January 7, 2022 Williamsburg is stuck in the 1950s, Part 2
This is Part 2 of this series. You can read part 1 here.
Have you ever thought, “There’s something very 1950s about the Hasidic community?”
In the first part of this series, I explained that in some ways, this is true. The Williamsburg Hasidim retain a lot of influences from that era. I charted the context; it was after the war, when the Hasidim were resettling from Eastern Europe and recreating their world in New York. During this time, the newly resettled pious Jews had a lot more exposure to secular culture. This was not by choice. In fact, many of the refugees were intense zealots — it is because of their stubborn piety that Williamsburg today is the insular ecosystem that it is. Instead, they were exposed to the “modern world” because they did not yet have their own insular community. The shtetl would take about two decades to build, and in the meantime, lots of cultural borrowing occurred.
Then, as the Hasidic shtetl became more enclosed, less porous, fewer secular influences poured in. But a lot of the first cultural borrowings changed. Many are still visible today. And so we find an extraordinary situation, where modern Hasidim reflect archaic bits of American 1950s.
In this installment, I will give examples of how this shows up in women’s clothing. I invite the readers familiar with this world to share their own insights, corrections, experiences, and of course, other anachronisms. Come dig into childhood nostalgia with me!
Charting the fashions of the religious community is by definition a project of generalizations. Throughout the history of Orthodox Jewish women’s clothing, there was a tug-of-war between the influences of the fashions of the day and the need to resist fashions for the sake of modesty. So there was always a distinct religious dress, no matter the context. For this post, I’ve spent a great many hours looking at old pictures of the Orthodox women of Eastern Europe. Their clothing was not so very different from religious women’s clothing today. There are a lot of knee-length blouses and skirts, collared dresses, scarves with a bit of hair coming out in the front, hats pulled entirely over the head or tipped over the forehead, and the shoes often had straps. The look was less chic, with fewer shoulder pads, and more lively prints.
According to Yivo, the typical dress for the prewar European woman was as follows:
“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… 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… 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.”
Here was a rich, constantly changing tradition of women’s clothing. And for the post-holocaust religious Jews, it was pertinent to find ways to preserve these in America. And so, American department stores and fashions were adopted for the purpose.
In 1959 Harry Gersh reported for Commentary Magazine that no women’s garment shops were visible in Williamsburg, but “two or three men’s clothing stores appear to be prospering.” We can assume that specialized shops were much sooner available for men than for women, because unlike men’s specialized clothing, women wear general fashions adopted for modesty. Still, Gersh reported that the women looked like ordinary New York women at first glance, but on second look, he could see their headgears.
“A group of mothers watching their children in the playground back of Public School 16 include two with wigs, one wearing a decidedly modish hat, and two with headcoverings of the kerchief type common in any supermarket on a weekday morning. The pious, sparkling white shawl of the old Lower East Side is not seen in Williamsburg.”
Today, the shopping district in Hasidic Williamsburg is bustling with women’s clothing, headcoverings, shoes, jewelry, and more. But there are some ways in which the wardrobe was reshaped after the war into an American mid-century modest closet.
The mid-century women’s wardrobe:
Here is a very fun short video that introduces a 1950s wardrobe. This was a time of rather conservative clothing, but it was also influenced by the war, which had brought into fashion outfits that were more practical, sleek and had less fabric. This was a decade of hats, gloves, chic dresses and a generally very feminine look.
Here are some of its fashions that became part of the modest woman’s wardrobe:
1. The Pillbox-hat look
The most striking example was the married women’s headgear fashions. This was clearly an area where the women copied the style of the day. The simple pillbox hat over chin length hair was invented in the 1930s, but it is best known as the signature hat First Lady Jackie Kennedy wore. In 1963, on the day of her husband’s assassination, she wore a pink hat and matching dress suit. Today, many women in Williamsburg wear the pillbox hat over their chin-length wig. This headgear look is called the wig-and-hat, and it’s considered to be moderately conservative on the piety scale.
