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Clothing as a Measure of Assimilation

They threw their hand-made dresses and traditional head-coverings into the cold Atlantic as they left the European harbor headed for the United States. Adopting American clothing was often the first step in adjusting to a new homeland for the over one million Jewish women who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States around the turn of the century. The Chicago Historical Society museum exhibition, “Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920,” explores this change of clothes as a sign of a changing consciousness and analyzes its cultural, religious, and social implications. According to curator Barbara Schreier, “The exhibition uses clothing to study broader historical issues.” Schreier conducted a nationwide search and assembled close to 500 artifacts including clothing, photographs, letters and other belongings to help tell part of the history of American Jewish women.

In the first part of the exhibit, “The Old Home,” clothing and personal objects brought from Eastern Europe reveal the lives Jewish women left behind. Visitors are taken from Europe to Ellis Island through photographs, recorded oral histories and documents. A letter from an American woman to a relative warns, “Don’t take any clothing, because when you get here we will not let you wear those clothes.”

The first steps new immigrants took to remake themselves, and their new clothing for their new lives is shown in a section of the exhibit called, “They Don’t Wear Wigs Here.” Family members talk about the difficulties immigrant women had in reconciling their desire to become “American” and their desire to preserve religious and cultural traditions.

A woman remembers, “In the shtetls our shoes were handed down from one to another. In the wintertime I remember that when I did go outside, my feet were wrapped in cloth, wound like bandages. I never saw high topped shoes before and it seemed like the foot only had one toe. And I was thinking, my God, what’s wrong here, what kind of country is this? People have pointy feet.”

Conflict between mothers and daughters is the focus in the final section, “Reflection.” One daughter says, “When my mother came to my graduation she was the only woman there whose hair was not bobbed. I wouldn’t even introduce her, I was so embarrassed.”

At the end of the exhibit there is a wall of images of other immigrants, both historical and contemporary, to reinforce the point that many of the concerns confronting these Jewish women at the turn of the century are shared by new groups of people as they leave the familiar and travel to the unknown to start a new life.

The exhibit is accompanied by a 150-page catalog written by Schreier, which includes stories and illustrations. Mannequins used in the exhibit were given faces cast from the faces of the real-life descendants featured in the exhibit. The “life casts” by artist Donna Schudel give the mannequins a realistic appearance.

“Becoming American Women” is on display at the Chicago Historical Society until January 2, 1995, then at The Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York from March 15-July 16, 1995 and at the American Jewish History National Museum in Philadelphia from September 10-December 31,1995.