On New Year’s Day, my boyfriend and I visited the Jewish Museum on New York’s Upper East Side. There were two exhibits there that we wanted to see. After viewing one of the exhibits and partially having viewed the second, an unexpected revelation came to me. I found a relationship between the two exhibits, which made me wonder even further. Do you use fashion to find or hide? As you’ll soon read, the question came from pretty atypical sources.
It’s not every day that you can walk into a museum and see an exhibit on historical Jewish clothing. A few years ago, while in Israel, I actually saw a version of this exhibit in Jerusalem. Something about seeing this particular exhibit in New York triggered new and different thoughts. Some of the clothes I saw most definitely cloaked a wearer’s identity, while others clearly had marks of cultural identification. Because I know that people today use fashion to find or hide themselves, I knew this was an important connection.
Some of the clothing on exhibit represents styles and handwork unique to specific communities that no longer exist. What makes this so fascinating is that the clothing lives on, representing the people who lived in those places. It’s like seeing a snapshot of how they lived. When they hid their identities, sometimes the purpose was ritual, and at others it was to adapt to local custom. It was typical that women in mourning would cover their faces. Also, to blend in with other women in Muslim nations, Jewish women would assimilate by wearing clothing to cover up. By looking back, it’s a revelation seeing how people used garments to fit in, and therefore, to hide.
Still, it was fascinating to see the gorgeous handwork, the sumptuous fabrics, and the brilliant colors, and designs. All of this would help to tell the language of the clothes, just as I demonstrate with clients every day. We could identity qualities and traits about the wearers of the clothes. When the wearer would use a particular garment. How often someone would wear and reuse a garment. Was it following social custom or spiritual ritual?
If people from these Northern African and Asian communities used clothing to find or hide themselves, we must also. I find this totally fascinating. We just don’t see our daily lives depicted in a museum setting. But, if that happened, would we question whether we use fashion to find or hide ourselves? I think the answer is that we may do both, but we also may not appreciate that we do. Dressing, even if we don’t put much thought into it, does make us hide. Or, if we are really fortunate, we find more of ourselves by connecting with our clothes.
The second exhibition, Modigliani Unmasked, featured 150 paintings, sculptures, and drawings created by Amedeo Modigliani. Many of these works are now exhibited in the United States for the first time ever. So, this was an extra special treat for an art lover like me. I picked up on a very special aspect to Modigliani’s point-of-view in examining his artwork. It wasn’t so much about the use of fashion to find or hide. In his case it was about whether he used his art to find or hide himself.
Modigliani was not only Italian, but a Sephardic Jew. When he arrived to Paris in 1906, the city was rife with anti-Semitism. France was divided over the treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young artillery officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent. He was framed by the military court and an attempted cover-up and re-trial leveled another sentence against him. Finally, in 1906, he was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. So, this was the socio-political climate that Modigliani entered into upon his arrival to Paris that year.
It was easy for Modigliani to assimilate, like other Italian Jews. But, because of this climate in Paris, he instead used his artmaking to reveal more about his own identity. In Paris, he saw a diverse melting pot that, in fact, he became a part of. His personal journey isn’t so different than the quandary we may face with our relationship to fashion. Do we use fashion to find or hide ourselves?
How do you use fashion to identify with yourself and to have others identify with you? Or, how do you use fashion to hide, to blend in, maybe even to disappear? Are you aware that you do one or the other, or both? Think about these questions. You might feel freer to explore your connection to clothes, and to make the right statement when it really counts.