Only Skin-deep

Naftaly Gliksberg, director of a new TV series on the history of local fashion, admits he was frustrated in his search for designers doing groundbreaking work, and commentators who could speak on the subject with authority.

"I'm doing all right," Naftaly Gliksberg says during a meeting at his Tel Aviv office. "It's very liberating to finish an enterprise like this. When I began working on it I didn't realize that I was entering completely virgin territory, and that there was no orderly doctrine or written text for me to use as a basis."

"Dictates of Fashion" - a five-part television series about the history of Israeli dress codes, which Gliksberg created in conjunction with the documentary division of Channel 1 - premiered two weeks ago. The first episode (the remaining parts can be seen on Thursdays at 9:30 P.M. ) was titled "Pioneers in Fashion." It focused on the identity issue that preoccupied immigrants to Palestine at the turn of the 20th century, and on the ways in which that identity was expressed in the clothes they wore.

Naftaly Gliksberg (Yuval Tebol)
Yuval Tebol

The series traces transformations in the hallmarks of local fashion, from the first immigration waves to today, and attempts to reflect through these changes historical, political, economic, cultural, and ideological processes that shaped Israeli society. It makes use of the shifting Israeli wardrobe to represent the dialogue between the figures of the "old Jew" and the "new Jew"; between Tel Aviv and the periphery; and between the individual and the collective - and in the process presents the main heroes, moving forces and victims of our fashion world.

Gliksberg began developing the idea for the series back in 2003. "Ideas aren't born in a day," he says. "My television work focuses on the study of Israeli culture in its various layers. And as someone who has worn different wardrobes over the course of his life, I realized at an early stage in life that clothes define me to a great extent. Jeans, for example, were considered an abomination in the ultra-Orthodox society in which I was raised. I remember the suit that I wore at the yeshiva and the meticulous examination that my friends and I subjected it to, in order to figure out where it was purchased and what it represented. We did the same thing with the hats that we wore. Paradoxically, in Haredi society, the clothes that a person wears bear tremendous significance."

This experience was joined by the powerful impression that A.B. Yehoshua's "A Journey To The End of The Millennium" made on Gliksberg: "The book talks about a Sephardi-Jewish textile merchant, and it captivated me because of the link between the world of halakha [Jewish law] I come from and the world of tradition, which fascinates me. It enabled me to understand the power that textile holds in the Jewish world." He reflects for a moment, and then adds in a decisive tone: "I'll explain it in another way: I didn't make the series because I'm crazy about Dolce & Gabbana or I keep tabs on what's happening at the Paris fashion shows. It really didn't come from there."

Gliksberg emphasizes that the show is not meant for hard-core fashion aficionados, but rather "people for whom fashion is part of their daily routine, but have never held a single in-depth conversation about the outfit they have on."

The series sheds light on important milestones, such as Ruth Dayan and Pini Leitersdorf's enterprise, Maskit, one of the most successful and original chapters in the evolution of fashion in Israel (which incorporated designs and motifs reflecting the nascent country's immigrant populations), and provides new and surprising revelations, for example about the work of Hemda Ben-Yehuda, the wife of the man who resurrected the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Hemda Ben-Yehuda was Israel's first fashion critic. Her columns appeared in the newspaper Hashkafa under the pen name Shoshana Levana. The Hebrew word for fashion, "ofna," is a linguistic innovation of hers. An excerpt from Ben-Yehuda's first column, which appears in the opening episode of the new TV series, begins: "Fashion. For the first time in its life fashion will enter the gates of the Hebrew press. It is with fear and genuine anxiety that I write these lines. Who will not mock? Who will not laugh at me? Who will not judge me harshly? And who knows whether I shall not be banned as well?"

The series contains rare archival footage. "Some of the materials were borrowed from private archives and some from the Channel 1 archives," Gliksberg says. "We collected them from every place possible, and looked under every stone."

One of items found by him and his team is the documentary film "Sipurei Badim" ("Material Tales"), made by the late director Amos Gutman in the 1970s - one of few films to document the Israeli fashion scene. The movie aired once on Channel 1, in 1978, and then was shelved. "The film wasn't cataloged under 'Fashion,' but someone at the archives suddenly recollected it."

Absence of locals

Although "Dictates of Fashion" is about local customs, one can't help but be struck by the absence of Israeli designers in the series, apart from references to a few successful brands and personalities that assumed legendary status over the years, among these Ata, Maskit and Lola Beer.

