From Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour’s signature sunglasses to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s humble hoodies, what an individual opts to wear makes a crucial statement about their personality and identity.
“There are many different ways that clothing signals one’s identity or group they want to be a part of,” says Joanna Church, director of collections and exhibits at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “Our fashion exhibits will make people think about how all different types of clothing and accessories — whether couture or casual –make a statement, and what that statement says when a person puts on particular pieces from their wardrobe.”
On April 7, the JMM, at 15 Lloyd St. in East Baltimore, launched a pair of exhibits fashioned around, well, fashion.
The museum’s original exhibit, titled “Fashion Statement,” runs alongside “Stitching History,” which displays dress designs created by Hedwig Strnad, a Czech Jewish tailor and apparel designer who perished in the Holocaust.
“We are a museum of everyday people. Hedy and her husband, Paul, exemplify that,” says Tracie Guy-Decker, the JMM’s deputy director. “By going through their story and their loss of life, we are able to see the loss of Hedy’s potential contributions to the world. This feels particularly poignant at this moment in history as more refugees around the world are finding doors closed to them.”
Making a ‘Statement’
“Fashion Statement” consists of approximately 75 articles of clothing and accessories from the JMM’s collection of textiles and garments that were donated or loaned to the museum over the years by Jewish Marylanders.
“We have been talking a lot at the museum about identity and belonging to a community,” says Church. “This exhibit uses culture and fashion to investigate those notions.”
While there are some high-brow couture items in the exhibit like tuxedoes, sequined gowns and fur coats, many of the other featured pieces could be worn by people on a regular basis.
“There is this wonderful, well-loved blue work skirt from the early 200th century that belonged to a woman who wore it on the ship while she emigrated from Russia to Baltimore,” Church says. “This exhibit gives us the opportunity to display some of the lesser known pieces from our collection that you wouldn’t necessarily put together.”
When assembling the exhibit, Church says she wanted to ensure that all groups within the larger Jewish community were represented. The exhibit includes garments from members of the Orthodox community, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and the LGBTQ community, just to name a few.
In addition, visitors will be able to learn more about some famous Jewish Marylanders and their signature sartorial styles. For example, on display will be the trademark pork pie hat belonging to the late author and Jewish community chronicler Gilbert Sandler, as well as signature scarves owned and worn by Shoshana S. Cardin, the Baltimore-based international Jewish leader who passed away in May of 2018.
“These were iconic accessories specific to these individuals,” says Church. “This is a way to talk about local celebrities and what happens when you become so well-known you can express your identity through a single article of clothing.”
There will also be interactive components to “Fashion Statement” created through a partnership with students from Stevenson University and Custom Ink, an apparel and accessories company based in Fairfax, Va.
Visitors will be able to dress up “paper dolls” in drawings of different garments on display, as well as check out an area where they can create T-shirts using icons that best express their identities.
“The name ‘Fashion Statement’is a play on words, with the statement part being just as important as the fashion part,” Church says of the exhibit, which will run through Sept. 15.
A ‘Stitch’ in Time
On loan from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, “Stitching History” depicts the moving story of the Strnads, and shows how Hedwig tried to use her skills as a well-known fashion designer to come to the United States and flee persecution in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
“We are committed to Holocaust education,” Guy-Decker says of the exhibit, which will run through Aug. 4. “What made this Holocaust exhibit particularly interesting is it’s a different twist.”
In the winter of 1939, Paul Strnad sent Hedwig’s dress sketches to his cousin, Alvin Strnad, living in Milwaukee, with the hope of demonstrating that he and his wife could be financially self-sufficient if they relocated in America.
Despite Alvin’s best attempts, the Strnads’ request for a visa was turned down, most likely due to strict quotas enforced by the U.S. government, and the couple were eventually transported to Theresienstadt and then to the Warsaw Ghetto. They either died in the ghetto or in Treblinka.
Nearly 50 years later, Alvin’s son, Burton, discovered Paul’s letters and Hedwig’s designs in his mother’s basement and donated them to the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society. Hedy’s designs were eventually brought to life, and transformed into dresses and accessories.
“Showing ‘Fashion Statements’ in tandem with ‘Stitching History’ further bolsters what we lost when we lost Hedy, and that her designs were important,” says Guy-Decker. “’Fashion Statements’ reinforces the idea that the choices we make in clothing aren’t trivial or a throwaway. It’s an important language we use to talk to one another. We are fashioning our identity based on what we choose to wear or not wear.”
For information, visit jewishmuseummd.org.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.