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Culture and Costume


DECEMBER 25, 2002 - MARCH 31, 2003

Sponsored by
THE FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY
of The Jewish Theological Seminary
3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027-4649

Culture and Costume documents the perceptions and imaginings of travelers and artists who illustrated Jewish modes of dress and ways of life in various parts of the world from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The clothes and customs of Jews living in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Europe were recorded in books and prints that purported to describe the manners, laws, religions and dress of people in these places. Over the centuries, many of the prints featured in this exhibition were removed from the original context for which they had been created: travelogues, history and costume books, and albums. Although, initially designed as integral parts of larger works they are presented here as individual sheets.

The clothing of Jews seen in these prints reflects, in some instances, a complex merging of religious observances and external restrictions of dress placed on Jews by rulers and governments. At certain times in history, Jews were subjected to elaborately detailed regulations regarding their dress. For the dates and places represented in these prints, restrictions applied primarily to the types of headwear and footwear worn and to the wearing of certain colors that could be either mandatory or prohibited. At the Fourth Lateran Council, convened under the auspices of Pope Innocent III in 1215, it was demanded that Jews dress in a manner whereby they might easily be distinguished from their fellow Christians. This law, intended to prevent the “mixing of Jew and Christian,” brought about the imposition of the infamous Jewish badge on the Jews of Europe. Conversely, clothing could serve to accelerate the assimilation process, as was the intention of Czar Nicloas I, who in the mid-nineteenth century prohibited Jews from wearing their traditional costumes.
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Engravings, woodcuts and lithographs show the dress of Jews, and costumes in general, with varying degrees of authenticity. Travel and costume books routinely claim that their illustrations have been drawn d’après nature (after nature). Yet, the reality of travel restrictions, prejudices and vivid imaginations, combined with the commercial aspects of publishing, led to works often less accurate than professed. Furthermore, the acceleration of printing technology allowed for the unauthorized appropriation of images. From the sixteenth century onward, published images were immediately copied and reprinted by opportunistic publishers. In later publications these earlier images, often reissued long after they first appeared, were routinely presented as current and the accompanying texts frequently contained unreliable and out-of-date information.

Traditions, adaptations of foreign styles, degrees of assimilation, and cultural attributes are all revealed in this selection of images from the print collection of the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

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