"It's not by accident," explains Gliksberg. "It's not that there aren't any Israeli fashion designers who make beautiful or good clothes, but I don't think that in the Israeli fashion experience, in terms of the work of local designers, there is a lot to discuss. And it pains me to say this. There are wonderful people who design fashion in Israel, but I don't think there is haute couture or anything that goes beyond the functional and the immediate."

Gliksberg says that the representation of these designers' work in the series boils down to the clothes that are worn by the presenter, actress Keren Mor: "Throughout the series, Keren wears only clothes by Israeli designers, out of respect for local fashion. In certain segments, it's contemporary fashion that corresponds with trends from the past, and sometimes it's a conscious correspondence with contemporary fashion. And no, this honestly did not stem from a technical necessity. The series underwent so many upheavals. And if a sixth episode had been made as per the original plan, there certainly would have been room to devote it to the work of Israeli designers. But that would not have been a terribly complex or riveting journey to make."

Gliksberg explains that he visited the ateliers and boutiques of numerous local fashion designers, veterans and newcomers alike, but at the end of the day, he wasn't satisfied with the level of discourse.

"We had lengthy discussions about whether it would be possible to expand the story of these designers, and ultimately we felt that there was not a lot of depth to it," he says. "When you're trying to make a kind of statement with a series like this, the moment you go down to the resolution of the individual designer you run into a problem. He may be a charming person with inspiration and a vision, but the best way to understand him is simply to see the clothes that he designs. If you try to break it down you frequently end up empty-handed."

The breadth of the discourse on local fashion had disappointed Gliksberg even at an earlier stage: "When I began work on the series I naturally approached academics, and there I discovered a big black hole wherever the study of Israeli fashion is concerned. We were overjoyed and excited to find that Shenkar [College of Engineering and Design] has a clothing-related archive - but there, too, we were disappointed to discover just how small is the number of articles ever written about Israeli fashion.

"I have never encountered such difficulty in locating people who would say sensible things about a given subject matter. In this regard as well we were wandering in the desert. I can honestly say that interviewing a fashion writer for the series was not my first choice, but I didn't have anyone else. I have great respect for journalists and their work, but when I make a TV series, I look for people with a broader viewpoint - academics, say.

"In the culture I was raised in there's a saying from the sages: 'Any learned student who is found to have a stain on his clothes must be put to death ...' The statement is very clear: How you dress is who you are. And if you are a learned student then you represent something larger than yourself; you represent the world that you come from. And if you scorn it by leaving the house with a stain on your clothes, then you should be killed. In Israeli culture there is an absolute erasure of the way we look. Why? Apparently because we are 'enlisted' in the service of a cause, and so it really makes no difference how we look. I think that we are a militaristic and enlisted society that does not make the time to deal with essential matters.

"It was very frustrating to discover that, even among local designers, the discourse surrounding fashion is very virginal, and there isn't any real culture of debate. Instead, there are cliches. When you ask somebody about the source of his inspiration, he cites four names. And if you try to expand this into a more profound discussion, then there's nothing there. And I feel sorry for them, because in the institutions where they got their education and professional training, they weren't taught culture. They're taught to be manufacturers of clothing that people will buy in a store."

In that case, why isn't this expressed in the series?

Gliksberg: "I had a really big problem as creator. When you're corresponding with something that exists, you can begin to pick it apart, critique it, contradict your predecessors, or shine a new light on things. But when you set out to create an orderly narrative for the first time, you don't have anything to dismantle. First you've got to build. Don't forget that we are talking about a series with a mere five episodes. I had just finished laying the groundwork for the frame story - and, snap, the series was over.

"Besides, I was excited to be telling a story that had never been told before. And when you're excited to be telling something for the first time you're incapable of raising the discussion to the level of critique. Is it a pity? Perhaps. But if I hadn't made this series, you wouldn't have been able to ask me why I wasn't more critical. I really hope it will create an opening for a new discourse, legitimate and cultured, about Israeli fashion, about its originality, about its focal points of inspiration, about the manner in which it's influenced by senior politicians or by the climate. Right now I feel like I scratched the beginning of the beginning of this discourse."

