Turns out it was a right laugh around here before I was born…
Between 2008 – 2018, I worked as Haaretz’s inhouse fashion correspondent. What this meant was that I had spent pretty much a whole decade attending countless fashion shows and exhibitions, both in Israel and around the world, visiting designers’ studios for a first look at their upcoming new collections, reading dozens of books on the subject, and spending hours on end in the company of the fashion industry’s who’s who.
Of the many conversations we have had, I could probably count on one hand the number of topics which everyone involved was in complete, unanimous agreement on. Fashion, as we all know, is bonkers. In actual fact, you could probably manage the counting with just two fingers: one, in overwhelming agreement that for the past three decades (and counting!), the Israeli fashion industry has been in a constant state of erosion, ever since production was almost entirely relocated overseas and industry factories, one by one, started vanishing off the map and with them, also generations of manufacturers and local craftsmen and women. And lest we forget the absence of any and all consistent government policy, let alone financial support – both of which have played a pivotal role in this decline. This is all common knowledge. Then, there’s the other finger, expressing the still-sweeping agreement on how utterly awe inspiring 1960s Israeli fashion was.
The generally broad consensus on the fashions of that decade would surprise me time and time again. Whenever the subject came up in conversation, it went a little something like this: the atmosphere in the room would shift, just like that – regardless of what anyone had been talking about prior to – and within seconds, everyone present, virtually without exception, was sporting a huge, proud, and contented smile which was the cue for everyone to start waxing nostalgic together, immediately thereafter, about those swinging halcyon days. With time, I was particularly struck by the direct correlation between the time that has since passed and the increased passion and adoration for the period. That is to say, the longer it had been and the greater the distance was between then and now, the pining for Israeli 1960s fashions – whether as a fleeting reality, image, or myth – only consistently got stronger. Ah yes, and I almost neglected to mention that nearly every conversation on the subject would conclude in a very similar manner: rolling one’s eyes to the high heavens and letting out a despairing sigh, as if to say, “Ahh… didn’t we have it good back then, when the Israeli fashion industry was at its peak… what a shame those days are long gone…”.
The handful of books that chronicle the history of the local fashion industry certainly uphold this narrative. The 1960s, as a decade, are consistently framed as no less than the Golden Age of Israeli fashion. It would seem that the reasons for that are both valid and varied in equal measure: at the time, a number of distinctly local fashion houses were dominating the market, including Beged Or (‘leather outfit’), Gottex, Maskit, and Rikma (‘embroidery’) – all of which became a source of national pride, not only for successfully creating an original and distinctly Israeli style and aesthetic, but also for their immense popularity and commercial success in the international fashion sphere.
Meanwhile, another now-grand tradition was getting off the ground – Tel Aviv Fashion Week. These events soon began to attract fashion buyers and intrigued media figures from all over the world. Now, beyond all the fanfare, these fashion weeks also had their financial merit, and their rise in popularity played a major part in the flourishing of industry factories that began manufacturing local product on a regular message. At the same time, European A-List haute couturiers started travelling to Israel where they were unveiling their brand-new collections in high-profile, exclusive events. This whole scene, in all its facets, put Israel on the global fashion map.
However, when you factor in what life was like in Israel at the time, and that it was still very much a young state struggling to find its own national identity, any talk of an international fashion boom sounded almost entirely farfetched. Looking at the chronological timeline, the 1960s in Israel are bookended by the trial of Adolf Eichmann at the start of the decade and the Six-Day-War in the latter part. And even if the decade did end on nationwide note of euphoria and elation following the victory in the war, one would struggle in hindsight – even with the rosiest of rose-tinted glassed on – to apply to them the same moniker that became so synonymous with the decade across the West: ‘the swinging sixties’, a term coined in London to describe the seismic shifts and changes in pretty much all walks of life at the time, was enshrined as a bona fide cultural revolution whose impact was felt all over the world.
So just how swinging were ‘the swinging sixties’ in Israeli fashion? Was it indeed that jolly around here before I was born? Judging by the footage that’s survived at the Israeli Film Archive, the answer to that is a resounding yes. ‘The spirit of the ‘60s’ in all its local shades and facets, is unmistakable in so many of the Geva Newsreels that have captured it. The black and white shorts produced by Geva Films, with government backing – that were shown regularly in Israeli cinemas throughout the 1950s and ‘60s in newsreel format before the evening’s main feature presentation – offer several glimpses of some of the period’s more prominent, watershed moments.
