Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style; Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style by Bethan Bide & Lucie Whitmore - review by Sharman Kadish

Sharman Kadish

Winkle-pickers & Bum Freezers

Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style

Museum of London Docklands, until 14 April

Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style


Museum of London/PWP 192pp £20

The involvement of Jews in shmattes, or the ‘rag trade’, in London’s East End is well known. It’s familiar territory indeed for this reviewer, whose ancestors came from the East End and, before then, fun d’r’eim, ‘from the “Old Country”’, in eastern Europe. Great-Uncle Feivish (anglicised to Philip) was the first of my mother’s family off the boat in 1905. He set up a tailoring workshop at the back of his rented house at 15 Pelham Street, London, E1. He roped in his younger brother, Moshe (Morris), who married the company’s secretary, London-born Yehudis (Julie). By about 1913, he was in a position to bring over his parents and two unmarried younger sisters, including my grandmother, from Makariv, west of Kyiv. The women were employed in the business as skilled machinists, specialising in making hems and buttonholes. During the First World War, Feivish, designated a ‘friendly alien’, manufactured gents’ trousers and riding breeches for the British Army and did rather well. However, he never got the chance to move on from the East End. Like so many working in the damp conditions endured by tailors, he contracted pneumonia and died at the age of forty-two. It’s a pity I didn’t know about this exhibition when it was in the planning. I could have donated photographs, documents, tools and textiles from our family archive.

The Museum of London’s second site, a converted wharf building in the regenerated Docklands on the River Thames, is an appropriate venue for this exhibition. This is because the Port of London was the point of arrival for the majority of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms, persecution and economic hardship in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The more than a hundred thousand ‘Russian’ Jews who arrived in the East End of London from the Pale of Settlement were part of the same mass migration that took over two million Jews to the United States after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. The exhibition traces some common connections between Jews in the rag trade and more recent arrivals from, for example, Cyprus, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Some immigrants from these places certainly found an entry into the business via Jewish firms, but one can’t help feeling that trying to bring the story up to date like this has much to do with current media preoccupations with immigration. The constant references to ‘British Made’ also sound anachronistic. Down to the 1980s, most of those involved in the rag trade would have labelled their garments ‘Made in England’ or ‘Empire Made’.

One half of the exhibition is devoted to the garment trades in the East End. Jews played a role in all aspects of this industry – production, distribution and exchange. The concentration of Jews in textile factories and workshops and as outworkers (usually women at home) gave rise to accusations of ‘sweating’. In reality, immigration merely exacerbated and drew attention to pre-existing problems. Overcrowding, rising rents, falling wages and slum dwellings were already rife in east London in Edwardian England.

Effectively deploying archival photographs, Pathé newsreels and interviews with both deceased and living players, as well as tools (rulers, scissors, needles and thread, sewing machines, pressing irons), fabrics, samples and vintage finished garments, the exhibition portrays the conditions and experiences of tailors and dressmakers, both masters and workers, in the East End, and of those working in allied trades, such as the making of furs, caps, shoes, bags and umbrellas. The struggle for better pay and conditions fought by the tailoring unions in the East End (and in northern cities, such as Leeds), in which Jewish tailors were at the forefront, was the subject of academic studies in the 1980s and 1990s, upon which the curators have drawn.

If I have any real criticism of this part of the exhibition, it is that the Jewish East End is presented very much from the outside. The fact that many immigrants brought tailoring and dressmaking skills with them from an increasingly mechanised urban environment in eastern Europe is noted in passing. However, little attention is paid to the inner cultural world that the immigrant generation carried with it, to the Jewish religion and its customs, or to the Yiddish language. 

I don’t recall seeing any Yiddish material in the exhibition, whether posters, newspapers or instruction booklets. There is certainly none in the book. While those Jews, especially men, who emigrated west were often among the more secularised elements of the communities from which they came, cultural clashes were nevertheless common after their arrival in England. Disputes arose, for example, over Saturday working. It was not unusual for Jewish employers to pressurise their staff into breaking Shabbat (I’m glad to say that Great-Uncle Feivish wasn’t one of them). Many workers in manufacturing and retail, industries for which there was no shortage of hands, were worried about holding on to their jobs. Lack of English kept many Jews out of the wider labour market, which, in any case, was not always welcoming of their foreign ways.

