Portrait von Naomi Lubrich
Image of a Jewish doctor
Painting of a wedding
Madeleine Nottes as Recha
page with writing
Modezeichnung aus dem Jahr

Naomi Lubrich, Alessandro Fabri, Iudaeus Medicus, 1803

Alessandro Fabri, Iudaeus Medicus, 1593

Delacroix, Noces juives, 1841, Louvre

Madeleine Nottes as Recha in Fromental Halévy's Juive, ca. 1850, JMS 2025

Close up of the description of the juive tunic

Journal des Dames, 1803

«Today, we’d call them ‹woke›»

Naomi Lubrich on Historical Fashion Prints

The Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land coll­ects prints from cos­tu­me books from the 16th to the 20th cen­tu­ries. The books depic­ted various cul­tu­ral groups in their tra­di­tio­nal dress, among them Jews, from Tash­kent to Paris. JMS cura­tor Chris­ti­na Meri spo­ke to Nao­mi Lubrich, fashion his­to­ri­an and muse­um direc­tor, about Jewish fashion, medieval doc­tors, ‹exo­tic beau­ty› and a tunic of the French Revolution.

Chris­ti­na Meri: Nao­mi, what is so inte­res­t­ing about old fashion plates?

Nao­mi Lubrich: I’m fasci­na­ted by the fact that they are both hard­ly known and incre­di­bly influ­en­ti­al. Fashion images were never con­side­red gre­at art, so they are often over­loo­ked in art histo­ry and cul­tu­ral stu­dies, inclu­ding Jewish stu­dies. But they had a wide pro­li­fe­ra­ti­on. Clot­hing is an easi­ly acces­si­ble sub­ject, and fashion books were prin­ted in lar­ge num­bers, much like fashion maga­zi­nes today. So they infor­med our image of cul­tu­ral groups, among them Jews.

CM: So they are tes­ta­ments to the past?

NL: You’d be sur­pri­sed: The old images are still influ­en­ti­al today. Cos­tu­me desi­gners con­sult old dress books to design clo­thes for thea­ter and cine­ma, espe­ci­al­ly when set in the past. Desi­gners are still copy­ing and adap­ting the out­fits from the old books, again and again.

CM: I can see that the prints are hel­pful for the stage and screen adapt­a­ti­ons, but how are they useful for a museum?

NL: On the one hand, they help us date and loca­te visu­al repre­sen­ta­ti­ons, in cases whe­re we have no infor­ma­ti­on. A striking hat, a belt, an unu­su­al shoe can give us clues about whe­re the image might come from. In addi­ti­on, they pro­vi­de mate­ri­al for sub­jects that would other­wi­se be dif­fi­cult to illus­tra­te. For exam­p­le, we have a print from Padua of the year 1593, from Ales­san­dro Fabri’s cos­tu­me book «Diver­sar­um nati­o­num orna­tus et habi­tus.» The print shows a Jewish doc­tor from Con­stan­ti­no­p­le. This is rele­vant to us, becau­se Jewish doc­tors from around the Medi­ter­ra­ne­an also pro­vi­ded medi­cal ser­vice in Switz­er­land as ear­ly as the 14th cen­tu­ry. The­re are num­e­rous records of Jewish phy­si­ci­ans: a doc­tor named Jocet (Fri­bourg 1356), Hely­as Sab­ba­ti from Bolo­gna (Basel 1410), David (Schaff­hau­sen 1535/1536), and Abra­ham and Samu­el (Lucer­ne 1544/1554). They were cove­ted workers, while other Jews were ban­ned from the very same cities. We know litt­le more about them than their first names and the places they work­ed. So the dra­wing pro­vi­des us valuable visu­al mate­ri­al. The fashion illus­tra­ti­on shows us how wide­ly known Jewish doc­tors were, and how peo­p­le ima­gi­ned them to look like. The clo­thes, howe­ver, were likely fictitious.

CM: What other ques­ti­ons do the fashion images answer?

