The determinants of Jewish attire, aside from those that affected everyone in the general society, included the requirements of halakhah, communal regulations, restrictions imposed by state and local authorities, and the influence of local non-Jewish communities. The most important factors observed generally were biblical law prohibiting mixing linen and wool in a single garment (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11), known as shatnes (Heb. sha‘atnez), and the halakhic requirement that males wear prayer shawls (Yid., talesim; sg., tales; Heb., talit; Eng., tallis).
The tales is a rectangular shawl made of white wool, or sometimes white silk. The rectangle’s shorter sides have black or sometimes blue stripes woven into them. Curled tassels known as tsitsis (Heb., tsitsit) hang from the four corners (Num. 15:38). The part of the shawl worn on the neck or over the head is always marked with an atore (Heb., ‘atarah)—a wider decorative band. The atores of East European Jews were distinguished by being made according to a method called shpanyer arbet, though some talesim contain atores decorated with embroidery or a panel made of small metal pieces sewn together. Shpanyer arbet was a technique using gold or silver thread to create a complex design with geometric or plant motifs, woven at a special workshop. Some claim that this technique developed in Berdyczów and, from 1830 to 1890, in Sasów.
Shpanyer arbet ‘atarah. Eastern Europe, late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Gift of Joseph Arnon, 1983.84. (Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)
In Eastern Europe, there were regional variations in Jewish dress, and as modernity approached, considerable local heterogeneity as well. In traditional men’s dress, from at least the sixteenth century, styles were influenced by those of the Polish gentry (szlachta), which itself had borrowed many elements from Turkish and other Near Eastern dress. While the szlachta abandoned certain types of clothing for newer fashions, in Jewish society the styles endured for a much longer period. Hasidic communities still retain some of the older patterns. Women’s dress, in turn, absorbed the influences of urban patrician fashions and adopted fashions from Western Europe as well.
Polish legislation followed the West European practice of requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing. Though regulations were adopted in 1538—men were required to wear yellow hats or berets (excluding times when they were traveling); and women had to wear yellow headscarves—the rules had little effect. The next intervention by Polish authorities was included in the Lithuanian Statute of 1566 and was more in the nature of sumptuary legislation, banning Jews, both women and men, from wearing clothes made of expensive materials and decorated with jewels, chains, or appliqués of gold, silver, or precious stones. These laws, too, were most often honored in the breach. At the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792), by contrast, some representatives demanded that Jews adopt the styles commonly worn by non-Jews, but no new laws were passed.
Studio portrait of Leyzer Rosenfeld, wearing a kapote, a coat characteristically worn by traditional Jews, Brody, Austrian Empire (now in Ukraine), ca. 1890s. (YIVO)
Jewish communal bodies in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries often also adopted sumptuary legislation banning Jews from wearing Christian dress, from adorning clothing with jewels, or wearing outer garments made with expensive materials. The Council of Four Lands decreed in 1607 that “neither men nor women should wear gentile clothing,” and in this spirit, the Lithuanian Council, in 1637–1638, specifically prohibited velvet clothing, gold coins as adornments, gold or silver embroidery, headdresses with pearls or other precious stones, and “even rubies.” Jews were forbidden to wear more than two gold rings on weekdays, three on the Sabbath, and five on holidays. Similar legislation was adopted in most communities. The communal elders in Tykocin (Tiktin) in the early eighteenth century, for example, decreed that a groom’s kitl (robe) could not be embroidered at all except for some wide kroynen (crowns) along its edges, unless the union was with someone from a large and famous community. Gold chains and silk garments were forbidden, as was wearing pearls, to avoid arousing jealousy.
In a series of laws that began to be adopted in 1804 (but which were widely ignored), the Russian government attempted to compel Jews to abandon distinctive attire. The most comprehensive laws were enacted between 1844 and 1851, and though enforcement was not consistent, the traditional Jewish population perceived the legislation (inspired in part by the demands of maskilim) as a gzeyre—an evil decree. Consequently, the attachment to traditional attire became, for some, a symbol of resistance to modernization. By law, male Jews could choose German dress (short coats) or the dress of Russian merchants, which allowed for beards and a somewhat longer coat. Traditionalists condemned those who dressed in daytshmerish (German) style.