Exploiting minorities

One of the series' main weaknesses is the lack of a distinct critical tone aimed at the establishment or the other parties that were responsible for shaping local clothing mores over the years. Even the personal stories of the poet Roni Somek and the fashion scholar Ayala Raz (author of the book "Halifot Ha'itim," a history of Israeli fashion, and the chief consultant for the series ) about clashing with the stringent dress codes of sabra fashion, which sought to establish a uniform look in the shadow of the Zionist movement's ideas in the state's early days - Raz, for example, was ousted in shame from the Israel Scouts because her flats violated the accepted sandal standard at the time - fail to undermine the sympathetic statesmanlike tone of the series.

It might be the inherent sarcasm in Mor's speaking manner as the likable host of the show, or the numerous puns and humorous tidbits that were woven into her voiceover that gives the series its subtle critical tone. Against a backdrop of photographs of the lovely Maskit patterns and saccharine music, even Gliksberg's decision to include Ruth Dayan's words in full - including statements that were meant to cause viewers to squirm in discomfort such as describing a piece of clothing as "a rag from some village of cave dwellers from Tripoli" - sound more like editing mistakes and less like an attempt to be critical.

Gliksberg: "I bring things to the screen and they speak for themselves. I don't write propaganda. I think, for example, that the third episode, 'Uniforms in Fashion,' which deals with the obvious subject of uniforms and the rise of miniskirts, displays a chauvinist and militaristic society that worships military uniforms and turns women into objects - or, conversely, an occupier society that still doesn't know that it is one, but the fashion of the period reveals this. In that episode you realize how occupation seeps into you even before you've said good morning. And when you understand that colonialism finds expression in adopting the dress styles of the occupied people - that in adopting the galabiya there is an exploitation of minorities - it makes no difference what your personal opinion is and where it's located on the political map. This realization blows you out of your seat."

The first three episodes in the series hold keys to a better understanding of what's going on today in the clothing arena, but nothing is done with this in the final two segments.

"The political narrative is a narrative that nobody had ever written," Gliksberg notes. "Because of this I took my time with it in four episodes. And when I began to touch on the present, at the start of the present millennium, I realized that I would need two more hours of work to understand what's going on in the 2000s. It frustrated me. I didn't feel like I was managing to stick the knife into extreme processes that are occurring now. The more you go forward in the history of Israeli society, the more complex the braid becomes - woven out of more strands. In order to tell what's been happening in the past decade you need a series with a different pace and a different television language, one closer to the language of MTV."

The part dedicated to contemporary fashion in Tel Aviv is minuscule (one of the interviewees here is Lisa Peretz, editor Haaretz's Gallery section ). It comes in the second half of the fifth episode, whose first half focuses on contemporary fashions in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. The disproportionate amount of time and space these latter two groups occupy as compared to the Tel Avivian fashion experience (the only contemporary designer who speaks to Gliksberg's camera is an Arab designer active in Haifa) seems like an attempt at affirmative action.

"There are many directions through which fashion can be attacked," Gliksberg says, "through body image, through the advertising industry, the growing interest in fashion over the past decade, etc. When you're making a television series you have to choose a single driving lane, and in that lane you're not going to see all the landscapes along the way. You'll see a particular landscape. I admit that I took the highway, a narrative that I considered to be central. Maybe you identify my narrative with the national narrative, there's nothing I can do about that, but in my eyes this is a series that is critical, subversive and biting in small doses and at a low level of intensity.

"It is accompanied throughout by social-political criticism, whether in the third episode, which deals with the Six-Day War, or the fourth episode, which discusses, among other things, the Mizrahi man. In the final episode, which deals with the present, one of the things that particularly moved me was the Arab story, when I'm sitting across from an intelligent and eloquent Arab girl who understands fashion and tells me that for the Israeli market she doesn't even count [as a consumer]. I was surprised by that. It pained me to hear that the commercial companies discount her. You suddenly get that there's a rejection here of the 'other' that is ingrained in our DNA as a people. If commercial companies aren't going after a market segment that is thirsty for fashion, then maybe the meaning of this is that they no longer exist for us as a public."

Gliksberg says that the series underwent quite a few changes on the conceptual level in the course of production, but admits it only scratches the surface.

"You know what? I have no problem with them saying that the series is lacking," he sums up. "I myself don't feel that the series is complete. I feel that it's the beginning of a discussion, and there's a lot more to do. I would very much like for this series to initiate a conversation. I don't mind if they say that it's a catastrophe and that it mishandled this topic, or completely ignored that aspect. At least now there is something to discuss."