NL: For ins­tance, they can ans­wer ques­ti­ons about reli­gious clot­hing. Let’s take the peren­ni­al topic of head cove­rings. Jewish head cove­ring is com­pa­ra­b­ly recent. In Roman times, Jews did not wear head cove­rings – or any other spe­cial garm­ents, for that mat­ter. His­to­ri­ans agree on this, becau­se Roman wri­ters obser­ved Jews in detail – and often made fun of them; but they recor­ded not­hing about their appearance. It was pro­ba­b­ly not until the Midd­le Ages that Jewish men pur­po­seful­ly cover­ed their heads when pray­ing. Until the 20th cen­tu­ry, they would wear their best hats. In the syn­ago­gue pain­tings by Otto Wyler (St. Gall 1912) and Wal­ter Hay­mann (Zurich 1960), all the men are wea­ring top hats. But around 1960, hats went out of fashion. The tur­ning point most often cited is John F. Kennedy’s oath in 1961, which he swo­re bare­hea­ded. It must have been at this time that the kip­pah came, in ortho­dox cir­cles, into con­stant use, even indoors, becau­se pho­tos of the New York Yes­hi­va Uni­ver­si­ty from 1954 show board mem­bers bare­hea­ded. This is sur­pri­sin­gly late. Fin­ding the kippah’s ante­ce­dents and tra­cing its spread reve­als the recen­cy of some sym­bols and prac­ti­ces that we iden­ti­fy with Juda­ism, as if they had always been there.

CM: Are the­re any note­wor­t­hy images of women? 

NL: Sure! There’s the so-cal­led ‹Ori­en­tal› beau­ty, for ins­tance. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, artists had a pen­chant for pain­ting ‹exo­tic› women, espe­ci­al­ly Tuni­si­ans and Moroc­cans, wea­ring draped, gold-cover­ed gowns. A famous exam­p­le is the dancer in Delacroix’s Noce jui­ve dans le Maroc (1839). Among the prints – and later pho­to­graphs and post­cards – were many Jewish women, as the cap­ti­ons explain. They were both exo­ti­ci­zed and ero­ti­ci­zed. The­se fashion images were fre­quent­ly adapt­ed for thea­ter and ope­ra, for ins­tance Recha, Eleazar’s daugh­ter, in Fro­m­en­tal Halévy’s ope­ra, La Jui­ve. We have a print of the Vien­nese sopra­no Made­lei­ne Not­tes por­tray­ing an ‹ori­en­ta­li­zed› Recha around 1850. At the time, the image of the ‹Ori­en­tal Jewess› inspi­red sym­pa­thy and curio­si­ty for the Jewish world.

CM: So fashion could be political. 

NL: Isn’t clot­hing always poli­ti­cal? Let’s take a fashion acces­so­ry of the French Revo­lu­ti­on, a tunic known as «jui­ve» or «lévi­te.» Maga­zi­nes depic­ted the «Jewish tunic» from 1790 onwards. What was Jewish about it? It had a pat­ter­ned hem, as in Bibli­cal times, when hems were used as a stamp to con­vey per­so­na­li­zed mes­sa­ges, like a signa­tu­re. In an illus­tra­ti­on in the 1803 Jour­nal des Dames et des Modes, the Jewish tunic was a bold poli­ti­cal state­ment. It wasn’t until 1791, in the wake of the French Revo­lu­ti­on, that Jews were gran­ted citi­zen­ship and equal rights. In 1806, the Jewish repre­sen­ta­ti­ve body was estab­lished, the San­he­drin, and in 1807 Juda­ism was reco­g­nis­ed as an offi­ci­al reli­gi­on. For the edi­tors of the ladies’ maga­zi­ne to recom­mend their rea­ders to wear a Jewish tunic as ear­ly as 1803 can be inter­pre­ted as an expres­si­on of soli­da­ri­ty with French Jewish women. It was pro­gres­si­ve. Today we’d call it ‹woke.›

CM: Nao­mi, thank you very much!

verfasst am 30.05.2023