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What to Wear in a New Land?

Clothing has always been a source of conflict and comfort for immigrants. A new exhibit focuses on Jewish women.


To become an American, the young woman discarded thick boots for high-heeled lace-up shoes, a wig and a kerchief for a wide-brimmed hat, a corseted shirtwaist for a heavy cloth dress.

Stepping onto these shores from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, she was bombarded with differences in culture and style. Fashion became a symbol of her struggle to adapt to the New World, and each day brought fresh questions about what to adopt, what to reject. Throughout history, clothing has been a source of conflict and comfort for immigrants.

"It is a universal statement. Wearing the right thing makes you feel comfortable, makes you fit in," says Barbara Gilbert, a curator of fine arts at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum in Los Angeles, which is hosting "Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience" through Aug. 26. "When immigrants came, they couldn't speak the language, but they could wear the right clothes, and no one would know."

The exhibit paints a picture of immigrant life from 1880 to 1920. Even then, American society was seductive in its frivolity, bright fabrics, department stores. The style of the day included flamboyantly decorated hats, fitted dresses slipped over corsets and elaborate hairstyles. Many of the recent Jewish arrivals worked in the garment industry, often in sweatshops, where they brushed up against beautiful fabrics and the latest trends. Yiddish magazines counseled them on how to dress tastefully.

But with the new freedom came clashes between mothers' Old-World values and dress codes and daughters' desires not to be labeled "greenhorn." Jewish law requires that women dress modestly, and that married women cover their hair with a scarf or wig. While many mothers clung to tradition, their daughters often quickly embraced casual, more revealing clothing--even bathing suits.

"Becoming American Women" includes the treasures they brought with them, along with a sampling of their American acquisitions. Each display tells a story, complete with names and personal quotations. The mannequins' faces were made from casts of immigrants' descendants.

"Mothers were probably shocked," says Gilbert, as the younger women also became Americanized in their behavior, attending opera and theater (performed in Yiddish) and socializing with men.

The exhibit, put together by Barbara Schreier of the Chicago Historical Society, focuses on Jewish immigrants because, more than any other group, they viewed their move to the United States as permanent--an escape from poverty, escalating anti-Semitism and fierce pogroms. Others came and returned home after making money. But the more than 2 million Jews who arrived from 1880 to the end of free immigration in 1924 felt a strong need to fit in.

American culture is still a shock to newcomers, but creeping Westernization has made adjustments in clothing far less dramatic over the years. Our approach to fashion is increasingly prevalent around the world, says Dale Gluckman, acting head of the department of Costumes and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"The differences between what they wear when they arrive here versus what they wear in their homeland is not that great," she says. "And as we move toward a more global style of dress, it's receding more and more."

Although American influence travels widely, it varies from country to country, and new immigrants are usually hyper-aware of subtle differences in how they look. "When people come here, they do not want their older culture. They want to participate in the new culture," says Inez Brooks-Myers, curator of Costume and Textiles at the Oakland Museum of California.

"The first thing the young people want when they get here is jeans," she says. "They are not as easy to get in other countries, and here they want the brand--Levi's."

Fereshteh Mobasheri, coordinator of fashion design and merchandising at Santa Monica College, agrees. Many of her students are immigrants, and she watches their style change almost immediately.

Marina Boyd, 33, came to Los Angeles from Russia 4 1/2 years ago. The clothing transition was very difficult, she says. In Russia, women dress up and wear heavy makeup to do the grocery shopping or to a cocktail party. Classic suits were her daily attire, and if she did wear jeans, it was with a nice blouse--no T-shirts.

"I was always overdressed everywhere I went when I first came here," she says. "I felt stupid."

She also felt out of place in heavily tailored clothing. "Here, people will wear a one-size dress where you cannot see their figure. In Russia, everything is more figure-forming, tight and with darts. People like to show what they have." But Boyd, who lives in Malibu, has made the adjustment. Now, she wears T-shirts, shorts, sweaters. "I still like the traditional clothing, but I'm more casual now."

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