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When Fashion Shows Made Social Change

With From Fashion to Politics: Hadassah and Jewish American Women in the Post World War II Era (Academic Studies Press, $49), Shirli Brautbar makes a name for herself among those revisionist scholars who show that American women of the 1950s did not languish as victims of conservative gender norms. Rather, as Brautbar and other historians have uncovered, postwar American women found numerous ways to resist the forces that would limit them to home and hearth.

In this excellent study, Brautbar carefully recounts how the women of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, worked as activists, fundraisers, lobbyists, and public relations specialists throughout the 1950s and 1960s, defying social pressures to restrict their talents to the domestic sphere. The organization, over 300,000 members strong in the postwar years, was the largest Zionist organization in America and one of the leading women’s organizations in the world. Its members proved particularly adept at raising money, taking in over 15 million dollars in 1967 after the Six Days’ War. The (generally unpaid) labor of these women served not only to build the infrastructure of social services in the new state of Israel, but also to support civil rights and civil liberties in the United States.

If Hadassah does not immediately strike you as a revolutionary organization (perhaps especially in light of its reticence over Anat Hoffman’s October arrest after leading hundreds of Hadassah women in prayer at the Western Wall), that may be because Hadassah often used the trappings of the “feminine mystique” to achieve their activist goals. For instance, in what might be the finest chapter in the book, Brautbar analyzes the traveling fashion shows sponsored by Hadassah throughout the 1950s and 1960s. During these elaborate events, the hard-working leaders of Hadassah would strut the catwalk wearing gowns like the “Nightingale” — a gunmetal strapless taffeta dress with black velvet stripes and borders — or the “Mimosa,” a wool coat with wide hip pockets and an exaggerated collar. While these fashion shows certainly valorized the beauty culture that demanded crinolined, high-heeled perfection from women in the postwar years, they also served an expressly political purpose. They featured the couture of the Alice Seligsberg Fashion Institute, an organization funded by Hadassah to train Israeli women for work in the fashion industry. And the shows raised money not only for that institute, but also for the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, the Hadassah Neurim Vocational Training Center for Holocaust survivors, and the Dvir Hotel School which trained young Israelis to work in their country’s burgeoning tourist trade. Hadassah women, Brautbar argues, were not hobbled by the postwar beauty culture; rather, they harnessed it to become social activists and policy-makers.

No one can read Brautbar’s work without recognizing that Hadassah has too often been unfairly dismissed (regrettably even by feminist scholars) as a social club, a pointless diversion for the bored and repressed middle-class Jewish women of the postwar years. Hadassah women may have preferred to buy bras than burn them, they may have dressed in silk and pearls as they lobbied Congress and crafted the blueprint for social services in Israel. But Brautbar’s book gives us ample proof that well-dressed activists can also be quite effective ones.

Rachel Kranson is a professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pittsburgh and a contributing editor to Lilith.