The traditional dress of Jewish men in Poland was unusual because it was black, a color rare in Polish attire. Women’s clothing was most often brown, and sometimes black. Holiday dress for men was often white, another mark of distinction from local gentile convention. From the nineteenth century, many Hasidim insisted on wearing silk, satin, or velvet robes on the Sabbath and holidays. Particularly before 1800, men’s outer clothing did not differ from that of their neighbors in style. What did distinguish it, though, was its use of darker, less expensive materials. Until the end of the eighteenth century, clothing often consisted of “Jewish paklak” (a type of low-cost coarse cloth, often fulled), inexpensive furs, and accessories such as pins, appliqués, and woven or leather belts.
Jewish dress was not standardized across Eastern Europe. The differences underscored the social and material status of Jews, showed regional variations, and, in the nineteenth century, could indicate associations with Hasidic groups. Individual rebbes imposed specific elements of clothing on their followers, sometimes dictating types of head coverings or shoe styles.
Jews wore clothes modeled on Polish styles that were long, flowing, and always fur-lined in winter. The oldest fancy garment was the mantl—worn in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Poland and elsewhere—which began as an ankle-length cape. The shoyb (szuba) was a winter garment that Polish Jews adopted from the szlachta. Worn as early as the sixteenth century, it became popular in the seventeenth, and was worn in later centuries by both men and women. It was a kind of coat thrown over the shoulders and lined with bear, wolf, fox, or sable fur, or sheepskin, and was covered with expensive material such as damask, satin, or silk. Over time, the length of the shoyb changed and its sleeves disappeared, transforming it into a pelerine. Another winter outer garment was the zhupitse (also known as yupitse, yupe, yipetse), which was a coat that was broad from the waist down, and for the wealthy was often sewn from materials such as satin, moiré, or silk. Secured at the top with decorative clasps, the zhupitse was adorned with metal or textile appliqués, and was held at the waist with a leather belt. This garment had been used as early as the seventeenth century, and its variations were seen as late as the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, particularly in western Poland.
Lithograph depicting the style of dress of different ethnic groups and professions in Poland, ca. 1880: (1) Jew on his way to synagogue; (2) peasant from Lublin; (3) driver; (4) & (5) Jewish woman and child; (6) poultry merchant; (7) & (8) woodcutters. (Picture Collection, The Branch Libraries, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Beginning in the 1500s, a tshumarke was worn over the zhupitse, especially on cold days. This was a long coat secured at the neck with a beaver or sable collar, decorated in front with numerous appliqué strips, and richly adorned on the bottom with trim. The Hungarian bekes (bekeshe), also worn in winter, was adopted from the szlachta by both Polish Jews and the bourgeoisie as early as the sixteenth century. This was a coat, usually fur-lined, whose upper part was fitted. It had a large collar and was secured by clasps, richly decorated with galloon sewn on at an angle, and most often lined with fur. Beginning as early as the sixteenth century, the kaftan was also adopted directly from the kontusz worn by the szlachta. This was a common garment whose design varied little, and was distinguished by large pockets, a colorful lining, and a broad woven belt. The kapote (also tuzlik), worn as early as the seventeenth century, was donned on special occasions. Later, particularly in the nineteenth century, the kapote became synonymous with the kaftan and the zhupitse. Its cut was distinctive—it was fitted at the waist, which meant that its lower part, reaching the ankles, was significantly broader. In addition, it had a wide, flat collar. More elaborate kapotes were often decorated with gold thread. Below the waist, the kapote had a slit in the back called a shlits, and was fastened with two rows of buttons or decorative clasps. The kapote was sometimes sewn from expensive materials, most often shiny, dark colors, and had a silk lining that was often blue or yellow.
