How Israeli Men Came to Hate Suits, and Why That's Not About to Change

Despite repeated efforts to instill Western ways in Israel, the country never really embraced a dress code and has stubbornly remained a land of flip-flops and shorts.

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Tel Aviv, December 2016 (Subjects in this photo are not featured in the article).
Tel Aviv, December 2016 (Subjects in this photo are not featured in the article).Credit: Moti Milrod

Trendy cafés, posh restaurants and high-style start-up company offices line Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. On one corner of the thoroughfare is architect Richard Meier’s magnificent white tower, and not far away are Facebook Israel’s offices and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. But the chances of seeing men in suits in this upscale neighborhood are almost as slim as the probability of seeing snow fall in the center of Tel Aviv.

This urban landscape is, for the most part, full of men in jeans or casual pants and sweatshirts. “The only time in my life that I wore a suit was when I got married,” admits Yaniv Peretz, a 35-year-old high-tech employee from Tel Aviv. He says he has no reason to own more formal attire since the dress code where he works in “very relaxed,” as he puts it, and unlike other colleagues, he doesn’t attend many overseas conferences and meetings.

As people who generally shun the formality reflected in suits and ties, Israeli men seem to be in step with the increasing global trend bidding farewell to business attire. Despite repeated efforts to instill Western ways in Israel, the country never really embraced a dress code and has stubbornly remained a land of flip-flops and shorts.

“The people from the First Aliyah [wave of immigration] to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th brought their clothes from Europe with them to villages such as Rishon Letzion and Zichron Yaakov,” explains Ayala Raz, a fashion historian and the author of the book “Halifot Ha’itim,” (“Suits of the Times”), who researched local customs of dress from the beginning of First Aliyah, in 1882, to the present. Raz found that there have in fact been frequent shifts in the dress habits of men here.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy meets with Israeli Premier David Ben-Gurion at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City on May 30, 1961. Credit: AP

The immigrants, she said, felt a tension between a desire to hold onto the dress code that they had known before coming here and a desire to embrace a new ideology of simplicity and modesty. Ultimately they compromised. “They continued to come to large gatherings in more formal wear. At least in the first round, suits won out,” she says.

But by the early 20th century, during the Second Aliyah, the picture had already changed. “This was an ideological wave of immigrants made up of young people,” she explains. “Their ideology was to rebel against the old, weak, Diaspora Jew in an effort to create a new Jew. The suit was something repulsive in their view, the worst thing imaginable. They wouldn’t bring one home and certainly would never wear one. Even in the case of leading figures such as Yitzhak Ben-Zvi [who later became Israel’s second president] and David Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister], who had to wear a suit, you could see from their body language in pictures how uncomfortable they felt. It goes without saying that a tie was out of the question, a symbol of bourgeois degeneracy.”

In the following years, there were a number of changes that shifted between the two extremes. For the immigrants of the Third Aliyah, which began in 1919, Raz says the attitude was “the more you were dressed in rags the more stylish you were.” But by contrast, the Fourth Aliyah, from 1924 to 1928, was composed largely of bourgeois Jews who wore suits even for a walk on the beach. This created a split between the cities and the countryside, which became even more pronounced with the subsequent wave of so-called yekkes from Germany, but the differences became less prominent with the arrival of youth movement members in the cities and the influences that they brought with them from the kibbutzim.

Shimon Peres (Left) with David Ben-Gurion in kibbutz Sde Boker, 1969.Credit: GPO

In general, the appearance of the Israeli male as we now know it began to take shape in the 1940s. “In those years, when the Israeli macho male was also born, there were still men in suits, but they were from the old generation,” Raz explains. “The [native born] sabras and those who wanted to look like them wouldn’t touch a suit. The macho male is an unsentimental figure, someone who is not sensitive, who is revolted by trappings of culture and etiquette and who doesn’t make himself look good, and that goes for his dress too.”

Suits came into their own again in the 1950s thanks to the immigration of Jewish men from the Middle East, most of whom dressed formally and retained the practice for many years, but they were never part of the mainstream in that regard. Two decades later, however, suits returned through the back door for a brief and shining moment, mostly in crazy, colorful reiterations. But the suit disappeared again in the 1980s, until Giorgio Armani’s innovation of more comfortable suits, which even reached these shores. Ultimately, however, the 1940s model reasserted itself in Israel.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck with the macho man for a little too long,” Raz laments. “The model that took hold here didn’t wear a suit.”

High-tech workers don’t need suits

But not all Israeli men are forgoing suits. Anat Bitman, the chief designer at Israeli suit brand Bagir, says that it is Mediterranean-style Israeli singing stars, most of whom prefer suits and luxury brand suits at that, who have managed to infiltrate the wardrobes of some Israeli men. They have led, Bitman claims, to a change in awareness among the younger generation of their fans. Another group that has embraced suits to a greater extent is graduating high school students, a large number of whom wear suits to their proms, another decidedly un-Israeli phenomenon that has infiltrated these parts.

While Bitman expresses optimism when it comes to the younger generation, the design director at Polgat and the Golf retailing group, Victoria Kes-Finkelstein, insists that most Israeli men are not about to embrace the suit. “I’m sensing that there’s stability of sorts,” she said. “We’re a high-tech country and high-tech people don’t wear tailored clothes. On the contrary. In the suit niche, there are rather regular users, business people, for example, in contrast with bridegrooms, who are one-time users, but even ‘heavy users’ buy [only] about two suits a year. We apparently have some kind of dissonance between the suit that conveys something distant and the camaraderie in Israel,” she explains.

Against this backdrop, however, several Israeli entrepreneurs recently decided to establish a new suit brand called Bamoss Square. “Israelis are starting to connect with European fashion,” claims Bamoss Square designer Tal Stern, who used to work in the men’s division of Christian Dior. “The trend is also visible on the Tel Aviv street. People are starting to wear suits and blazers as fashion items to go out in the evening and to events, and not just to weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

Tamara Yovel Jones, who heads the silversmith and fashion department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, says this is not the time and certainly not the place to try to change clothing habits that have been instilled in Israelis over many years. She notes that in its annual advice to foreign diplomats in Israel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry tell them they are free to attend meetings and events in casual attire, as is customary in the summer in Israel.

Israeli men’s fashion habits are well-entrenched, says Yovel Jones. “If someone needs a suit, he wears it, and most don’t. In light of the weather here, I think that’s very proper.” Asked whether she thinks that’s likely to change, she is emphatic. “Absolutely not.”

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