The sheer number of reels dedicated to featuring the fashion of the day suggests that the 1960s were indeed the most thriving decade in the industry. With a formidable wealth of selections on offer, there’s fashion shows galore, adverts, fashion and art exhibitions, behind-the-scenes footage inside the factories and reports on the opening of new ones, high-profile visits from international designers, and so much more. The image of reality, as portrayed in the reels, is in line with all the values and markers that have since become so synonymous with the swinging sixties: the cultural explosion, alongside rising curiosity, and the willingness to experiment and blend together different styles and aesthetics, blazing new trails, and conquering uncharted territories.
As a whole, the newsreels complete the course charted by all the aforementioned moments – the brands and high-profile events, the growth of the industry, etc. – covering each and every one of these milestones that helped to cement Israeli 1960s fashion’s mythical status, with the pièce de résistance no doubt being Tel Aviv Fashion Week. There’s no telling whether the thought process behind the idea of having several back-to-back weeks of fashion shows was the product of their immense popularity in Israel at the time. Either way, those were – for all intents and purposes – high-profile, star-studded cultural and entertainment events that drew women by the droves. Long before the age of the internet and budget airlines, these shows offered a rare up-close-and-personal opportunity to take in all the latest fashion trends and novelties from overseas. Interestingly, in those days Italy and France were fighting for top tier tastemaker rights, and Israeli women were called to cast their deciding vote between the two most prominent schools of design dominating the fashion capitals at the time – Paris and Rome
The miniskirt is, by all accounts, a distinct product of the swinging sixties. Looking back, the huge cultural shakeup brought on by the skimpy skirt – whose echoes are all too present in print media articles of the time – seems like a veritable storm in a teacup. In one reel covering the new trend that had taken over the Israeli high street by storm, young women are seen walking about the streets of Tel Aviv, with the cameraman almost literally trying to get in their skirts. The profoundly unsettling camera angle – from below – a voyeuristic, invasive point-of-view attempting to emphasise just how little leg skin is covered by the skirt – would never have cleared an editor today [and might even have fallen under the heading of ‘upskirting’ – EE]. Watching the footage will no doubt make contemporary viewers cringe.
One other mark of the period is the attempt to marry fashion and art. When a worldly-renowned French designer was invited to showcase his latest designs in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a whole lot of local middle-class ‘pearl clutching’ ensued. Then again, at the same time, a group of young Israeli artists who had been drawing on fabrics and then sold the pieces to use as materials for original garments were hugely successful.
This, like other details, I had gleaned from a bit of simultaneous trawling through the print media archives. More often than not, all the stories and pieces I’d curated helped me to fill in any blanks I might have been left with after watching the reel footage at the Israeli Film Archive. In several instances, when piecing together the big picture, the newly added information created an image of reality that much more nuanced and different to the odd snapshot captured in the video archive. Look at Maskit, for instance – a local fashion house for which the sixties marked a loss of direction. The factory, which first shot to fame in the 1950s, started to lose its way due to consistent mismanagement. To this day, there is no contesting the brand’s creative triumphs, nor the unique styles and trends that it set; however as a financial enterprise, Maskit with time lost all its viability until it was eventually sold off to private entrepreneurs.
The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ that is especially commonplace in the fashion industry comes to mind in this context. It refers to any visual phenomenon which, on closer inspection, is revealed as an optical illusion – gaseous clouds on the one hand, and silhouettes doubling themselves in multiple reflections, on the other. That is not to say that this collection of archival footage compiled here makes for a misrepresentation of 1960s fashions. Not in the slightest. What is more, in handpicking these segments, I made no attempt at singlehandedly summarising, in one fell swoop, a network of narratives and cultural and artistic developments within a decade’s chronological framework. Nor does this following collection presume to assume a historical role, per se, in the sense of presenting an authoritative, chronological, reconstructive summary – let alone force some version of hindsight wisdom on the past. Instead, it offers one the chance to look back, however briefly, and observe reality and its portrayal through a different set of eyes. And dare I say, it may even gain something from the film archive’s innate sense of a ‘present continuous,’ and the vitality it breathes into all those moments otherwise lost in time and expunged from memory.