Dissertation Discussion: Jeordy

What is the working title of your dissertation?

For my dissertation I have chosen to write on a very niche and largely unexplored topic: the female Jewish experience in England, as understood through clothing. My working title is ‘How did Jewish women in England negotiate dual identities through dress, 1939-1955?’

What led you to choose this subject?

I have long been interested in diaspora and immigrant experiences, especially in London, where so many different immigrant groups have passed through or settled. My own Ashkenazi Jewish heritage lead to my interest in the Jewish experience, which has not been written on extensively. The opportunity to contribute to the historiography of Jewish life in England was irresistible, especially considering that Jewish women as wearers and consumers of fashion has been almost entirely neglected to date. Furthermore, the Second World War was a catalyst for change in so many ways, but especially in altering and challenging conventions of femininity. This makes the war years, as well as the decade after, the perfect time period to explore.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Eric Silverman’s A Cultural History of Jewish Dress. It has been very insightful and his writing style is relatable and easy to read. It was the most interesting read because, while irrelevant for this dissertation, it taught me why the Hasidic/Haredi Jewish communities dress the way they do, which is something I always wondered about as a child growing up in a largely Hasidic neighbourhood.

Image courtesy of the Jewish Museum London.

Favourite image/object in your dissertation and why?

It’s challenging to pick just one! If I really had to choose, it would be this family portrait taken by Boris Bennett in 1948. Mr. Keiner had just obtained English citizenship, and the portrait was taken to commemorate the moment, as well as to memorialise the feeling of safety the family finally felt. The hardship of the war is visible on the parents’ relieved faces, while the children (who look exactly like their parents and it’s adorable) seem innocent and happy. Finally, I love little Judy Keiner’s tartan pinafore, and I think it is too precious that she is hugging a ball.

Favourite place to work?

I usually work from home, seated at the kitchen table. It’s not the most inspiring spot, but having easy access to snacks and not having to get dressed compensates for that. When I do go out to write, it’s usually to the Humanities 1 Reader Room at the British Library. I don’t necessarily enjoy being there (if they’d just let me bring water in!) but the formal atmosphere and the impressive architecture means I always get lots of work done.

 

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Dress Archive at the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York archive is an absolute treasure-trove of old clothes. Unlike the majority of other archives we have visited as a group, both in New York and London, the clothes are not wrapped in tissue or stored in boxes, but rather are hung, as if in a shop, on rails. The whole experience of being inside the archive is, thus, one of visceral, fashion-loving pleasure. All of us had to constantly fight the urge to reach out and touch everything.

We were taken through the archive by Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the museum. She showed us dresses ranging in date from the early 1920s to the 1960s. The glittering 1920s party dresses and gowns for costume balls and the brightly coloured, heavily tasseled ‘60s dresses were amazing, but what was most memorable, and indeed most pertinent to recent discussions on our course, were the late 1930s and early ‘40s WWII uniforms.

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum has a large collection of Vera Maxwell garments, including jumpsuits designed for women workers in the factories in 1942. Before creating the jumpsuit, which is both fire retardant and oil repellent, Maxwell conducted a survey of women to find out what they most wanted from their uniforms. Besides the obvious, highly functional elements, these women also requested a neckline that would prevent men from putting ice down their backs – indeed the jumpsuit is perfectly ice-proof too! However, Maxwell was keenly aware of the aesthetic elements too. Very careful attention to detail is paid in the design, such as the shape of the pockets and top stitched pleats in the front, which ensured that the fit was as flattering as possible. It is not only highly functional and utilitarian, but also a carefully made, designer garment, and Maxwell received a government award as a result.

The collection includes both her winter and summer jumpsuits. War restrictions limited the types of fabric available to designers and manufacturers, and extraneous decoration was largely prohibited, so Maxwell used elements such as pleats and darts to make her jumpsuits attractive. The summer jumpsuit is short sleeved and made of a lighter material, with red piping down the side. Again, Maxwell has used a series of pleats down the front of the garment to give it aesthetic appeal and make it flattering on the body.

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

In her other designs, she found imaginative ways to decorate. She traveled to South America, particularly Peru, and imported ornamental ribbons and braids that she used to adorn her garments. She worked hard to ensure that her clothes did not feel as though they were lacking anything. She wanted the wearers to not feel at all deprived, an aim that resonated with the fashion media of the time. Despite the shortages caused by war, the message perpetuated by magazines and films was that there was no deprivation. People used garments such as aprons to spruce up their outfits, and became imaginative, using natural objects like seashells in their jewellery. The prospect of wearing a uniform had an appeal in itself, and magazines ran articles about how to look good in military clothing. Many women who volunteered for service chose which in area to do so based on the attractiveness of the uniform. Vera Maxwell understood this basic, universal desire to look good, and channeled it in the design of her jumpsuits.  The aesthetic qualities she incorporated, as well as the highly functional elements, both contributed to her success as a wartime designer.

Sources:

Pat Kirkham, ‘Keeping Up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ in   Atkins, Jacqueline M. ed., Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-45 (New Haven and London: BGC/Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 205-228