Although they have often been neglected by major historians, women artists have been an almost constant visionary presence in the creative world.
These female artists all use clothing to explore their identity as women, Jews and artists. The relationship between Jews and clothing is multifaceted. Between 1881 and 1914, approximately 100,000 Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to London's East End, escaping the targeted persecution they faced there. A marked majority of these Jewish immigrants worked as tailors, creating new ready-to-wear clothing that provided a cheap alternative to London's native made-to-measure tailoring services. This new off-the-peg facility became a crucial influence on the emergence of high street shops, and the clothing industry is often referred to as the schmatte (Yiddish for rag or clothing) trade to this day.
The choice to express ideas through clothing also places these artists in a long line of women textile workers. Of all the arts and crafts, there is the strongest heritage of women working with cloth as embroiderers, weavers and seamstresses. More recently, some feminist artists and art historians have tried to reclaim textiles as an inherently female medium, historically uncorrupted by the dominance of men in the way that, for example, painting has.
Women’s clothing has also become an issue of contention in modern society. In the Jewish tradition, many laws govern what women can and cannot wear. These laws are called tsniut or Modesty laws. In some Orthodox circles, wearing modest clothing is seen as the main way women are able to connect to their religion, rather than the intellectual engagement with Torah reserved for men. Emphasising clothing for women can have negative social ramifications, such as low self-esteem or eating disorders. It also leads to the ostracization of those who choose to dress how they wish.
Outside of the Jewish community, women have been struggling with similar issues too. In 2011, after the assertion by a Canadian policeman that if women wished to avoid rape they ‘should avoid dressing like sluts’, the SlutWalk campaign was launched. Holding rallies, participants fight for the rights of women to wear whatever they wish without the fear of rape. Clothing, appearance and societal perception are thus interlinked within contemporary debates about womanhood.
Ruth Schreiber, Childhood Remembered (2006)
This piece is part of a series Schreiber completed that analysed childhood. In these works the forms and shapes are based on outfits Schreiber was photographed wearing as a child. Although idyllic from afar, upon closer inspection, one may see that the clothing is made from metallic netting and the shoes covered with sweets. Commenting on this, Schreiber has said that ‘by transforming the fabrics into materials which are unfamiliar and unsuitable for clothing, I am reworking the associations from the photographs and from my memories, and creating a fantasy version of my childhood.’
About the Artist
Ruth Schreiber was born in England, but now lives in Israel. Alongside her own creative practice, she is a docent at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Ruth has studied various different artistic media, including ceramics, sculpture, painting and digital installation. She holds a MFA in Ceramic and Glass Design from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
Roberta Weinstein, Fantasma III (2004)
Weinstein’s Fantasma III (not shown due to copyright) is the third of a collection of four girls’ dresses. The clothes are decorated with elaborate frills and trimmings that readily conjure up celebrated childhood moments. And yet, instead of a frill or flower, a spider hangs at the centre of the lacy collar, creating a sense of something sinister. This is further enhanced by the black of the dress and its shiny, stiff, unnatural finish. These are not clothes to be worn, but spectral meditations on Weinstein’s past.
About the Artist
Roberta Weinstein is a contemporary artist and curator. She works with different media and often explores the role of childhood, memories and Jewish identity. She lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Sue Goldschmidt, Ordinary Girl (2008)
In Ordinary Girl, a porcelain t-shirt adorned with wings hangs in the air. Tilted at an angle, the works gives a sense of dynamism; it is flying upwards. The piece is a response to the Ipswich murders. In subsequent media coverage, friends and family expressing shock claimed the victims were just ‘ordinary girls.’ Goldschmidt uses contrasts to display the paradox of their extraordinary fates. The work takes the form of a t-shirt, perhaps the plainest item of clothing, but it has wings attached to it. The piece is made of a heavy porcelain, and yet it is made to float. The t-shirt is wrinkled and looks flexible, but it has been fired and is more restrictive than a corset. Like in other works, Goldschmidt uses cream porcelain to meditate on loss and death.
About the artist
Goldschmidt is a sculptural ceramicist living in London. She has taught ceramics for many years and is beginning a PhD at the University of Westminster that explores the relationship between ceramics and texts. Sue is also a tour guide at the British Museum.
Lelia Pissarro, The Intimate and the Forbidden (2006)
This drawing is taken from a series of shoe paintings and drawings on paper. Commissioned by an ovarian cancer charity, Pissarro’s series explores various manifestations of womanhood using the shoe as a metaphor throughout. This particular shoe is high-heeled and elegant. It is drawn using diamond dust and glitters brightly, both inviting a friendship with the viewer while also setting itself on a pedestal due to its expensive makeup. Pissarro uses this shoe to depict a certain kind of dominant femininity.
About the Artist
Lelia comes from a long line of artists, starting with her great-grandfather, Camille Pissarro. She studied painting at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For a long time, her work remained figurative, although she has recently turned towards abstraction, too. Lelia also briefly worked as a designer in the fashion industry.
Meital Covo, Hers (2003)
This skirt’s flowing print was created with digitally manipulated photographs of hair. On the use of this unusual and unexpected subject, Covo herself has said that ‘usually the first response to the work is "wow, so beautiful," but once people realize it's hair, they go "yuck."’ This fusion of the unexpected is an important theme in her works, which are predominantly ‘concerned about this grey area between the intimate and the public, which becomes present when working with hair.’ The piece is also worn on the legs, an area that many women make a great effort to rid of hair. The skirt’s design provocatively forms a diamond-shaped hair print around the vagina, perhaps re-adding hair that has previously been removed. In this way, Hers presents a subtle challenge to our assumed standards of what is and is not beautiful.
About the Artist
Meital Covo is an Israeli visual artist. She studied Visual Communication at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and experimental film and video at the Royal College of Art. Her images explore physical and mental intimacies of various kinds.
Jacqueline Nichols, Maternal Torah (2008)
Much of Nichols’ work is inspired by her Jewish learning and experiences as an Orthodox Jewish woman. In Judaism, the holiest text, the Torah, is spoken of as a sexually attractive female. Maternal Torah physically represents this metaphor by blending a Torah cover with a corset. The work addresses the paradox of the respect that is shown to the physical Torah in the synagogue and the disrespect shown to women in many Orthodox circles. Nichols has said that ‘there is a problem with our culture that tries to separate itself from the physical sensual side of life. These images, metaphors, are there in the tradition.’ This piece encourages a confrontation with the tradition’s logical ramifications.
About the Artist
Jacqueline Nicholls is an artist who uses various different media as a means to traverse traditional Jewish themes in a modern world. She also teaches Jewish texts related to art and religion and is working for JW3, the London Jewish Community Centre, organising art programming.