In summer, the workday garment was the khalat or khlat. The usual khalatn were sewn out of cotton; fancier examples were made of velvet or silk. It was a long, close-fitting coat with a shawl collar and pockets on its sides. The kitl was a white robe for special occasions, consisting of a long robe usually made of linen and fastened with a thin, decorated belt. The kitl was often decorated with embroidery. On Yom Kippur and at the Passover Seder, married men would wear white kitls, with collars often trimmed with gold thread (Lev. 16:4).
An important element of men’s dress was the belt, the gartl, which was worn over outer garments. Fringed woven belts predominated, modeled on those worn by the Polish szlachta. Most often the belts were black, but ornate ones sometimes had a colored thread woven into them. Narrower belts fastened with decorative metal buckles were worn only on the most important holidays. For example, belts for Yom Kippur had metal buckles engraved with texts and images. A belt’s styling depended on the owner’s social status. It was said that the belt divided the spiritual side of the body from its earthly side. Trousers, in turn, usually were not wide, reaching to just below the knee. The bottoms were tied or sometimes had broad cuffs. They were made of various materials (cotton, silk, silk-satin, or wool) and came in different colors depending on their intended use. Trousers that reached down to the ankle became popular only in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Vests were commonly worn, and consisted of a garment without sleeves, fastened on two rows of buttons, which reached the hips, often with a small collar that stood up. Known as a brislak (or brisljak), this item was replaced in the nineteenth century by the kamiselke—a shorter, closer-fitting garment. Young boys, particularly on holidays, wore an item called a spentser—a kind of short jacket reaching just below the waist, with a turned-down collar, fastened with two rows of buttons. These were sewn from thicker materials for winter use and from cotton, fustian cloth, or silk in summer.
Tights were an important part of the wardrobe. Depending on the time of year, they were made either of wool or cotton, or, for special occasions, of silk. For daily use, men wore dark tights that were either black or dark brown. On holidays, tights were white.
Jewish men commonly wore leather shoes rather than boots. These were usually low with scarcely any heel; they either were slipped on or fastened with laces. In winter, sturdier and higher shoes were worn, often fur-lined. Tall boots were not generally worn, except for traveling.
The oldest head covering was a wide beret, common in medieval Poland and elsewhere. It continued to be worn in Poland as late as the sixteenth century. The most popular head covering was the yarmulke (kapele, skullcap). For centuries, its style survived unchanged—longest of all in Galicia. This cap was either round or had a small point on it, and was sewn from various kinds of materials in different colors. Especially festive yarmulkes were white, or made of shpanyer arbet, a kind of open lace made from cords wrapped with gold or silver flat wire or thread.
An unidentified man in a shtrayml, a hat worn by Hasidim on the Sabbath and holidays, Mosty Wielkie, Poland (now Velyki Mosty, Ukr.), 1928. (YIVO)
Ayzik Meyer Dik’s story “Reb Shmaye der gut-yontev biter” (Reb Shmaye the Holiday Well-Wisher), first published in 1860 (not long after the Russian decree on Jewish dress), cites five kinds of hats: the shtrayml; the keylekhdike (circular) hitl, a round fur hat; a smaller version of the keylekhdike hitl also known as a khabadnitse (lit., a “Chabad-thing”) because it was worn by Hasidim; kliyapove hitl; and rogovke. The shtrayml, which Dik characterizes as the “holy of holies” of hats, was modeled on the kolpak that had been worn by the szlachta as early as the seventeenth century. It was worn on the Sabbath and holidays and by a groom on his wedding day, and was typical particularly of Polish Jews. The shtrayml was a round, velvet cap of varying height, with a wide band of fur sewn around it—most often sable or fox. This band was made from 13 pieces of fur or fur-tails, giving it its fluffiness. Another common head covering was the spodik (or spodek), characteristic, for example, of Ger Hasidim—a tall, cylindrical fur hat, sometimes pointed. A band of expensive fur encircled the more elegant examples. Galician Jews during this period also wore a hat with a low top and a very broad brim, also common in Central Europe.
