Vogue magazine did not exist in the 15th century, but this didn’t stop Europeans of that era from keeping up to date on cutting-edge trends in clothing and fashion. Curious about the customs of people living in other parts of the world, early modern Europeans read costume books and travelogues that had images depicting styles of dress different from anything they ever had seen.
Culture & Costume: Depictions of Jewish Dress Across Five Centuries is an exhibition that explores Jewish dress in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Europe, from the 15th century to the 19th. Engravings, woodcuts and lithographs offer insight into the Jews’ culture and their social status, and their experiences with assimilation and with the prejudices that were held against them. The images featured in the exhibit are drawn from general, historic costume books in which pictures of Jews were often included. Some 40 pieces are on display, including a woodcut from 1483 that depicts five Jewish elders. Another displayed item is a picture, drawn from a 19th-century British book that features a Polish Jew with antisemitic text below the image.
“The images run the gamut from romanticizing [Jews] to vilifying them,” said Elka Deitsch, senior curator of the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica. “But the show is not geared to be a depiction of antisemitism. Most pieces [reflect] a real curiosity about costume, but undertones and overtones of antisemitism come through.”
She added: “I want people to revel in the beauty of the prints. Even though there are social and political overtones, they are beautiful to look at.”
Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, Congregation Emanu-El, 1 E. 65th St.; through Aug. 3; Sun.-Thu. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; free. (212-744-1400 or www.emanuelnyc.org)