There’s no doubt about it, bigger means better when it comes to the shtreimel — the unmissable, circular fur hat worn by married Hasidic men on Shabbat and holidays. Shmiel Arya Miller is owner of Miller Shtreimlech, a label that’s been around for 25 years and grown to multiple locations in the US and Israel. He confirms that on the Hasidic street — the closest thing to a runway for the notoriously private community— these days, the tallest shtreimels are also the most fashionable. “Is it more stylish to have a longer wig?” he asks rhetorically. Yes, I guess so, I mumble, clearly uncertain.
“The higher the shtreimel, the more stylish it is. I’ve made them up to nine inches in height.” The relatively squat shtreimels that were popular many years back, are now only ordered by a few older gentlemen. So it seems that while infinitely more nuanced than secular fashion fads, Hasidic men are not immune to the sway of trends or clothing as a form of status.
Over the years designers including Yves Saint Laurent and John Paul Gaultier have been carried away by the drama of the shtreimel and fantasies of Haredi costume in general. Most notoriously was “Chic Rabbis,” Gaultier’s Fall/Winter presentation in 1993, in which models in jumbo shtreimels sashayed down a menorah-framed runway. Needless to say, the show was slammed by several Jewish and non-Jewish critics alike, even in an era where there wasn’t yet much critical dialogue on cultural appropriation.
Yoel Fried, who is a digital consultant for Hasidic companies including Miller Shtreimlich arranged a conference call with Mr. Miller in Williamsburg. A rowdy Niggun played as I held the line, then faded out, 90’s DJ style. “Why don’t you speak Yiddish?” Mr. Miller asked sadly without bothering to introduce himself over the choppy connection.
At around $1,000-$5,000 a pop, the competition for shtreimel customers in Hasidic Brooklyn is so high stakes it’s even made it to mainstream social media, albeit largely in Yiddish. Shtreimel Center (which didn’t return my calls) posts slapstick videos on Twitter starring a guy parked in a lawn chair on a crowded Brooklyn sidewalk frantically beckoning customers into his atelier to take advantage of a blowout Passover sale.
Mr. Miller was cagey about connecting me with any customers directly, but Miller Shtreimel does have a Facebook page featuring reviews. Offering five star ratings, one satisfied wife writes in, “My husband’s shtreimel is a Miller. He looks his best with the shtreimel and it’s beautiful.”
Miller says that while his atelier doesn’t present formal collections like secular labels attuned to fashion weeks, he is always coming up with fresh twists, from darker or lighter sable, to how the fur is teased at the top of the hat. Although more affordable synthetic hats are available to those on a budget, a shtreimel is typically intended as a bespoke design—expertly crafted from 30 to more than 100 sable tails to flatter an individual’s head size, face shape, personality, and taste, and intended to last up to 15 years if neurotically preserved in a latched leather hatbox when not in use. In fact, Mr. Miller explains, most men also purchase a second hat, “for cheap” (often called a regen shtreimel or rain shtreimel) to keep their best shtreimel safe from inclement weather. Others buy a special raincoat constructed with extra long and wide hooding to protect the shtreimel from getting wet.
The wealthiest men have many shtreimlich in their closets, just the way their wives might have multiple wigs to match a given mood or occasion. Some can even afford a gag shtreimel. “On Purim,” explains Mr. Miller, “we have some people wearing the white shtreimel, just on the holiday. People can afford it if they want to be funny.” Choosing to wear white in a sea of uniform black translates to ironic, silly, or downright countercultural.
But there is also a more serious purpose to the shtreimel. Since Hasidic men don’t wear wedding bands, wearing the shtreimel for the first time the Shabbat before the marriage ceremony serves as a public relationship status update, alerting those around that a fellow is off the market. And just as the mother-in-law might dominate a bride’s choice of gown, traditionally, it is one’s future father-in-law who helps to select and acquire a groom’s shtreimel—with a few discerning brides even coming along for appointments to add input.
I asked Professor Eric Silverman — a cultural anthropologist affiliated with Brandeis University and the author of “A Cultural History of Jewish Dress” — to pinpoint the exact origins of the shtreimel, but he says the story is fuzzy in timeframe.
“Religious Jews have worn hats for a long time, but everybody wore hats in all manner for a long time. Jews, Non-Jews, everybody in European history wore headgear.” Various conflicting sources argue that the shtreimel could be of Tartar, Turkish, or Russian in origin. Silverman suggests, “It became important for Hasidim as part of their self-identity to be consciously different from other Jews and everybody else. They began to see their dress as creating a boundary. It’s a way Hasidic Jews say, ‘we are different than you are and we don’t want to be like you.’”
Even if the shtreimel communicates a visceral rejection of assimilation, the wearer’s recognition of the need for a badge comparable to a pricey wedding band implies that some members of the American Hasidic community have bought into the cult of American consumerism. Professor Silverman agrees, “There is a tension between being like everybody else and trying to be completely different.”
With houses like Gucci promising to do away with fur entirely in the next year, is there any pressure on shtreimel makers to stop sourcing sable and begin to craft synthetic creations instead? Although Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, a Haredi rabbi in Israel once suggested the use of fur should be banned due to animal cruelty, sable shtreimels continue to fly out the door of the Brooklyn ateliers, at least judging by their Facebook feeds.
Danna Lorch is an American arts & culture writer based in Boston. She recently relocated back to the US after seven years spent covering the emerging art, fashion, and design scene in Dubai. Recent work has appeared in Vogue Arabia, Architectural Digest Middle East, L’Officiel USA, ARTnews and elsewhere. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard and is interested in the intersection of art, fashion, and faith. Find her on Instagram and Twitter