100 Years of Jewish Fashion Design


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A spread from the Burton catalog “The Tailoring of Taste,” from 1939.

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Burton Family Archives

LONDON — In 1900, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant named Meshe David Osinsky arrived in Britain alone at the age of 19. He set up a clothes-peddling business, adopted the name Montague Burton and then opened a tailoring store in Chesterfield, a northern industrial town.

By 1939, Burton had 595 retailers across the country offering made-to-measure suits for men. By the time World War II broke out, the company made a quarter of all British military uniforms and a third of demobilization suits (issued to soldiers returning home), making it the affordable brand it remains today.

Just in time for the men’s wear season, his story is one of dozens finally being told in “Moses, Mods and Mr. Fish,” a small but powerful exhibition on display through June 19 at the Jewish Museum London, in the borough of Camden Town, which aims to document the role of Jewish designers in shaping the male wardrobe over the last century, including Moss Bros. and Marks & Spencer.

While the show is rich in photographs, video footage and advertising campaigns, examples of the suits themselves are relatively few.

“The differing attitudes of the sexes toward clothing goes a long way in explaining why we have so many well-preserved pieces of historical women’s wear and so little that was worn by men,” said Miriam Phelan, an assistant curator.

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Burton’s facade in East Ham, England, from the 1930s.

Credit
Burton Family Archives

“Women have tended to acquire more and save items for different occasions,” she said. “But men, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, would only own one or two suits, and wear them near daily for much of their lives until they were utterly worn out. Many of these items are from the private collections of individuals, and sourced with a fair amount of luck.”

The starting point of the exhibition is a series of 100-year-old black-and-white photographs and catalogs, depicting the off-the-rack tailoring shops and one-room factories that at one point occupied every street corner of London’s East End.

Entrepreneurial Jewish immigrant tailors like Burton, who flooded into the country in the tens of thousands from Eastern Europe and Russia over the course of the 19th century, quickly became instrumental in the development of the ready-to-wear industry after they found that their fabric-focused skill sets — often a result of workforce discrimination in their home countries — were suddenly in demand.

With 60 percent of all Jewish men working in Britain tailoring by 1901, a web of Jewish firms, many interconnected via family ties, established themselves as the dominant force in the growth of a mass-manufacture made-to-measure clothing market for the middle and working classes.

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Back row, from left, Susannah York, Peter S. Cook, Tom Courtenay, Twiggy; center row, from left, Joe Orton, Michael Fish; front row, from left, Miranda Chiu, Lucy Fleming, in 1967.

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Lichfield/Getty Images

As a result of these advances, fashion became more accessible to all, and men’s-wear trends became less formal and indicative of social background during the years between the wars. The lounge suit became suitable for virtually every occasion, for example, and the popularity of sportswear soared.

In the postwar years, a new generation of consumers rejected the dress codes of their fathers, opting instead to embrace the latest looks sported by celebrity idols.

One retailer, Cecil Gee, injected a touch of Hollywood glamour into the British mainstream by pioneering the short, lightweight, single-breasted Italian look that later came to define the archetypal Mod suit and was embraced by youthquake pop and rock stars like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. On view at the exhibition, for example, is a suede jacket designed by Gee and worn by John Lennon on tour in 1964.

The most dazzling pieces in the show come at its climax, with the explosion of color — a yellow woven silk Nehru jacket, for example, or turquoise trousers — and flamboyant dandyism that emerged out of London in the late ‘60s.

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A woven suit with black synthetic crepe shirt, designed by Michael Fish, from 1970.

Michael Fish, the extrovert pioneer of the so-called kipper tie and an inner-circle confidant of the biggest celebrities of the day (and the Mr. Fish in the exhibition’s title), was the most outrageous and provocative of the lot, with an unabashed more-is-more aesthetic.

He fused luxury bespoke tailoring and hippie florals and silks, and his clashing palettes, metallics and Lurex became wardrobe staples for male as well as female clients. Mick Jagger wore one of his mini-dresses at a 1969 concert in Hyde Park.

Traditional retailers reacted to this style revolution with chutzpah, opening in-store shop-in-shops geared toward the increasingly powerful youth market, in the earliest examples of “fast fashion.”

The response to the show “has been incredibly positive,” Ms. Phelan said, “at a time where people are thinking about men’s wear in a very different way: with less formula and more experimentalism.”

By highlighting the colorful (and not always recognized) individuals who have contributed to the British fashion scene in the past, she said, “the changes we are seeing in the present on the catwalk and in the streets are put in far greater context.”

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