Dr Bethan Bide, Lecturer in Design and Cultural Theory at the University of Leeds, gives us a preview of the influence that the Jewish community has had on British fashion.
Museum of London Docklands has unveiled plans for its major exhibition, Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style, taking place between 13th October 2023 and 14th April 2024. For the first time, the exhibition will uncover the major contribution of Jewish designers in making London an iconic fashion city.
From East End tailors to the couture salons of the West End, the exhibition tells the story of Jewish designers, makers, and retailers responsible for some of the most recognisable looks of the 20th century. Those who fought against the odds to become leading figures in their industries, founded retail chains still present on the high street today, and whose businesses boosted the British post-war economy.
Dr Bethan Bide, Lecturer in Design and Cultural Theory at the University of Leeds, is the Academic Advisor to the exhibition. While Bethan is extremely excited and passionate about the subject now, the Jewish influence on British fashion was a
narrative she stumbled onto by accident while conducting other research: “I have been working with Dr Lucie Whitmore, the Fashion Curator at the Museum of London, for about three years. I was doing some other research about the rise of British ready-to-wear and how Britain really led the way in democratising fashion in the 20th century through creating that. I realised as we were doing this research, how many of the people that were important in this story were Jewish. It seemed fascinating that this wasn’t something that really was told.”
Further research revealed the tragic and all too familiar reason that this aspect of British fashion history remains a little- known secret: “The more digging we did, the more we realised that there were perhaps a couple of reasons that that story wasn’t told. Many of the people who were really important in the industry arrived as migrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, fleeing the pogroms in Russia or leaving difficult circumstances in Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe. And there were all sorts of prejudices facing them when they got here. They were discussed as though they were dirty and bringing these alien ways of life. Lots of those migrants chose to anglicise their identity and distance themselves publicly from being Jewish.
“Even more tragically, we also have some amazing stories of people who fled the Nazis in the 1930s arriving in the UK and changing their name because they sounded too German. There was a lot of anti- German prejudice in spite of the fact that they’d had to flee for their lives.”
Bethan felt that it was important to shine a light on this little-known part of history: “We wanted to celebrate these stories that have never been celebrated because of antisemitism at the time. It feels important.
A book will also be released about this fascinating subject, made to accompany the exhibition, and also titled Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style: “The book is authored by myself and Dr Whitmore. There are many stories and they can’t all go in the exhibition, so the book will allow us to share those stories. The exhibition is fairly focused on London, by nature of its location, but the more research that we’ve done the more we’ve realised that London fashion stories are rarely confined to London. Because of the nature of the British fashion industry those stories are really strongly connected to Manchester and Leeds, because they were such important centres of fashion.”
The book will feature both well-known and more obscure stories from the Jewish fashion world: “There are people like Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer, who came from Belarus and first set up his stall in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market. His story is reasonably well-known. But there are other ones, like Hans Schneider, who was the Head of Design for M&S from 1949 to 1970, and he was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Because he had this slight outside perspective on the British public, he had an incredible ability to know what they wanted. He was responsible for turning M&S into a fashionable brand.”
Naturally Bethan has some parts of the exhibition which particularly stand out for her: “There are so many incredible, personal stories, and that is something that is really important about this exhibition for me. Its not just about the big famous designers, but also a couple of much smaller dressmakers, designed for Mick Jagger. We’re also looking for some pieces designed by Cecil Gee, who designed men’s fashion in the 50s which for the first time, didn’t look like what your dad wore. He dressed the Beatles and we would love to find some of those pieces. We’re also on the hunt for pieces from a couturier called Isobel. We know she was really active in the 1920s and 30s and there’s press coverage about her pieces, but as far as we know there are only three that still exist.”
Pieces the museum is still searching for:
- Menswear pieces made by Mr Fish and worn by famous names such as Sean Connery, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Caine.
- Menswear pieces made by Cecil Gee and worn by famous names such The Beatles.
- 1930s or 1940s womenswear pieces made by Rahvis and worn by famous names, including Hollywood film stars.
- Hats made by Otto Lucas and worn by famous names such as Greta Garbo or Wallis Simpson.
- Theatre costumes made by Neymar for Cecil Landau’s production of Sauce Tartare (1949).
- 1930s gowns made by dressmaker Madame Isobel (Isobel Spevak Harris).
because their families have helped us out and told us their stories. We’ll feature a dressmaker called Nettie Spiegel, who designed under the name Neymar, who arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport, and became incredibly important as a dress designer in the Jewish community. She made enormous numbers of wedding dresses and she’d knock you up an outfit for your son’s Bar Mitzvah. Her pieces are incredible, they’re really beautiful, and to be able to combine these beautiful pieces with this incredible, personal story about how somebody rebuilt a life through fashion is really moving and important to me.”
While there are already plenty of exciting pieces making up the exhibition, the museum is still on the search for some more famous pieces: “There are a couple of people we know designed for some amazing celebs.
We are trying to track down some of those pieces of clothing, because we think that they might still exist somewhere. For example, an amazing dress worn by David Bowie that Mr Fish designed, and also for any pieces that he
While Bethan is excited about the whole exhibition, she has one favourite item: “There is one piece that I would love to wear, and it isn’t necessarily the most spectacular piece. It’s a beautiful red coat that was made in the 1940s. It was made according to the war-time restrictions. During the war, the government said you can’t do fancy, elaborate designs because we need to conserve material and focus on the war effort. Lots of people often think that that means that fashion got quite boring. This coat absolutely proves it didn’t. It was made by a brand called Koupy, which was run by a guy called Charles Kuperstein. It is so simple and elegant but so well designed. It has absolutely beautiful pocket details, it doesn’t waste any fabric, nothing on it is superfluous. For me, it really highlights the brilliance of Jewish fashion design and what that brought to the British fashion industry.”