Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

On Becoming an American Woman

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

On Becoming an American Woman

Article excerpt

IF YOU ever forget who you are, you can always look in the mirror. If you don't recognize the face, you can at least draw a few inferences from what you're wearing.

You read more about what your clothes tell other people, but they tell you things, too. A Mennonite woman's head covering or a nun's habit signals the wearer's religious commitment to everyone who sees it - and also reminds the woman wearing it who she is and what she believes.

That double meaning leaps into focus when you consider how Ida Ellis' mother, newly arrived in America from Eastern Europe maybe a hundred years ago, must've felt when one of her Americanized cousins walked up to her and, without any warning, pulled off her wig. "Oh my God, what are you doing to me!" she wailed - to which the know-it-all cousin replied, "In America, you're not going to wear a wig."

To the American cousin, the frankly artificial coal-black wig marked her immigrant relative as a greenhorn, a foreigner, an embarrassment. But to its wearer, the "sheitel" symbolized her identity as a devout Jew and a married woman: It was simply not right - it was a sin - that anyone but her husband should see her real hair.

"Becoming American Women," an exhibition mounted at the Chicago Historical Society and now on view through March 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, focuses on the ways Jewish women who emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920 used fashion to turn themselves into Americans, to tell both themselves and other people who they were - or who they hoped to become.

Barbara Schreier, who put the show together and wrote the monograph that accompanies it, explains that looks turned out to be crucial to these women in several ways. Most of them came from small communities where everybody knew everybody else: This was the first time anybody would be judging them entirely by appearance.

Also, many of them were joining husbands who had immigrated years before and had "developed a very different idea of what a modern wife should look like."

It was no longer enough to look clean and respectable; in the consumer economy, one was expected to be fashionable as well. …

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