What does a contemporary hand-crocheted ivory kippah embellished with pearls and gold thread have in common with a hand-painted dress design by a Czech designer in 1939 Prague? And what connection could there be between a decades-old black-and-white tallit gadol and a black-leather motorcycle jacket emblazoned with a skull and the initials S.O.B.?
Museumgoers will have those questions and more answered at two new exhibits opening April 7 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Last week, museum staffers were busy pulling together clothing, accessories and other textile artifacts from their collection, along with recent loans and donations, for “Fashion Statement,” a JMM original being mounted alongside a traveling exhibit from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, “Stitching History from the Holocaust.”
And although the two exhibits are distinct, and tell unique stories, they are inextricably linked by the ways fashion can communicate personal histories, from the joyful to the poignant, as well as the struggles and triumphs of the broader Jewish experience.
Make no mistake: “Fashion Statement” is more about the statement than the fashion, according to JMM’s director of collections and exhibits Joanna Church.
“Because it’s called ‘Fashion Statement,’ people are going to expect to see just haute couture,” Church said. “Whereas our point is that the word statement is as important to this exhibit as the word fashion.”
For instance, Church cited the black-and-white tallit gadol, a fine wool, decades-old, lovingly mended prayer shawl: “The mending just shows how much he loved it, how important it was to him.”
Then there’s a flannel skirt from 1900.
“[The owner] is thought to have worn it on her journey from Russia to the U.S. It has a little style to it. It’s very carefully made and it has some nice velvet bands around the bottom,” Church said. “But it’s a work skirt. The equivalent of jeans today. It’s mended, so it’s not what you would necessarily expect to see when you walk into an exhibit called fashion. But those are the sorts of things that museums have and don’t always know how to exhibit, and this is a perfect opportunity to get out our utilitarian items as well as our fancy ones.”
“Fashion Statement” includes more than 70 items from the museum’s collection, from the “utilitarian” to the “fancy,” ranging from 1846 to 2019, with most items from 1900 to the 1970s.
The personal histories behind the items offer not just a look at an individual’s life, but the life of the broader Baltimore Jewish community.
Take the two club jackets worn by members of the former Jewish Educational Alliance, a precursor to the JCC. The letterman-style jackets, reminiscent of those worn by Laverne and Shirley on the popular 1970s television show, are embroidered with the owners’ names – Betty and Norm. But on the back are the names of the clubs they belonged to: Rooseveltians and Reliance.
“So that’s how it brings out this whole individual versus group identity through clothing,” Church said. “It shows this spectrum of individual identity, to group identity, and how you show that through your clothes.”
Expressing that identity through fashion is akin to a language, said museum deputy director Tracie Guy-Decker in conversation with Church and JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert in the museum’s exhibition hall. He agreed, noting that although Jewish Americans often sought to assimilate, and used clothing as a way to fit into the American milieu, it was, and is, often done with a Jewish twist.
“Fashion Statement” includes what on first glance is the iconic American motorcycle club jacket, but on closer inspection museumgoers will realize the S.O.B. patch on the back of the jacket stands for “Semites on Bikes.” The club’s mascot? A skull wearing a kippah, known affectionately as Skullberger.
“It was all those little twists. And it also is Americanizing the Jewish elements. Some of the kippot [in the exhibit] are very non-traditional” Pinkert said. “And the same is true for the changes in fashion. What was appropriate to wear to synagogue over time alters because the American experience effects the Jewish experience.”
“Looking at this as language is really very helpful, because when you look at the clothing as language you begin to see that you get accents and dialects,” he added. “And when there is syncretism between two languages, they start to form a new language.”
Guy-Decker agrees, “German plus Hebrew makes Yiddish.”
“This is what happens in clothing as well,” Pinkert said. “And I think that in some way that’s the centerpiece of the exhibit — is the way that clothing can be a language.”
In addition to communicating through fashion, Guy-Decker said the items people hold onto say something about the individual and the times.
“It’s one of the ways that we remember things,” she said. “It is one of the ways that we hold on to things, to validate for ourselves that the thing we remember is real. And all the more so in the 21st century, where authenticity can sometimes be hard to come by. The authenticity of real objects that real people cared for becomes all the more precious, and all the more compelling a mode of storytelling. I think it always was.”
In addition to the varied collection of fashions, clothing and accessories through the decades, “Fashion Statement” offers Jewish historical and social perspectives, including advertising and photos of trends, such as the growing popularity of furs as a status symbol in early 20th-century Baltimore, or of cultural shifts, including photos of Russian-Jewish resettlement immigrants during the 1970s. But everyday life in Baltimore is also captured through photos of sports teams, or items such as a handmade bat mitzvah tallit and an array of hats — from an elegant black net and feathers woman’s hat from the 1950s, to the crumpled pork pie hat immediately identifiable as belonging to long-time Baltimore radio personality, storyteller and historian Gil Sandler.
Throughout the exhibit, in addition to photos and accompanying historical text, are quotes about fashion and its impacts, including an iconic quip from Oscar-winning Hollywood designer Edith Head: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” This exhibit illustrates that many Baltimore-area Jews took that attitude to heart, embracing American style and fashion, while retaining their Jewish identity and culture.
In a separate but linked exhibit, the unfortunate flip-side of Head’s quote can be found in “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” a traveling exhibit from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
The catalyst for this exhibit was a letter found in 1997 by a Milwaukee family dated 1939. Inside was a plea from relatives living in Prague for help in getting work visas for Hedy and Paul Strnad who were desperate to get out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
Inside the letter were eight colorful, hand-painted dress designs by Hedy Strnad — a talented designer and seamstress who had a dress-making shop in Prague. Including the designs in the correspondence was their way of showing that the Strnads had a valid trade and would be able to make a living in the United States, if they acquired the needed work visas.
