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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

A History of Jewish Costume
By Alfred Rubens and Mary Sward

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Jewish Costume

For most of history, if you stayed in one place, your clothes never changed; but if you went to the next village, everything was different. Clothes defined identity, pride, and religious belief, and distinctive dress was so taken for granted that very little reference was made to it. Political changes or wars added to or took from traditional dress. Occasionally, what began as a forced, special costume became an accepted badge of honor.

During the Renaissance, "place" was submerged in "time;" go to the ends of the earth and all the hats were different. Eventually, regional dress became "peasant," and history as expressed by regional dress became lost.

Jewish costume covers recorded history from the stone carvings of Egypt to the present day. Some items of dress have persisted: tassels on the prayer shawls, hair locks, and the obligation of married women to cover their hair.

Biblical descriptions and archeological evidence show that clothing did not differ greatly from neighboring people: loin cloth or girdle, a shirt-like garment like a Roman "tunica," and a long rectangular cloth worn as an outer garment by most of Western Asia, serving as a blanket, clothing, or a carry-all. Jewish tassels became part of the outer blanket, the traditional color being blue. The modern prayer shawl seems to have developed from this garment. The special treatment of the hair, side locks, was characteristic of many other people such as the Libyans, Syrians, and Cretans, but became a distinctive Jewish feature in historical times, and is still found among certain Orthodox groups.

The custom of covering a married woman's hair is very ancient and so much a part of tradition that this became a means of identifying Jewish women and is often found in sculpture, paintings, miniatures, and written descriptions during all history.

Women's dress in Europe seems to have reflected current fashion, often conservative to the point of being out-of-date, and at other times, completely contemporary. The only distinctive Jewish feature was the covered hair, sometimes with a wig, sometimes with clothes, and sometimes with bonnets.

Men's clothing reflected Jewish identity and separateness more than women's clothing. In the early Middle Ages, governments began to issue dress regulations for the Jews, both men and women,including a yellow disk worn on the breast or shoulder. Similar patches have been seen in our century: the yellow Juden patches of the Nazi government. These distinguishing marks were hated and never became a badge of honor. The Jewish hat did, however. It was a pointed, cone-shaped felt hat that became an honored part of the costume during Medieval times. It probably came from the hat that all Non-Believers were required to wear in Moslem countries. From Persia also came the "caftan," a long over-garment with a girdle. The girdle lasted for generations during many different styles of clothing. The hat disappeared from general use, but remained for Sabbath use in the home until the 18th century in some areas.

The cone-shaped hat was eventually replaced by a flat hat called a "barrette." A white ruff around the neck became part of the German Jewish costume for both men and women. A sleeveless cloak was also worn. These items began as dress regulations and remained as important parts of the traditional dress regulations and remained as important parts of the traditional dress. The Jewish authorities also put forth laws governing dress for both men and women. These often regulated the richness of dress and jewelry, always stressing the conservative.

During the 1800s, a three-cornered hat, knee breeches, buckled shoes, white or black stockings, waistcoat, and a tail coat became popular. The "tricorn" hat was sometimes replaced by the "barrette."

In 1846, the dress of Polish Jews was described as "a long coat in black cloth edged in front with velvet and fastened from the neck to the waist, a wide belt, socks, shoes or slippers, a skull cap, a hat with a wide brim that is shaped like a sugar loaf or a cut-off cone with a deep edge of sable or other fur, and finally a greatcoat as long as the under-coat. All this in black, and in a light material like silk."

From the 18th century onwards, attempts were made in Poland and Russia to persuade Jews to abandon their Jewish costume. Although the Hasidim retained traditional dress, the efforts of the Russian government began to take effect after the middle of the 19th century, and Western dress was gradually adopted by most Jews, with a peaked cap as its distinctive feature for men.

The history of Jewish costume in North Africa and the Near East begins in the 7th century with the spread of Islam. Special clothing was required of all Non-Believers under Moslem rule. These dress regulations were usually two yellow patches worn on the outer garment. Later it was decreed that all clothing, including turbans, must be black. In the 14th century, the distinctive colors were yellow for Jews, blue for Christianity, and red for Samaritans. Women, besides wearing the appropriate color, had to wear non-matching shoes: red and black or black and white.

Generally the costumes reflected the clothing worn by the general populace. About 1850, a Mrs. finn described Jewish women's costumes in Jerusalem: "...a sky-blue jacket, white silk shirt embroidered with silver, just below which peeped full trousers of pale yellow silk and little green Morocco slippers. The headdress was a turban, projecting forward in a half-moon shape and down the back hung a white muslin veil spangled with gold..."

One of the most striking costumes was the Moroccan dress called the "keswa el kbira' given to the bride by her father as part of her dowry and worn for special occasions. The dress was made up of a fine linen shirt with long, loose sleeves. Over this was a "caftan" of woolen cloth or velvet, sleeveless and open over neck and breast, the edges embroidered with gold. The outer, long full skirt was a wrap-over, and the lower edge and exposed corner were heavily embroidered. A sash of silk and gold fastened the skirt at the waist, the ends hanging behind. Unmarried women wore their hair in hanging plaits with a wreath of silk around the head, tied in a bow behind. Married women covered their hair with a red silk handkerchief, tied behind the head and over this a silk sash, the ends of which hung loosely on the back. Red slippers embroidered with gold, no stockings, large gold earrings on the lower ear, three small ones set with pearls or precious stones on the upper edge of the ear, and necklaces and rings completed the costume.

At the same time, the Moroccan man shaved his head close and wore his beard long. "A shirt, long drawers, a black close coat [close fitting as opposed to one that was loose] or caftan, and over it a black or dark-colored kind of cloak called a "burnoose" with a cowl like a Fryers Frock but with hanging strings at the end of the cowl and at the bottom. Black cap and black slippers completed the costume."


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