The Kittel Collection is a series of clothing pieces that explores the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud, and customarily worn by men on various Jewish holy days. Each month, The Sisterhood showcases, and looks at the meaning behind, a kittel from my collection. View images of this month’s kittel, the Liar’s Kittel, after the jump.
A few years ago I co-hosted a Purim party that invited the guests to “Come as you’re not. Whatever you think you are, whoever that is, come as your opposite, come as your nemesis.” It was great theme. Shy retiring types came as drag queens and flamboyant Prince Charmings. Buttoned-up lawyers came as hippies. And there were many nuns and priests. It gave people existential angst — “…but who aren’t I…?” — in the run-up to Purim. The party theme tapped into our secret desires for how we want to see ourselves.
In Bereshit, some of the characters use clothing to manipulate and trick others. They change the roles they have been given, so that their realities can be altered: Jacob dresses up as Esau, fools his father into blessing him, and gains the inheritance he always wanted. Jacob’s sons use Joseph’s torn and bloody coat to spin the story that Joseph is dead in order to receive their father’s love and attention. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant, all without him realizing her true identity. She transforms herself a childless widow into reclaiming a life for herself.
These are stories of cheating, tricking, lying and disguise. In Hebrew the word “beged,” or garment, has links to the verb “b’gad,” to betray. But these are also stories of people taking control of their story, re-writing it and using clothing to do so. And each of these rewritten stories have become essential episodes in our nation’s narrative.
A good storyteller, a convincing liar, involves the audience in the telling. Spinning the story enlists the listener as a collaborator, and their mind fills in the gaps and allows the story to live. Clothing when worn as a disguise suppresses information about the wearer, and misleads the viewer with hints and misdirections. A mask erases the features and becomes a blank space onto which other identities can be projected.
The Purim story is full of characters dressing up to perform their roles, with God hiding in the text. But if costumes can be put on, they can also be removed. Our identities are continually shifting, transitory and impermanent.
This kittel is built up from a basic shift net dress. The ribbon weaves an optical illusion of a curvaceous figure, as if the garment was tailored to fit an idealized female form. But this garment is unstructured. The lines of ribbon, which begin as loose lines in the bottom, converge to form a lace-type lattice — tricking the eye into imagining contours. The lace is also transparent. Because nothing is more revealing of who we really are than the lies we choose to weave.
As to what I wore to the “come as you’re not” party… Well, that would be telling.
Jacqueline Nicholls is a fine artist from London who uses art to explore traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She is a former artist-in-residence with the Forward’s Sisterhood.
The Liar's Kittel