2. The turban
I’ve written before about the turban, the popular headgear that Hasidic women wear as part of their casual ensemble for the home. The turban was a popular article of women’s clothing from the 1920s to 1970s, but of course, trends changed over time. The artyologist has the full story of this vintage wardrobe staple:
“The 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s saw the popularity of the turbans continue, although the silhouette changed a bit. The 1950’s turbans were often smaller and “tidier” than the previous era, and were often preformed, like a hat. The turbans of the 1960’s were rounder, in keeping with the popular round pillbox shape of the era. The turbans of the 1970’s were headwraps rather than full tied turbans, and were often tied front to back, being bohemian in style, as were many of the fashions of the time.”
The Hasidic woman’s turban is worn over the shaved head, is pre-tied, and does not involve showing any real or fake hair in the front. It’s another article of clothing that is only for married women.
3. The duster
The duster is a house dress. Plus, it was once a light overcoat worn by men and women when riding open motor cars. From Wikipedia again: “Although an informal garment, the house dress, particularly during the 1950s, was intended to be stylish and feminine as well as serviceable.” The house dress is still called a duster in places around the world. For example, this blogger writes:
“Many older Filipino women wear what is called a ‘duster.’ Psst, in the states we call them ‘muumuus.’ Dusters are long, shapeless, extremely colorful and pattern driven dresses to be worn in the house.”
For Hasidic women, the duster is a huge part of the wardrobe. Yes, it’s the outfit worn at home but it is also sometimes extremely elegant, especially on weekends. The weekend duster can be as pretty as an evening gown. The everyday duster was very colorful in my childhood too, but over the years we’ve seen the colors be substantially subdued. The newer style of the two-piece duster is also another move away from the house dress; it’s pretty much a skirt version of sweats.
4. The skirt-suit
The sleek skirted women’s suits of the mid-century began with the war rationing, when outfits were made with more practicality, with pockets and formal collars. This loosened after the war, but it wasn’t until the great shift of the 60s that this style drifted out of fashion. The skirt suits and waisted dresses were also worn with a matching ensemble of color-coordinated headwear and shoes, and this too is still visible in the Hasidic community today.
5. Shoes outside, slippers at home
The shoes worn in Williamsburg are largely either flats, pumps, boots, and for the home, slippers. We don’t really see sandals or sneakers. The trend of wearing more formal clothing when leaving the home and then changing into comfortable slippers and housewear is still visible in Williamsburg today. It reminds me a bit of the introduction to the Mr. Rogers show, where he comes home and changes into comfortable wear, although here he puts on sneakers instead of slippers.
This fun catalog of 1950s women’s shoes also does not have any sandals or sneakers for women.
Apparently, women still wore “dresses and skirts during sports participation even up until the 1950s and 1960s.” Sneakers for adult women entered the general wardrobe first in sports and then for everyday use. In Williamsburg, there have been some loosenings, but the feet rushing by on Lee Avenue remain largely clothed in step-in shoes.
6. Mabies (and in a way pearls)
Mabies are very large pearls that my mother and aunts and teachers wore as earrings. We pronounced it mobbies. “Mabe pearls became better known in the 1950s as an affordable and fashionable way to wear large pearls, for the white South Sea cultured pearls that we have today were widely unavailable.” Today, the Mabies are mostly out of fashion and have been replaced by diamond earrings.
String pearls are one of the pieces of jewelry that clearly were already part of the pre-war Jewish woman’s wardrobe. In Eastern Europe, pearls were very fashionable on women. According to this Yivo article, “The nineteenth-century memoirist Yekhezkl Kotik observed that ‘even the poorest women wore strings of pearls.”’
