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VALLEY WEEKEND

Exhibit Showcases the Refashioning of Life in America

Display of women's garments at the Skirball museum shows how clothing helped Jewish immigrants, from 1880 to 1920, adapt to their new surroundings.

June 13, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the current show at the Skirball Cultural Center & Museum, every hat and corset tells a story.

A traveling exhibit organized by the Chicago Historical Society, "Becoming American Women" uses the clothes and accessories of Jewish women who came to America between 1880 and 1920 to illuminate a phenomenon that continues to this day. The show's eloquent shawls and revelatory shoes aren't simply things to wear; they were the tools that immigrant women used to carve themselves a place in American society.

Clothes are always interesting, if you think of them as choices. But the clothes at the Skirball are especially evocative. Take, for example, a straw hat covered with bright flowers and a bit of lace. In the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, no married woman would wear such a hat.

Following religious custom, she would shave her head and cover it with a wig, or sheitel. If she didn't cut off her hair, she covered it in public with a kerchief or shawl or somber, modest hat. But in America, hundreds of thousands of Jewish wives threw down their sheitels and began wearing fashionable hats. It was a way of declaring yourself a Yankee, a pledge of allegiance in a hatbox.

Barbara Schreier, who was the original curator of the show, explains in the fascinating catalog she wrote for it that Jewish immigrants were different from most others in that they came to America planning to stay. Anti-Semitic violence killed thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, and the United States promised both sanctuary and opportunity.

Two million Jews immigrated during the Great Wave, and all but 2% or 3% stayed. In contrast, more than half the Italian immigrants of the period stayed here for a time and then returned to their homeland.

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In the Skirball show there is the simple survival clothing that women wore in the villages, or shtetls. There are embroidered dresses that were given to children at Passover--new clothes being as time-honored a symbol of renewal as the boiled egg on the Seder plate--and that were only worn on the Shabbos, the Sabbath, and holidays.

Sometimes the relative already here would send his European loved ones warning along with passage: "Leave your clothes behind. Nothing you own will be appropriate in America. We will buy clothes when you get here."

As Skirball staffer Monica Billett points out, the right clothes allowed the immigrants to fit in, even if they couldn't speak English. The Young Women's Christian Assn. thought dress was so vital to assimilation that it set up a clothing service on Ellis Island, the port of entry for virtually all these newcomers.

The social workers, aware of the high divorce rate on the Lower East Side, knew that many a marriage had floundered when an Americanized husband was reunited with a wife whose sheitel and shawl now struck him as dowdy, not modest. On Hester Street, wives were routinely forced to choose between tradition and a man once named Yitzhak, who now called himself Jake.

As soon as they got off the boat, the immigrants learned a terrible new word--"greenhorn." A greenhorn was the Jewish-American equivalent of a bumpkin, a rube. It wasn't easy being green. One of Schreier's informants remembered the nadir of her childhood. Her mother, a new immigrant, decided she would make her girls something special to wear on the first day of school.

Full of love and patriotic fervor, she made them dresses that incorporated the stars, stripes and colors of the American flag. The girls loved them, until their classmates howled with laughter at their new dresses, dead giveaways that the girls were still hopelessly green.

There are Sabbath candles in the show that rocked in trunks across the Atlantic, and pages from the Yiddish-language press, including "The Jewish Ladies Home Journal," that eased so many into the mainstream. But, above all, there are clothes, glorious clothes.

In America, Jewish women discovered both fashion and a culture that urged, in the words of a New York street vendor: "Women, women want! Please, please want--begin to want!"

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As the show makes clear, they began wanting with a vengeance, and many began to get: lovely shirtwaist blouses that became the handsome, liberating uniform of working women, who wore them with slim, dark skirts; elegant suits for afternoon; corsets that are clearly the work of the devil; yummy shoes; evening dresses glamorous enough to catch the eye of an eligible man, which could lead to the eventual purchase of one of the elaborate beaded wedding dresses (Yankee white, not shtetl black).

Next to the clothes are pictures of the women who wore them, many now gone.

"I've seen men crying in that exhibit because they see people who remind them of their mothers," says Skirball curator Barbara Gilbert.

Although the show covers only 40 years, ending in 1920, history gives these garments a deeper resonance. In museums around the world, mountains of shoes and eyeglasses are chilling reminders of the murders of millions of European Jews. The clothes at the Skirball are the party dresses and shirtwaists of survival, the protective clothing of the women who were not there when the Nazis came to kick in the door.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920."

* WHERE: Skirball Cultural Center & Museum, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.

* WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday (call for hours), through Aug. 25.

* HOW MUCH: $6 general admission, $4 for seniors and students with ID, children under 12 admitted free.

* CALL: (310) 440-4500.

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