Who is Ralph Rueben Lifshitz? Maybe you know him better as Ralph Lauren, head of a multi-billion dollar empire that designs everything from sportswear to home furnishings to fragrances.

Lauren’s success served as inspiration for a flood of other Jewish designers in the United States after World War II, including Anne Klein, Diane von Furstenberg and Calvin Klein.

Since the late 1800s Jewish Americans have been involved in all aspects of clothing, including sweatshops, manufacturing, advertising, department stores—and design. By 1897, around 60 percent of the New York Jewish labor force was working in the apparel field, and 75 percent of employees in the industry were Jewish.[ 1 ]

But why the marriage between Jews and the garment industry? And how did the people of the Book get involved in fashion?

Unlike other religions in the Middle Ages, Judaism required its followers to be literate in order to read the Torah. This meant that Jews were uniquely qualified to work at higher-paying urban jobs.[ 2 ] By the seventh century, many Jews had left their farms and moved to cities to become craftsmen, artisans, merchants and moneylenders. In Europe, czars and emperors barred Jews from owning land, so our people had to work as tailors, peddlers or bankers. As they fled Europe in great numbers for the United States in the mid-and late-nineteenth century, the Jewish people and clothing entered into a serendipitous relationship.

The Perfect Match

Prior to the Civil War, Americans generally wore homemade clothes, sewn by hand. But when Isaac Singer and other inventors won patents for the sewing machine in the mid-1800s, mass production of clothes was on the horizon.

“To come to New York City [in particular, the Lower East Side of Manhattan] in the 1890s with a background in dressmaking or sewing or Schnittwaren Handlung [piece goods] was a stroke of extraordinary good fortune,” writes Malcolm Gladwell. “It was like showing up in Silicon Valley in 1986 with ten thousand hours of computer programming already under your belt.”[ 3 ]

The first Jewish fashion success story occurred years before. In 1870, a woman ordered a pair of work pants from Jacob (Youphes) Davis for her large-framed husband, who kept splitting the pockets and seams of his trousers. Using the 10-ounce duck twill he had purchased from Levi Strauss’s dry goods store in San Francisco and some copper rivets, Davis invented the 501 jean. He then partnered with Strauss to mass produce the quintessential American garment.

As schmatte chic designer Levi Okunov notes, “We were slaves, a bunch of peasants coming off boats, people were starving and trying to do general factory work . . . and then it became a little more glamorous.”[ 4 ]

In the twentieth century, notes journalist Alana Newhouse, Jews “used their knowledge of the garment industry to pole vault themselves into high fashion.”[ 5 ] A few Jewish designers became well-known in the 1930s, such as Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenberg), Hattie Carnegie (Henrietta Kanangeiser) and Sally Milgrim.

But after World War II, when there was a relaxation of the old dress code and a celebration of the good life, Jewish (and other) designers really took off.[ 6 ] In the post-war suburban affluence, styles shifted from the practical to the more luxurious, in part through Jewish designers such as Judith Leiber, Donna Karan, and Kenneth Cole.[ 7 ]

Today, there is fashion that is distinctively Jewish, especially among the Orthodox. Jessica Guggenheim, fashion editor of Hadar Magazine, notes that there is a trend toward modesty in dress: “I think modest dressing lends any woman an air of sophistication. I think modestly dressed women command more respect; they use their minds rather than sexuality to get things done.” She sees no contradiction in dressing modestly while maintaining a unique sense of fashion: “Honestly, I don’t think dressing modestly and unique is hard,” says Guggehheim. “Just be yourself and whatever you wear walk with your back straight and your head up.”[ 8 ]

As Arielle Rothbard (see “The High Holy Days of Fashion“) notes, “There are well-known fashion icons and bloggers who are Jewish and use their Jewish sense of humor to instruct others in the way of street style—modest or not. Leandra Medine (of Man Repeller fame) and Iris Apfel are among this select group.”

Susan Salzman (see “Meet the Highly Fashionable Rebbitzin“), who worked in the fashion industry for many years, feels that although fashion can have purpose, fashion for fashion’s sake is valid as well. “Fashion is beautiful,” she says. “It becomes vanity when the beauty becomes our emphasis.”

And hold that thought as you read our next article, “Do Clothes Make the Man or Woman?

[ 1 ] Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880–1920, The Jewish People in America series (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 74.
[ 2 ] Steven E. Landsburg, “Why Jews Don’t Farm,” Slate, June 13, 2003, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/everyday_economics/2003/06/why_jews_dont_farm.html
[ 3 ] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, The Story of Success (New York: Back Bay Books, 2011), p. 158.
[ 4 ] Ibid.
[ 5 ] Johanna Newman, “From Ghetto to Glamour: How American Jews Toppled Paris Couture and Redesigned the Fashion Industry,” http://www.momentmag.com/from-ghetto-to-glamour/
[ 6 ] Ibid.
[ 7 ] Neuman, op. cit.
[ 8 ] Hannah Drefyus, “This Fashion Week, Dress Modestly While Staying Stylish,” http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/162656/this-fashion-week-dress-modestly-while-staying-stylish