A Quest For Identity

A new exhibit traces how Jewish people both defied and defined American standards of beauty

September 18, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

An electric permanent wave machine.

A handmade Barbie doll dress that conforms to Orthodox Jewish standards of modesty.

A 1900 wedding dress made and worn by Bertha Rose Manko, who worked at the Schoen Russell Millinery Shop on Charles Street.

In the exhibition, Hello Gorgeous! Fashion, Beauty, and the Jewish-American Ideal, these objects and hundreds of others tell the story of how Jews in this country have both adapted to and defined standards of beauty.

Opening today at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Hello Gorgeous! draws upon previous exhibits highlighting Baltimore's once-thriving garment trade and Jewish-owned department stores to address one piece of an underlying question: How did the arrival of millions of Jewish immigrants affect American life?

That persistent question, an opening in the museum's exhibit schedule, and curator Melissa Martens' desire to display items from the museum's trove of garments and accessories, prompted the show, she says. A famous cinematic phrase inspired the title.

During a scene in the 1968 film Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand, portraying singer-actress Fanny Brice, peers in the mirror at her lovely, off-kilter countenance and declares, "Hello Gorgeous!"

Streisand's greeting was a succinct rebuff of conventional notions of comeliness that viewed large noses and other supposedly Semitic features as physical flaws indicative of more profound human flaws.

As waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Germany entered America in the 19th and 20th centuries, not everyone responded to those assumptions as defiantly as Streisand's Brice. Hello Gorgeous! chronicles the identity crisis Jews experienced as they set foot in a new country where everything, from religion, dress and traditions to noses, hair and feet, was scrutinized and often found wanting by cultural norms.

Dressed to blend

When Jews arrived in the new world, they already bore the brunt of "entrenched prejudices" about their physical features, which had helped to fuel the pogroms of Eastern Europe from which they were fleeing. By turning to "goods and services for altering the body," such as cosmetics, hair products and plastic surgery, Jews sought to undermine the stereotypes that hobbled them, according to exhibition notes.

Many newcomers transformed themselves through dress. "Clothing is likely the easiest way to change one's identity," Martens says. Some Jews stuck to garb brought from home, while others sought an entirely new identity as a way to get established and to subvert anti-Semitic suppositions. "Some mixed and matched," Martens says.

In this way, the United States became a "mega dressing room," where men, women and children tried on new identities along with garments, hats, hairstyles and beauty products, Martens says. "Clothes are one of the most interesting props in the drama of our lives."

The multitude of makeovers were not a frivolous endeavor, as the exhibition observes: "Eager to fit in, many Jewish immigrants embraced American styles enthusiastically, hoping to upgrade their status. Some sampled fashions with vigor, fueling commentary in the Yiddish press about the dangers of overdressing. Others held onto traditional looks and distinctive dress, reinforcing ties to the old world."

Changing the body

The mass transformation did not occur entirely as a result of prejudice. Jews often arrived in the United States with a sense of self awareness that had emerged with the Enlightenment, says Sander L. Gilman, an Emory University historian who studies the cultural significance of plastic surgery.

"At a certain point in world history, people said, 'We can have control of our lives, we can buy a new suit, go to university. I can change my body,'" says Gilman, who will speak at the Jewish Museum in October.

"The 'Diaspora experiences' of Jews and others heightened the perceived need to change in order to fit in, he says. "When you get a radical shift, and you're coming from one standard of acceptability of appearance into other standards, [where] the guys who run the show determine what's beautiful," the "standards of beauty within the culture itself," are revised, Gilman says.

Without grappling at length with issues surrounding assimilation, the exhibit displays some of those goods that allowed Jews to disguise their "Jewishness," including straightening irons and Clairol blond hair dye. The popular slogan, "Blondes have more fun," was coined by Shirley Polykoff, a Jewish woman, Martens notes.

A Barbie doll invented by Ruth Handler; a bra and panties set manufactured by Maidenform, a company established by Ida Rosenthal; and a dress from Lane Bryant, a company founded by Lena Himmelstein, illustrate the contributions of female Jewish "entrepreneurs who shaped conceptions of American beauty," Martens says.

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