All men wear clothes but what do everyday clothes mean? Do they reveal or conceal and what messages do they contain? This project looked at the relationship of Jewish men and their clothing in Vienna from 1890 until the Nazi occupation of Austria in March 1938.
The adoption of modern clothing—particularly the suit we largely recognise today—corresponded to the broad period of Jewish freedoms in Western and Central Europe. These new freedoms included the right to work in occupations previously barred to Jews and settle anywhere within Austria-Hungary. By donning these garments of urban bourgeois respectability, Jewish men expressed their desire and intention to participate openly in modern European society. Yet these Jewish subjects on one level could not win. By wearing fashionable European dress they were sometimes accused in turn of luxurious and cosmopolitan behaviour, resulting in new antisemitic stereotypes.
I work across surviving photographs and illustrations, written sources including literary fiction, contemporary print media, memoirs and oral history with survivors themselves. The project makes an important contribution to the field of fashion history and addresses the little-explored topic of how men make consumer decisions. It argues that, far from serving exclusively as a sign of the desire to assimilate, Viennese Jewish men engaged with fashion for multiple reasons, including joining in, blending, engaging with business, academic and literary communities, and refusing the stereotype of the old-fashioned, pre-modern ‘Jew’. Some wore socks and sandals, some wore eccentric colours and cravats, some waxed their moustaches and donned special wardrobes to trek in the countryside. The research uncovered a new, complex picture of how an often-marginalised community adapts to social and political change. But in the end, the suit was not enough to protect Jewish men in Vienna, thousands of whom were exiled or murdered by the Nazis.
The work featured at the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas Fashion Hub on 7 April 2019.
Kaplan, J.C. 2018, 'Looking and behaving: Sartorial politics and Jewish men in fin-de-siècle Vienna,' Critical Studies in Men's Fashion, vol. 5, no. 1+2, pp. 5–23.