But the Strnads never made it to the U.S. Both were murdered in the Holocaust.
The letter and designs were donated to Jewish Museum Milwaukee and became part of its permanent collection. In 2014, the museum teamed up with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s costume shop and Hedy’s designs were brought to life. The story of how the museum uncovered Hedy’s history and 75 years later, using only vintage materials manufactured the dresses, is a compelling and poignant look at the potential that was stolen from Jewish history by the Holocaust.
“Visitors immediately found the story to be compelling, which led to the idea of having the ensembles made and developing a full scale exhibit around them in the future,” Jewish Museum Milwaukee curator Molly Dubin said about how the exhibit came about.
The exhibit includes Hedy and Paul’s letter to their relatives in the U.S., and other family artifacts, Hedy’s designs, the dresses made from the designs and how they were brought to life, as well as background on the political and Jewish history of Czechoslovakia and the surrounding region.
Dubin said exhibits that involve the Holocaust bring with them the challenge of how to personalize the overwhelming losses suffered.
“The enormity of devastation can overshadow the knowledge that each of the six million were unique individuals with full lives — families and friends, hopes and dreams,” she said. “‘Stitching History’ is the story of the Strnad family, and at the same time, it represents vast numbers of other families whose stories may never be told or even known about. In focusing on micro-histories the stories become personal; visitors recognize that these families were much like their own, and being able to draw parallels makes the experience more resonant on many levels.”
The exhibit also became a vehicle “to bring a dream never realized to life,” Dubin said, adding that Hedy’s timeless designs and their 3-dimensional ensembles are now part of a new legacy for future generations. “Throughout history clothing has served many purposes — to protect, to identify where one is from, one’s social standing or religious background, or to signify one’s personal style. Clothing reflects humanity’s experiences and evolution, so ‘Fashion Statement Maryland’ being paired with ‘Stitching History from the Holocaust’ seems incredibly fitting.”
Church said when the opportunity arose to bring the Milwaukee exhibit to Baltimore, the JMM “took the textile lens of telling the ‘Stitching History’ story, and applied it to our much different story.”
“So the thing that connects them together really is the clothes, but the stories we are telling are different.” Church said. “So even though that is not a Maryland story, it touches on so much of the national stories that are out there, and the exhibit discusses Hedy specifically, but it touches on the talents and skills that were lost during the Holocaust.”
Meanwhile, Jack Burkert of the Baltimore Museum of Industry will be delivering a talk in conjunction with the exhibits at the museum on May 5, “Suiting Everyone,” on the long history of Baltimore’s thriving needle trades industry.
“The time period for the needle trades in Baltimore ranged from the earliest years, 1830 to 1840 for about 120 years, declining precipitously after 1960 or so,” he said.
During its height, Burkert said about 27,000 Baltimoreans, many of them Jewish immigrants, were employed by, or were owner/operators, in the city’s needle trades, but that was followed by a drop during the post-World War I period.
“This was true from the earliest days, circa 1840, as tailors emigrated to America and Baltimore, escaping persecution. This group was essentially ‘first wave’ immigrants,” Burkert said. “Post-Civil War, the second wave began to arrive, finding jobs in the garment factories and also in Eastside sweat shops, many if not most of these immigrants (1870-1900) were Eastern European and Jewish.”
Ultimately, for many reasons, the industry declined precipitously in Baltimore after the 1960s, Burkert said, because of “offshoring” of the needle trades and shifts in fashion.
“The straw hat business flourished, and it didn’t die out because of the workers, the managers, the factories or any other point of control. It died because people stopped wearing straw hats. Suits were ‘required’ in business, even down to every clerk in every office, but that eased up post World War II, certainly by the 1950s.”
But some of that spirit of making textile goods and influencing fashion remains in Baltimore, with so-called prototype clothing producers.
“Factories produce product locally, and once perfected, the product is sent overseas for mass production,” Burkert said, citing local fashion designer Stacy Stube. “[She] is fighting a one-person war to restore garment making in Baltimore.”
In addition, a recent project between Stevenson University, PNC Bank, the Maryland Historical Society and the JMM, called “Stitching Maryland Together,” seeks to revitalize Baltimore’s fashion industry.
Back at the JMM, Church said the dual show includes an item that relates to Hedy’s story and helps stitch together the two unique exhibits.
“We have a piece that’s from a woman who grew up in Poland. She trained how to be a seamstress and then when the war came she and her family fled to Russia and she used her skills as a seamstress to support her family,” Church said. “They survived the war thanks to this work. They lived in the DP camps for several years and she taught sewing to other residents in the DP camp. And then when they got to Baltimore in the early 50s, she did alterations as sort of a side hustle.”
“We have a dress that she made for herself in the 70s,” she added. “It touches on the Baltimore fashion-identity side, but also talks about, yes, Hedy didn’t survive, but other people were luckier and able to use their own textile and seamstress skills to survive. So it tells another part of the story, and bridges the two exhibits together.”
For Guy-Decker, exhibits such as “Fashion Statement” and “Stitching History from the Holocaust” are all the more important in today’s climate of falseness and inauthenticity.
“There’s so much inauthenticity around us at all times, through advertising, through social media, through the constant bombardment of information and data and things that we have no idea [if they are real]. Is that a Russian bot, or is that a real person?” she said. “These [items in the exhibits] have a reliable authenticity to them that is refreshing and comforting. And that really makes the stories that they open up that much more compelling.” JT
“Fashion Statement” runs through Sept. 15 and “Stitching History from the Holocaust” runs through Aug. 4. For more information and a schedule of related events, including talks by Church and Dubin, visit jewishmuseummd.org.