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NEW YORK — The connection between the country’s garment industry and American Jewry has deep historical and cultural significance, and is the subject of an exhibit that opens today at Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan, in the heart of where the industry was born.
“A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry 1860-1960″ charts the link between the immigrants that came to America looking for religious freedom and the commercial success they found in the clothing trade. It traces this symbiosis from Civil War uniform makers to Hollywood’s Golden Era costume designers, the influence of the two world wars and the emergence of Seventh Avenue.
The people and companies that made their mark are the exhibit’s focal point, from Levi Strauss, Anne Klein, Judith Leiber and Arnold Scaasi to Hickey-Freeman, Ben Zuckerman, Cole of California and Leslie Fay.
“This is the most ambitious project we have done,” said Sylvia Herskowitz, the museum’s director. “It started 10 years ago with an idea that [exhibition curator Gabriel Goldstein] had. Even though it seemed like such a natural topic, it had never been discussed with the Jewish angle.”
The show cost almost $1 million to create, and support came from private donors and grants, including a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The exhibit is organized by three galleries, showcasing more than 300 objects, from dresses and suits to sportswear and accessories.
“The garment industry really defined the way people worked,” Goldstein said. “It pays particular attention to women’s involvement in business, which stems from the need for their husbands to study the teachings of the religion.”
The exhibit begins with the mid-19th century and the first mass immigration of Central European and German Jews who began as tailors and developed the first garment manufacturing and retail enterprises in New York. Inside, the exhibit discusses the expansion of East Coast fashions across America and how the invention of the sewing machine changed the nature of production.
The second gallery examines what is called the “six cities” that became the early centers of clothing commerce, which include New York; Rochester, N.Y.; Chicago; Cincinnati; Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and showcases a vignette of clothes from a trio of pioneering women: Nettie Rosenstein, Hattie Carnegie and Sally Milgrim.
The third gallery chronicles the development of early California fashion and the influence of Hollywood dressmakers. There is also a special focus on the impact and growth of Seventh Avenue during World War II, when Paris couture was temporarily halted, and the relationship with organized labor.
The museum is located at 15 West 16th Street, where the exhibit will run until April 2.