Hasidic Chic, or Designer's Cheek?

British fashion designer John Galliano's choice of outfits – a black suit number, complete with sidelocks – raised a few eyebrows. But it wouldn't be the first time that ultra-Orthodox attire has inspired a designer.

John Galliano has done it again. Two years after his anti-Semitic remarks made him persona non grata on the Paris fashion scene, the 52-year-old British fashion designer has found himself in the eye of a storm and once again, at the center of it all is a Jewish theme. A run-of-the-mill paparazzi shot of him in New York showed him wearing a Hasidic-looking outfit – long black coat, dark pants to just below the knee, tall black hat and, most suspicious of all, locks of hair curling down from each temple.

The New York Post was quick to publish the photo on its front page, with the headline: “Shmuck! Jew-bash designer’s costume mocks faithful,” sparking a firestorm of public debate. Some saw the getup as a direct insult to Jewish people. Others, somewhat justifiably, said Galliano’s clothing had always tended toward the theatrical and his controversial appearance in this case was nothing unusual. One source called it “a Hasidic pirate” look.

Speaking to a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily, Galliano’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, defended the designer: “As you well know, John has worn big hats and long coats for many, many years. He indeed has long curly hair, and I can understand people misinterpreting his look at the show. But I can assure you there was no intent to dress in a Hasidic style, to present himself as an homage to the Hasidic community or to insult the Jewish culture. The last thing on John’s mind would be to do anything that would offend the Jewish community.”

To prove her point, Rosenberg noted that on that same day, her client had been wearing  a hat by Stephen Jones, slacks by Yohji Yamamoto, a Brooks Brothers shirt and a Dolce &  Gabbana vest. In other words, it was about fashion. Moreover, Rosenberg said Galliano has spent the last two years studying Judaism, working with leading figures in the Jewish community, reading the works of Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel and learning a great deal about the Holocaust.

Such a sweeping statement makes it tough to stay skeptical. But assuming that Galliano has indeed deepened his knowledge of the subject, it is not baseless to assume that something from the traditional Orthodox Jewish lifestyle has seeped into his consciousness.

It may at the same time be assumed that the designer did not willingly step into the controversy at this particular moment, just as he is making his first steps back into the fashion arena from the studio of Oscar de la Renta, his first position after being fired from Dior and from his own label.  Certainly not when he knows the media are following his every step, showing much the same degree of intolerance toward him as he showed in his anti-Semitic remarks in a Paris bar in February 2011.

How ironic it is. Exactly 20 years ago, for the 1993 fall-winter shows another designer crafted a collection inspired by ultra-Orthodox Jewish apparel: Jean Paul Gaultier. The show, which was presented to the strains of a violin playing “Jerusalem of Gold” and the Hebrew folksong “Erev Shel Shoshanim, “ opened with Israeli model Micky Mamon wearing a long black coat and a matching fur hat. The show developed toward a dark but at the same time amusing vision of religious elegance, with punk, surrealism, Goth, Grunge, Baroque and orientalism thrown in.

There was a kind of mini-subversive air to Gaultier’s creations, as he turned the big fur hats and sidelocks into erotic accessories. From the ultra-Orthodox prohibition against flaunting gender differences, the French giant crafted an ambiguous gender identity, the models plying the catwalk like mysterious hybrid creatures. One woman model for example, looked like a yeshiva boy, right down to the ritual fringes and carrying a rectangular bag shaped like a prayer book. Another petulantly pulled up the woolen stockings that were slipping down her thighs.

Gaultier’s inspiration for the show, he said in a conversation in 2010, had been his encounter with ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. At the time, there were obviously people who thought the show was in poor taste finding the humor he wove into the collection a slap in the face of the Jewish people. Following the show, Gaultier said his intention had been just the opposite. There are many Jews in the fashion industry and he had always found Jewish culture to be beautiful, he told an interviewer on the U.S. cable channel VH1.  He also said he had been mulling over the idea for quite some time, and had decided to implement it precisely because of the global wave of anti-Semitism and racism at the time.

However, there’s no denying that something of Hasidic aesthetics is now tempting in and of itself. Neither can we ignore that Galliano’s wardrobe choices are not unconnected to the restrained eccentricity of the contemporary fashion milieu. One of the most powerful forces in men’s fashion today is, for example, the draw of the traditional tailoring of the 19th century, including a top hat.

And after all, it has been two decades since Gaultier’s landmark show, which is what every style needs to get back into circulation. Maybe this is indeed the time to resurrect the Hasidic look.

Time will tell whether the look can catch on. (And let’s not forget the recent Israel Museum exhibit on Hasidic life “A World Apart Next Door” and Rama Burshtein’s film “Fill the Void.”) Meanwhile, it seems that the fashion columns have, for a change, been dealing with religious allusions in the wardrobe. The surprise retirement of Pope Benedict the XVI led to some fashion debate and moved some journalists to discuss the inexplicable papal propensity to red Prada shoes. Although this is not the first time fashion reporters have explored the matter, they were not able to come up with an explanation this time either.  Perhaps the pontiff likes them, or maybe they’re just comfortable. In any case, we can assume that he did not intend to make a far-reaching statement with them. Just like Galliano’s quasi-Jewish workaday outfit cannot be seen as an attempt to polish up a stained public image.

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