In the winter, common head coverings were the rogovke and kliyapove hitl. In Ukraine, the rogovke was also called oyer hitl. Dik explains that from the front, this item looked like a strayml and from the back, like a kliyapove. The kliyapove hitl, common mostly in Lithuania, had flaps lined with fur to protect the ears in the winter; in the summer the flaps were tied to the top of the head. The varnikel was a tall, triangular cap, decorated above the forehead with fur. On its sides, pieces of cloth were lined with fur to cover the ears.
In the nineteenth century, the kashket became popular, particularly in western Poland. A round cap with a visor, in various sizes and heights, the kashket was an everyday hat, commonly worn especially by working-class Jews and gentiles (the Jewish version often had a lower brim and was always black). This cap was first popularized by Hasidim, and then began to be made from better-quality materials and was worn on holidays. Kashkets were often shiny black with high, stiff crowns. In the nineteenth century, a hat known as a kapelush was adopted from gentile fashions, and became popular among the Jewish intelligentsia. It was made of felt, or in summer of straw, and had a broad brim.
Traditional women’s dress was affected by the halakhah’s stress on the principle of modesty. Married women were required to cover their hair, a rule that in some groups was transformed into a requirement that they shave their heads. Women also wore long-sleeved dresses and covered their legs. Sumptuary legislation often focused on women’s jewelry and attempted to limit ostentatious display. The frequently repeated edicts were not universally observed, however; moreover, they actually collided with the guidelines for dressing on festive occasions. Jewish women liked to wear jewels and owned many; women who were not as well-off wore imitations. Pearls were particularly fashionable: the nineteenth-century memoirist Yekhezkl Kotik observed that “even the poorest women wore strings of pearls.”
An unidentified woman wearing a sheytl (wig), Polotsk, Russia (now Polatsk, Bel.), ca. 1880. Photograph by P. P. Bruks. (YIVO)
Women’s dress fashions—like those of men—were shaped by the general society. A fundamental difference, however, was that women took ideas from urban trends and made use of colorful and expensive materials. Moreover, Jewish women’s dress was subject to frequent changes of style, parallel to patterns of non-Jews.
In winter particularly, women’s outer garments were analogous to men’s: they wore the yupe, and a garment slightly shorter than men’s, known as the zhupitse, shube, or tshamare. The women’s mantele, however, differed from the male version. This was a loose, fur-lined garment, similar to the pelerine. The pelerine, worn especially in the summer and autumn, became popular in the nineteenth century, as it did in society as a whole. Especially popular in Lithuania was a variation similar to a shawl, placed on the head and reaching to the ground. It was fastened in front with a decorative pin or brooch.
Skirts and blouses were the usual everyday attire for women, but were also worn on special occasions, and were no different from those worn by non-Jewish women. One exception was the vestl or vestl leybl, a kind of bodice popular in the eighteenth century. Worn on holidays, it was richly adorned with silver or gold embroidery. This bodice reached up to the neck and sometimes had a decorative lace collar. Its fastening was covered with a decorative band of material that attached at the neck and waist. This part of the garment, called a bristekh, brusttukh, zalishke, or zaleshke, was borrowed from the załóżka that had been worn in seventeenth-century Poland. Polish Jewish women commonly wore the brusttukh in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was made of silk, brocade, or velvet, and was sometimes decorated with gold thread using the shpanyer arbet technique, at times with an appliqué of lace decorated with pearls, precious stones, or gold lamé. Earlier brusttukhs were broader and richly decorated; later ones were narrow and less elaborate.
Another distinctive element of women’s dress was the apron, worn by both married and unmarried women for daily and holiday use. This item reached from the waist to the ground, and was often made of white batiste, decorated with colorful embroidery. Other aprons were made of colored silks. Its purpose was supposed to attest to the diligence and domesticity of the woman wearing it, but most importantly, as with men’s belts, it indicated the division of the body into its spiritual and earthly parts, and served as protection from the “evil powers” of women’s reproductive organs. This last role of the apron was so important that even when the garment went out of style in the mid-nineteenth century, women continued to wear them under their skirts.
Low-heeled leather shoes were the norm. Tights, as they were for men, were white for holidays, and black or brown for everyday use, made of wool, cotton, or silk.