Meanwhile in America, during the war and in the years after, pearls became especially popular. According to vintage dancer: “A single pearl stud earring and a single or double-strand pearl necklace was the required day wear for most outfits… Strand lengths were usually very short so they could be seen above a modest neckline, but could also be very long, such as the waist-length necklace trend in the mid-1950s. They looked especially smart with tailored suits, afternoon frocks, twin sweater sets, and cigarette pants.“
For religious women, pearls remained an important staple that signaled a woman’s status, almost like a diamond ring. Pearls were only for married women, and as part of the engagement gifting, a bride would always get a large string of pearls which would be wrapped around the neck several times. One of my strongest memories of my mother is of her little babies in her lap clasping her pearls. Pearls were as ever-present on married Hasidic women as on Lisa Simpson. Many of us considered it matronly, and we didn’t particularly love it.
In recent years families have stopped giving the pearl necklaces and have been giving diamond necklaces instead. The pearl is probably finally on its way out.
7. The dickie
A dickie is a “false shirt.” It’s a collar and piece of shirt front that can be tucked into an outfit to create the illusion of a shirt. For pious women, the dickie is a godsend, as it fills out the front of outfits that are too open and expose the collarbone. According to Wikipedia, the etymology can be attributed to Cockney rhyming slang where a “dicky dirt” is a shirt. The dickie used to be men’s clothing, but it made its way into women’s fashion in about 1943.
Ads in Vogue New York can be seen promoting dickeys in the February 1943 issue. Dickeys were said to “enliven your new suit or rejuvenate your old.”
The dickie was great for modest women, a kind of garment to “fix” any outfit that was not properly closed up. In more recent years, the dickie has been replaced by the shell, a stretchy top that is layered under a dress or shirt.
8. The girdle
The girdle was a less-restrictive variation on the corset and was a popular woman’s undergarment until it was replaced by pantyhose in the 1960s. For Hasidic women, however, the girdle lingered much longer because it was needed to hold up the thick women’s stockings. In the 1990s, modest pantyhose (called tights by Hasidim) were finally on the market, and the girdle stopped being a necessary part of a woman’s everyday dress. From there onward, the girdle became an optional shape-wear.
9. The slip
“In the 1940s through the 1960s, you could look in any woman’s underwear drawer and find one: a slip,” writes Maria Puente for USA Today. This replaced the corset, and it became a staple for religious wardrobe. I bought the slip pictured below on Lee Avenue the other day, and the lovely shopkeeper asked me how I knew about the slip. “Isn’t it a Jewish thing?” I’m sure these “Jewish things” are specially made for the local dry good stores.
10. The jabot
The jabot is one of those audacious styles that was bound to fade away. But this women’s accessory — a cross between a bow tie and a ruffle — lasted long enough for me to wear a jabot to one of my graduations. I had no idea how to spell it; it’s pronounced jabow, and it took me a while to find this garment.
Peggy from Mad Men pulls off the jabot really well, and indeed she could also pull off a Hasidic woman with that outfit. The bangs and flipped out hair are now very out of style, but it’s modest enough!
11. Bobby socks
Bobby socks were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a special look, where the sock came up just a few inches above the ankle — not quite a knee-high and also not a no-show. In the Hasidic community, bobby socks were the thick, comfortable socks that girls wore when getting out of bed. The bobby socks with the floor length nightgown would combine to pass the modesty test when there were men or guests over. This was especially popular in summer camps, where girls would traipse around the bunk in bobby socks and dusters over their nightgowns.
This is not a comprehensive list, but I hope it illustrates the story I am trying to tell. It is noteworthy that this list reflects an extreme selectiveness in what was allowed in. While a lot of new items were made okay, most of the fashions of the day were not. Secular women were wearing gowns and bathing suits, and a lot of additional things like gloves, were a staple of the look. The Hasidim clearly carefully curated the items they welcomed in, but it still was very substantial. The influence the period had can be plainly seen in the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In the next installment, I will go over some toys, foods, and words.
Note to readers: I’m looking for the story of the chut and the rife — two kinds of hair accessories that are popular in this ensemble. I’m having trouble finding the origin of these two words. Any leads welcome!