-absorbed? A university student declared to me recently that if she and her suitemates gave up their time-consuming “How do I look?” questions every morning, “We would have made the revolution already.”

Is looking good an attempt to cheat the revolution? Kibbutzniks used to think so, and so did Mao. Sartorial conformity is a useful method of controlling individual differences. School uniforms do the same. (In my Canadian public school we wore navy blue tunics over shirts, black ties and long black stockings.) In the pages of Lilith’s spring issue, in a cover story entitled Fashioning Feminist Identity, Jewish women reclaim getting dressed as a pleasure, a mitzvah, an art form, and a comfort. The Jewish women’s movement – with its agenda for advancing gender justice, and social justice of all sorts – is shaping a multi-issue, pluralistic revolution, one that admits of jeans and also dancing slippers.