A few years ago, thanks to a change in policy, gay rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary were finally able to come out of the closet.
Now clothes are also emerging from the closet, so to speak — included as a topic worthy of scholarly study at the Conservative movement’s flagship institution.
“What to Wear,” a program scheduled for March 11, is something of a saucy wink at the academy, which has long — but wrongly — considered fashion unworthy of study, said Carol Ingall, the professor of education at the Seminary who is organizing it. She insists that clothing can be a text that like written matter both shapes culture and offers a way to “read” culture.
At the same time, “What to Wear” is an unapologetic acknowledgement — embrace, even — of clothing’s capacity to take on powerful and private meanings specific to individual women in the manner of the best-selling book turned Off-Broadway hit “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” That’s why Edna Nahshon, a professor of Hebrew, is asking her audience to bring to her session not just the shoes on their feet but also a second, and especially significant, pair.
Nahshon’s “Jews and Shoes” session (she is the author of a book by the same title) will facilitate a conversation about the deeper meaning of footwear in literature and life.
“This event sits at the nexus of the personal and the professional,” Ingall said.
“What to Wear” is a mix-and-match affair in which discussions rooted in text, such as one about stripping in the Bible, and another on clothes in the Talmud, will be interspersed with “OMG—I Can’t Believe She Wore That!” a session for teens only, and an intergenerational conversation about how different generations dress for a bat mitzvah or confirmation.
Of course, questions of clothing are especially timely today in the Jewish world as tension between religious and secular Israelis intensifies over what constitutes acceptable levels of tzniut, or modesty in the public square. “What to Wear” aims to address questions of contemporary religious practice and clothing mainly through a panel discussion on head covering that includes perspectives from a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew. The program’s organizers thought it unlikely that anybody from the haredi world would participate, Ingall said.
In some ways, “What to Wear” with its academic bona fides and boxed lunch has the look a typical conference, but Ingall and her colleagues are so determined that it evince the desired scholarly-yet-spirited attitude that they reject that label.
“This is an event,” Ingall said. “We can do it in a way that’s intellectually challenging and rigorous, but not dry.”
To that end, Ingall took it upon herself to secure for the symposium a keynote speaker who could combine glamour and intelligence. After running a gauntlet of handlers, pleading for a meeting and delivering a well-honed pitch, she managed to lure Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Steele has a doctorate from Yale, has curated such exhibits as “The Corset: Fashioning the Body,” founded and edits a journal, and has written numerous books. No lightweight she.
It wasn’t an easy sell, though, Ingall said. Steele was leery because she didn’t want to discuss fashion’s relationship to religion, about which she has no scholarly expertise. She accepted the invitation when she understood that she was being asked to speak on fashion and culture more generally. Her talk is entitled “Fashion: What It Means and Why It Matters.”
“I like to talk about fashion outside of the worlds of the industry and fashion journalism,” she said. “I thought well, this will be an interesting and intelligent audience,” Steele said.