Clothing, fashion and nation building in the ‘Land of Israel’

How does clothing become fashion? To what extent does a consensual mode of dress emerge within a heterogeneous migrant society? How can clothing become political and to what extent can it express power relations? And which role does visual culture and photography play in communicating and enforcing changing clothing ideals?

These questions lie at the core of Dr Svenja Bethke’s research project Clothing, fashion and nation building in the ‘Land of Israel’, that has been awarded a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship by the European Commission. During the period of the fellowiship Dr Bethke will be hosted at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem), the Yad Ben Zvi Institute (Jerusalem) and also in the PHRC at De Montfort University, where Dr Bethke will work closely with Senior Research Fellow in Photographic History Dr Gil Pasternak.

Taking the ‘Land of Israel’ as a case study, Dr Bethke argues that investigating clothing, fashion and aesthetic perceptions brings to the fore the agency of migrant groups and adds a personal dimension to the history of nation building. Focusing on the period from the 1880s, when large-scale migration began, until the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948, Dr Bethke will investigate how Eastern European and German Jewish immigrants expressed social, cultural and political belonging through clothing and to what extent they were able to enforce their ideologies in the course of nation building. Dr Bethke ask to what extent the immigrants influenced each other in developing a specific mode of dress, and how they referenced the socio-cultural and political practices of their countries of origin, as well as the clothing of Arab people and the Ottoman and British occupying authorities.

With an unprecedented focus on gender and visual materials, Dr Bethke will draw from collections preserved by 15 archives in Israel, Poland and England, and 6 Israeli, German, American and Russian databases. The project will analyse private and public photographs and posters, and contextualise them against an assessment of written material and oral history interviews.

The three months of secondment at the PHRC under the supervision of Dr Gil Pasternak will enhance Dr Bethke’s methodological skills in the analysis of historical photographs. Through this highly interdisciplinary training, Dr Bethke aims to develop a new methodology that will integrate approaches from fashion history and visual culture into the history of nation building to shed light on the processes of negotiation and power struggles on the micro level of a community.

In times of mass migration, economic exploitation and global mobility, the project will contribute to an understanding of aesthetic perceptions, dress and beauty ideals as an expression of power, integration and exclusion.

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