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April 17, 2016 6:41 am

London Exhibit Displays Jewish Tailors Behind Men’s Fashion Industry

avatar by Shiryn Solny

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A man wearing his demob suit, after finishing his military service. Photo: Wikipedia.

A man wearing his demob suit, after finishing his military service. Photo: Wikipedia.

A new exhibit at the Jewish Museum London highlights the Jewish tailors and designers who have been at the forefront of men’s fashion for the past 150 years, the UK’s Jewish News reported on Friday.

“Moses, Mods and Mr Fish: The Menswear Revolution” opens with the story of Moses Moses, a Jewish artisan in Britain who started his career in fashion in the 19th century by developing a cheaper alternative to traditional tailoring. Moses, who later changed his name to Moss, purchased scraps of cloth and manufactured ready-to-wear formal suits. When he died in 1894, he left the company to his two sons, Alfred and George, who established the famous retailer, Moss Bros.

“These early companies were instrumental in producing ready-to-wear clothing, as well as helping the democratization of men’s fashion,” said Elizabeth Selby, curator of the exhibit. “Jews were really important in bringing fashionable clothes to a bigger section of society. Previously, working-class people couldn’t afford new clothes, but these companies really changed things using the new technology that was now available.”

Another Jewish-owned company well-known in the ready-to-wear revolution was Marks & Spencer. The company was founded by Michael Marks and Tom Spencer in 1894 and launched its range of ready-to-wear looks in the 1920s, Jewish News reported. By 1936, textiles accounted for two-thirds of the company’s total sales.

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Among the Jews who migrated to the UK from Eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century, no less than one in four were tailors, the UK publication reported. At the time, 60 percent of Jews in Britain worked in tailoring, partially because Jewish religious law requires garments to be checked for shatnez, a mixture of wool and linen, which the Torah prohibits wearing.

The exhibition also showcases Montague Burton, a Lithuanian immigrant who set up his first shop in 1903, and amassed a fortune selling suits at affordable prices. His company had 595 outlets by 1939 and his items were sold in every major shopping area.

During World War II, Burton made a fourth of all uniforms for the British armed forces and a third of all “demob” suits, given to the men when they completed their service. Soldiers returning home were given a complimentary hat, suit, two shirts, a tie, shoes and a raincoat. The program popularized the term “the full monty,” a play on Burton’s first name.

Menswear changed most radically in the years after World War II and Jewish designers continued to stay at the forefront of up-and-coming fashion trends. The post-war period featured “young men [who] stopped dressing like their fathers, becoming detail-obsessed mods or flamboyant peacocks,” according to the Jewish Museum.

After the war, Britain saw the emergence of the mod movement and a fashion revolution that put Carnaby Street in London on the map. The strip became home to a number of innovative stores, such as Irvine Sellar’s, pioneering unisex chain Mates and the vintage-styled I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, opened by Robert Orbach.

“In the sixties we see this real explosion of color and there’s this temptation to think this was very new, very different, but of course, back to the 18th century, men were wearing bright and colorful clothing,” Selby said. “What’s really interesting to see is just how influential Jewish designers were in setting the trends, many of which continue into today’s fashion.”

Among the items on display at the exhibit is a brown suede Cecil Gee jacket worn by John Lennon in 1963, a mod suit worn by Harry Bilgorri in 1966 and a “kipper tie,” designed by Michael Fish, who was popular among young aristocrats and celebrities, including David Bowie and Mick Jagger.

Also on display is a double-breasted pinstripe lounge suit bought in 1936 as “a rite of passage,” said Selby. She noted that the owner wore it at his own wedding in 1949 and throughout his lifetime.

“Moses, Mods and Mr Fish: The Menswear Revolution” will run until June 19.

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  • Graham Kennedy

    Fascinating article! Many thanks.

  • crawford

    The museum apparently neglected Douggie Millings & Son of Soho & Marylebone, London. Their 60’s contribution was to British pop by designing the round collar Beatles jackets & suits and countless mohair suits for the likes of Cliff, Adam Faith, Eden Kane etc.

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