A statement in English that the business is closed ‘Every Friday evening at sunset until Saturday evening sunset’ appears on a notice printed (by E Moses & Son) as long ago as 1847. So it is not surprising that the same inaccurate definition of Shabbat – it ends at nightfall, not sunset – is repeated on an interpretation panel in the exhibition. Paper and card were often used to stiffen collars and cuffs in gentlemen’s overcoats and ladies’ ‘mantles’, but the explanation for this lies not only in saving money on materials, but also in the biblical proscription of shatnez – the mixing of wool and linen (which was often used to stiffen materials) in the same fabric or garment. 

The West End is the focus of the other half of the exhibition. The juxtaposition of East End and West End that dominates much of the literature on British Jewry is cleverly represented in the show. A mock-up of a London Underground tunnel, faced in retro metro tiles, links the two halves of the display. Central Line-style signs point one way towards Liverpool Street, on the border of the City and the East End, and the other towards Tottenham Court Road, in the heart of the West End. 

In reality, the geographical distinction between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ ends of the rag trade was not nearly so clear cut. Conditions in the tenements and workshops clustered around Soho and Fitzrovia were not much better than those found in Whitechapel and Stepney. West End couturiers and retailers often relied on skilled East Enders to embroider, bead and make up garments for them.

It is in the West End section that we find the most novel material. I was surprised to learn just how many Jewish entrepreneurs were behind high-end, ready-to-wear fashion labels, such as Alexon (Alexander Steinberg), as well as those on the high street: not only Marks & Spencer (the Marks family, the Sieffs and the Sachers) and Burton (Montague Burton) but also Wallis (Nathan Tatarsky), Chelsea Girl and River Island (Bernard Lewis). Apparently, one in three British women still buy M&S bras. By the 1960s, some of the more upmarket firms had become trendsetters, especially in menswear, among them Mr Fish (Michael Fish) of the famous kipper ties, ruffle shirts and kaftans worn by David Bowie, Mick Jagger and the Beatles. Lord John (Warren Gold) helped develop winkle-pickers (really uncomfortable pointed shoes) and ‘bum freezers’ (very mini miniskirts). I didn’t know that Irvine Sellar pioneered maxiskirts and unisex dressing before he embarked on a second career in property (he was the developer behind the Shard). In the Swinging Sixties, when Carnaby Street became the hub of London’s psychedelic fashion scene, more than half the shops there were owned by Jews. 

At the other end of the scale was Moss Bros. Founded by Harry Moss in Covent Garden in 1881, the firm had sixty shops all over the country by the 1960s. They specialised in dress hire and rapidly expanded during the war due to rationing, which continued well into the 1950s. I vividly remember as a child in the 1960s accompanying my father to Moss Bros in the West End to hire a ‘monkey suit’ for a family simchah.

At the apex of the fashion industry were the couturiers who dressed pop stars and royalty. This sector supplied the designer floors of West End department stores like Debenham & Freebody and Liberty. The bespoke couturiers developed close relationships with their private clients. Some came later, as part of a smaller wave of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and from the Middle East from the 1920s onwards. A significant minority were gay men, an outsider group among outsiders. David Sassoon, of Bellville Sassoon, designed more than seventy outfits for Diana, Princess of Wales, between her marriage and her death in 1997. On display are design books annotated by the princess and a colourful red woollen coat that I remember her wearing in the early 1980s. Sassoon’s reminiscences appear in one of the engaging video clips available throughout the exhibition.

Transcripts of such reminiscences are largely absent from the accompanying book, even in the chapters that focus on the biographies of individual entrepreneurs. This is a pity, because hearing directly from the characters involved would have livened it up considerably. The book lacks khayn – an untranslatable Hebrew-Yiddish word that denotes something hovering between ‘spirit’ and ‘grace’. The text is designed to be light and accessible rather than scholarly, offering, for example, generalisations about dates rather than precise years (‘in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’). The authors are also coy about using the noun ‘Jew’, almost always referring to ‘Jewish people’, ‘Jewish individuals’ or ‘Jewish Londoners’ instead. Do we blame this on the Oxford English Dictionary’s long-standing entry ‘to Jew’ or on modern identity politics?

If the text is disappointingly pedestrian, the book as a whole is attractively designed, containing much well-chosen visual material and excellent photographs, the different parts being linked together by a marginal decoration that looks like a running stitch. I recommend catching the exhibition if you can.

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