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Those who know me might be surprised to learn that years ago, when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush -- and a very good student, at that -- I was sent to the principal’s office and promptly suspended from school. My grievous offense: the length of my skirt. The powers that be insisted it was way too short. Since I lived quite a distance from school, I had to spend the better part of the day cooling my heels and covering my knees in the secretary’s office until the private bus that, day in and day out, transported a small group of us back to our Long Island homes was ready to board.

Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.
Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.

For years, I’ve dined out on that story, a source of considerable bemusement. But it’s no longer a laughing matter. Just the other day I learned that the practice of singling out young women for their allegedly immodest and provocative clothing, for their breach of tzinut (or modesty), continues apace at my alma mater.

Recently, things had gotten so out of hand that a female student named Melissa Duchan wrote to the administration expressing her dismay. “Every school should have clear priorities; in ours, trivial concerns like a few inches of fabric have superseded more important aspects of the school environment like integrity and respect for others,” she related. In short order, Duchan’s comments fired up the blogosphere, generating quite a heated conversation about modesty, gender and sartorial norms. I wish that conversation had taken place in my day.

On a happier note, I also came across a much more positive fashion-related story this past week: the discovery of an interwar clothing atelier on Madison Avenue run by and catering to affluent German Jewish women. The genteel emporium, where money rarely exchanged hands and clothes were shipped in a green box decorated with daisies, was known as Filer-Machol after its two proprietors, Alice Hahn Machol and Edith Filer.

I was reviewing the manuscript of an historical novel that takes place in New York of the 1940s and happened across a reference to the shop. Having never heard of it before, I queried this detail and, in response, was directed to a lovely piece in the Journal of New York Folklore that discussed its history.

This revelation was a much welcome tonic, a counter-narrative, to the grim goings-on at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. It lifted my spirits where the latter story set them crashing.

One of the most exciting -- certainly among the most crowded -- of exhibitions in New York at the moment is the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity.” And for good reason. Training its sights on the triangulated relationship among these three mighty cultural forces of the late 19th century, the exhibition opens our eyes to what makes us truly modern: our clothes.

Fashion plate 1880s. Flickr/Sacheverelle
Fashion plate 1880s. Flickr/Sacheverelle
As visitors in casual attire take in the somber black suits, oversized cashmere shawls, dainty shoes, upstanding hats, ever-so-tight bodices and enormous bustles that inhabit this exhibition both visually and artifactually, they’re hard pressed at first to associate them with modernity. Exercises in modulation and constraint, these articles of dress seen anything but modern.

Thanks, though, to the smart and allusive writing on the wall and to the canny juxtapositions between painting and object, which echo and reverberate, we come away with an entirely fresh perspective on late 19th century dress and, more broadly still, on why clothing matters as much as it does. As Anatole France put it, “If I were permitted to choose amidst the jumble of books that will be published a hundred years after my death, do you know which one I would pick? ... A fashion magazine in order to see how women will dress a century after my passing. And these rags would tell me more about humanity’s future than philosophers, novelists, preachers, or scholars.”

It’s not just that the bold stripes of a day dress, the sweep of a shawl, the geometry of the bustle and the height of a top hat registered visually among many of the leading Impressionists, resulting in paintings -– say, Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, or Degas’ The Millinery Shop -- that have become touchstones of modern art. Or that ready-to-wear came into its own, along with the department store, at this point in time, placing fashion within reach. It’s all this -– and more.

By the time we take our leave of the exhibition, simultaneously wearied and exhilarated, we’ve arrived at a new understanding of the modern self.

This past week New York had its knickers in a twist when fashion designer John Galliano was spotted wearing an ensemble and sporting a hairdo that, at first blush, summoned up the external appearance of the Hasidim: oversized black hat, long black frockcoat, black knickers and payes.

Feb. 13, 2013 New York Post cover
John Galliano on the Feb. 13, 2013 New York Post cover. Source: The Oregonian, credit: NY Post
Some cried ‘foul,’ insisting that Galliano’s get-up was a deliberate affront to the Jews, the designer’s latest expression of malice and maliciousness. Others were equally insistent that Galliano was simply being, well, Galliano, and that his attire was just an expression of his idiosyncratic style. And still others, conceding that Galliano’s clothing was, in fact, “Hasidic-ish,” castigated the designer for being “tone deaf” and “impolitic.”

This latest fashion flap puts me in mind of an earlier, and equally provocative, moment in fashion history: Jean Paul Gaultier’s so-called “Hasidic Collection” of 1993 in which models strutted down the runway in clothing and hats that bore a rather close resemblance to that typically worn by male Hasidim.

Back then, hosannas rather than brickbats characterized the public response. Although some did take offense, most commentators hailed Gaultier’s collection as a witty, good-humored and clever “send-up.”

A few years later, one of Gaultier’s Hasidic creations was even put on a pedestal at the Jewish Museum’s 1996 exhibition, “Too Jewish.” Art historian Linda Nochlin, writing in the catalogue, applauded the designer’s “transvestite imagination,” and the ways in which he “called into question the whole authoritarian structure of Jewish fundamentalism.”

Then, as now, fashion, clearly, is in the eye of the beholder.

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