The swift process of Westernization that overtook Iran after Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power in 1921 led to the disappearance of Iranian women’s traditional clothing in the 1930s, following the dress reforms he introduced. This accelerated process has left our collections enriched by a wealth of items of Iranian Jewish women’s clothing, about which we know little; what knowledge we have derives mainly from photographs and, to a lesser extent, from women’s recollections of their environment.
Outfits worn by women in communities throughout Iran in the early twentieth century shared very similar components: a chemise, a short jacket and a skirt worn over trousers. Especially worthy of note are the ballerina-style skirts, which reflect the early stages of Westernization, and were worn by both Muslim and Jewish Iranian women at the turn of the twentieth century. This fashion originated with Qajar Shah Nasser al-Din’s visit to Europe in 1873, which introduced a new style of dress that quickly became popular throughout the country.
The clothing styles of the various communities were distinguished from one another mainly by their different types of ornamentation and embroidery, by the length and breadth of the trousers, and by the richness and width of the fabric from which the skirt was made. A gradual transition in style can be observed from a jacket with a nipped-in waist (alkhaloq or arkhaloq) to a straight-cut machine-sewn one (cot or yal).
Mashhad outfits were notable for the selection of decorative ribbons used to trim the edges of the garments, and for the style of their embroidery and its motifs, which are characterized by rosettes and pomegranates linked by an undulating line of branches. In Mashhad the skirt was not usually embroidered; instead it was trimmed at the edges with the braided ribbons characteristic of the area.
Dark colors tend to predominate: deep violet was combined with green, and dark blue with black. After the Jews of Mashhad were forced to convert to Islam in 1839 they continued to practice Judaism in secret, while outwardly presenting the appearance of observant Muslims. Because of this long period of enforced Muslim observance, we know of no articles of clothing specific to Jews. However, a number of Mashhad items in our collections reflect the lively urban commerce practiced by crypto-Jews in the Khorasan region and their links with local Jewish communities.
From the Israel Museum publications:
Juhasz, Esther (ed.), The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 5 Continents Editions, Milan and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2012
Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Bella and Harry Wexner Gallery, 11/03/2014 - 07/03/2015