25 October 2012

Visual Identities

Entrance to the Ghetto, Kraków, 1937

A square in Kazimierz, Kraków, ca. 1936-38

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Kraków, ca. 1935-38

Street in Ghetto, Kraków, ca. 1935-38

Granddaughter and Grandfather, Warsaw, ca. 1935-38

Haberdashery in the open market, Warsaw, ca. 1935-38

Jewish schoolchildren, Mukachevo, ca. 1935-38

Writing a letter to his mother, who is working in Lodz; Warsaw, 1937

Father earned today some money and daughter is sent for milk, 1937

Talmud students, Mukachevo, ca. 1935-38

Photography by Roman Vishniac (1887-1990)

Above I have posted a selection of Roman Vishniac's incredibly poignant images of Eastern European Jews from just before the Holocaust. Focusing on the impoverished and the pious, Vishniac's work now serves as a moving reminder of a particularly dark period in modern history.

Contemporary Hasidic dress is actually primarily based upon the dress of Hasidim from the period photographed above. I thought it might be interesting to briefly start exploring the idea of religious dress and the tension between dress revealing and concealing identity. What immediately comes to mind is the idea of dress in this instance symbolising continuity. By linking one's self to the past it allows the individual to feel a sense of belonging, to a religion, to a community, and to a history. The sense of belonging is here characterised in the extreme, in that the dress code has very specific rules marking it instantly recognisable and deeply entrenched with history, however it is something very much central to wider concepts of dress and fashion.

Religious dress codes create uniformity, a sense of communal belonging and unity, however this sense of belonging is universal to all dress, albeit usually far more subtle in its realisation. It is important to note that the garment itself only ever has a very basic set of invested meanings (if any at all). The way a garment is usually perceived is due to the added layers of social and cultural values, which upon wearing are ordinarily assumed to transfer to the wearer (unless of course the coding of the garment is subverted by the wearer). Human nature determines a desire to belong, to find a group in which we feel comfortable, whether that be family, friends or a social grouping. Whether we wear the latest trend recognisable by many, or clothing that denotes our beloning to a very specific subculture recognisable only to those already inducted, our clothing paradoxically signifies at once our belonging and our individuality.

We are sold the idea of fashion being a pure expression our individuality, however the reality is that fashion is primarily about belonging. Fashion is about being in fashion after all. We all want to be individual, just not too individual, lest we be ostracised, thus losing any semblance of social power or belonging. A man who turns up to the office in jeans and a t-shirt, where all the workers wear suits, stands apart so dramatically that he loses social power, and thus he realises that he must find a way to express individuality whilst still belonging. In much the same way fashion allows us to belong, to a small socially-perceived elite or to a wider trend, however stepping outside of this realm can make us stand out in a way that is deemed negative, for we then go against the norm. Dress codes, whether religious or social, dispense with much of this anxiety by providing a uniform, however specific or loose, and thus help create a very strong sense of belonging and security.

Religious dress removes from the individual a great element of choice. Dress is prescribed, aiming to foster a sense of community and equality, either in a form of dressing, or in a very specific set of garments and styles. Although religious dress may seem antithetical to the idea of dress as expression of individuality, or at least personality, it is actually more complex an issue. Although religious dress, like uniform, is about creating a common image, it is, unlike uniform, at its core a personal choice from the wearer (or at least it should be). The individual chooses to adopt the uniform, rather than needing to out of necessity, as a uniform required for a job would be. Of course there are many instances where the choice is socially and culturally prescribed upon the individual, however where it is adopted by free choice, it is just as much about the individual as it is about beloning to a wider group.

Just as fashion can be adopted by a wearer to signify a personal meaning, religious dress can also be used to signify such, in that it signifies the individual's beliefs and values. I think this also applies to many subcultures, which can often be accused of assuming to seek to make the wearer look individual, whilst in actuality marking them out quite clearly as belonging to that grouping. The idea in this instance is not that it marks them out as recognisably belonging to that grouping, but rather that they have chosen to look like that, and in doing so, distinguished themselves from the majority of society. This is to me a natural desire, for even in wearing uniforms, we all wish to add a sense of personality. And I think this is also the case with religious dress codes, for even though it is about belonging, it is also about individual intentions and choices, something central to the very idea of a belief system.

Uniformity arguably aims to create equality, but I think there is something quite charming in the very notion of uniform. It may at first seem to negate the idea of individuality, but I think that in having a common canvas, so to speak, it allows the viewer to see the individual behind the clothing. Either we see the signs and symbols, hinting at what the wearer sought to express, but of course there is always a disconnect between the intention and the reading, or by virtue of its uniformity and absence of aesthetic choice, we are forced to see the person behind it. Of course in reality we often dismiss the person on account of the uniform, their common dress creating or enforcing a common idea of persona. However I think in truly looking and considering the individual, that uniform can actually become an incredibly powerful tool.

The individual may choose to wear a prescribed uniform, which marks them out from society at large, but it also symbolises a common unity. It is something readily apparent in religious dress, however it is something I think actually applies to the way we all engage with fashion and dress.



  1. Precious historic photos of Jewish people. Kids 's smiles are lovely in anywhere,any era.

    I know they wear religious clothing because they want to wear,not they have to wear.

    But I wonder none of them interested in to wear cutting edge trend clothing?

  2. I really like the points you've raised. Along the lines of uniforms having the effect of revealing the individual, i think that's why certain fashion people go for really clean, perfectly-tailored, "unoriginal" or classic looks, because rather than overwhelm or hide, they allow a person's style or individuality, to come through.

    Loving the new trains of thought and ideas, so thank you!

  3. Well said and you got it right! Don’t have much word to say since the point is pretty clear to me… Thanks for sharing! :D Have a blessed day!

  4. that was really interesting, my family is actually from Vilnius, Warsaw, Lithuania etc and it's really nice to see images of the history of my family's community.

    I understand what you mean about religious dress. I think judiasm is particularly specific in that the reasons behind the dress code go a lot deeper than simple "modesty" obviously tradition and connection to family roots plays a big part.