Maintaining the distinctions between women’s and men’s clothing was considered important (Deut. 22:5). The only exception to this was on the holiday of Purim, when males taking part in masquerades would break the ban on mixing men’s and women’s dress and disregard the need to respect shatnes.
Head coverings were items that for centuries served to distinguish Jewish women. Girls and unmarried women wore their hair long, in two braids. On holidays, they adorned themselves by weaving a flower or garland into their hair. There was, however, one element of dress that a married woman would never part with, even at night, as we know from sources as early as the sixteenth century. This was the bonnet (kupke, kopke, haybl tshepik), worn on the back of the head close to the scalp.
Sarah Levenkind Natelson wearing a bonnet, Kaunas, ca. 1880. (YIVO)
The bonnet underwent many changes, and continued to be in style as late as the mid-nineteenth century. Mundane bonnets were made of inexpensive materials, but fancier ones were elaborately sewn from brocade or velvet and were decorated with pearls and gold or silver thread, often using the shpanyer arbet method. When a woman left the house, she would also put on a veil—a shleyer—which was a stiff piece of tulle, lace, or other material that adorned the forehead and was tied in the back. Wealthy women would put a slek on the veil—a construction made of precious stones or pearls. Poorer women, especially in Lithuania, would place a piece of stiff linen on their bonnets, tied in the back, with the ends of the veil draping onto their necks. Fatsheyle (or patsheyle) were worn in seventeenth-century Lithuania. These were pieces of colored cloth shaped af terkish (i.e., “in the Turkish way”) so that they formed a kind of turban, which sometimes had jewels adorning it on the forehead.
The dress described above, and variants thereof, was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It later faded from fashion but was revived in the nineteenth century. For everyday use, women would simply wear colored kerchiefs, either in solid colors or patterned, and made of linen, wool, or silk.
The front part of the head, which was not covered by the bonnet, was concealed with a band of material—known as the horband or harband—to which imitation hair was sewn. In time, this item increasingly resembled a hairstyle. In the mid-nineteenth century, a black cap was worn over a broader band with imitation hair. This was fastened in the back into a ponytail that copied one’s real hair, and sometimes was arranged around the head into a crown-shaped braid, adorned with imitation flowers, lace, or pearls. An older form that had already died out by the eighteenth century was the yamperke—a narrow band of material, often yellow or red, placed above the forehead and tied behind the head.
Bonnet, shterntikhl, and figurine wearing a shterntikhl, examples of head coverings worn by Jewish women in Galicia in the nineteenth century. (Gift of Adele von Mises. Jewish Museum Vienna)
The fanciest headdress of Polish Jewish women was the shterntikhl and its variation in Lithuania known as the binda. Worn only on special occasions, this was an expensive article, decorated with precious stones that emphasized the owner’s status. It was first used during the late eighteenth century and became popular in the nineteenth; some families possessed one (though it was no longer worn) until the interwar period. Yisroel Aksenfeld’s short novel Dos shterntikhl (1862) notes that “on Simḥat Torah, when wealthy women go to kiss the Torah, they wear shterntikhlekh.” The shterntikhl was composed of two bands with precious stones and pearls sewn onto them, encircling the head. Both bands were stiff and sewn above the forehead. The upper part was usually simple and formed a diadem, while the lower part, with a zigzag edge, encircled the face closely and reached beyond the ears. Long earrings accompanied this type of headdress. A more modest version was worn as late as the early twentieth century—a stiff diadem placed over the forehead. This was a band of material lavishly decorated with embroidery and pearls, which used ribbons to tie it in the back. [See images top right and above.]
Married women also wore another type of headdress—the sheytl or wig. Jewish women used the sheytl as early as the seventeenth century, but it became widely worn only in the 1800s despite the violent opposition of religious authorities (numerous rabbinical responsa were issued on the matter). Tsarist legislation on Jewish dress codes contributed to its rise in popularity; a decree banned Jewish women from using traditional headdresses, yet allowed them to wear wigs. In the lower classes, wigs made of thread were used, while those of wealthier women were made of natural hair, often modeled after the latest hairstyles.