Clothing and Religion

A Happy New Year.
Hebrew Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1920.
Note difference in dress between new arrivals (Right)
and established immigrants (Left).
Prints and Photographs Division (52),
Library of Congress.

Do you dress your religious beliefs?  Some American religions (Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, to name a few) include doctrines about how practitioners should clothe their bodies.  Other American religions have unofficial dress codes that mark congregants as insiders.  What role has clothing played in American religion from the colonial era to the present?

In Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920, Barbara Schreier argues clothing signaled shifts in religious identity.  Immigrants during the Great Migration often abandoned Jewish restrictions on dress in order to appear "more American."  Clothing, she notes, became an "identifiable symbol of a changing consciousness" (Schreier 5).  Women often bore the brunt of these changes. "My mother," wrote Mary Antin, "gradually divested herself...of the mantel of orthodox observance; but the process cost her many a pang, because the fabric of that venerable garment was interwoven with the fabric of her soul" (Schreier 12).

In this post I would like to turn the clock back before the Great Migration began to the 1790s-1840s, an era in which the notion of what it meant to be a Jew was undergoing radical transformations.  Clothing, I will argue, helped respond to those changes. Portraits of Jews from this era struggle to confront what it meant to be a Jewish women in an era in which Jewishness and gender were increasingly embodied.  Unlike Shreier who primarily uses photographs for her analysis, I will turn mainly to early American portraits.  I'd like to talk about three examples in particular: Pierre Jacques Benoit's "Five enslaved women going to various places of worship" and Shop of the Jewish "Vette-Warier" [retailer] (ca. 1831); the portrait of Sarah Brandon Moses (early 19th century; AJHS); and J.L. Riker's daguerreotype of "Johannes Ellis en Maria Louisa de Hart" (ca. 1846; Rijksmuseum).
Pierre Jacques Benoit, Voyage a Surinam . . . cent dessins pris sur nature par l'auteur (Bruxelles, 1839), plate xvi, fig. 32. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

Detail of Jewish retailer
Isak Abraham Levy
My first examples come from Suriname in the 1830s, and were created by Belgian artist Pierre Jacques Benoit.  Benoit traveled to Suriname in the 1830s, and he used the experience to create a series of pro-slavery "sketches of character" that suggested that races could be easily identified by physical characteristics. (Many of his sketches have been digitized by the University of Virginia.)  During this 1790s-1840s  Jews were increasingly racialized; that is, they were increasingly depicted as always already embodying certain characteristics and traits.  Benoit is no exception to this trend. Although Jews are not his primary concern, he does seek to place them within the new racial hierarchies of the colony.  Clothing as well as physiognomy help establish Jews' place: retailer Isak Abraham Levy for example in the image above and to the right, is marked as Jewish not only through his occupation, but also through his facial features and dress: his distinctive cap is found on no one else in Benoit's collection, and--as we will see--his loose, ill-fitting clothes mark him as Jewish and non-white.  Benoit uses the language of the early nineteenth-century dress to label non-white and non-Christian bodies as disorganized and morally suspect.
Pierre Jacques Benoit, Voyage a Surinam . . . cent dessins pris sur nature par l'auteur (Bruxelles, 1839), plate xi, fig. 20. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)
The Jewish woman in Benoit's "Five enslaved women going to various places of worship" (above) is also marked by her clothing choice. The women are from right to left, a Lutheran, a Jew, a Calvinist, a Moravian. In the background, a young Christian is going to church on a holiday. Clothing distinguishes each practitioner, and here Jewishness is equated with loose and revealing clothing and hair that will not be restrained.

Dressing white and Christian.  Detail from
fig. 24
of Benoit's Voyage to Surinam (1839)
Moreover, in both of Benoit's portraits, Jews are racialized as not white via association and dress.  Benoit's Jewish man and woman are either literally of partial African descent, they work with other non-whites, or are made visually parallel via their gestures to non-whites (and in the shopkeeper picture to a monkey). Yet in addition, Jews' loose clothing marks them as non-white and less civilized. White (Christian) men in Benoit's portraits consistently overdress for the tropics in top hats, high neck shirts, ties, and fitted jackets that emphasize via nineteenth-century fashion codes white men's genteel civility and bodily restraint (left or slave market scene).  White (Christian) women are similarly dressed like northern fashion plates out of Godey's Lady's Book, in white gloves, Parisian gowns that would require corsets, rigid hats, lace, and stockings (left).  As Penelope Byrde has noted, fashions such as these not only restrained women's bodies so extensively that they seemingly "imprisoned" or made women "dependent by their clothes," but also put "a distance between them and the approaching male, as if women were unassailable and untouchable" (Byrde 21). Religion, gender, race, and clothing came together in a nexus to create sketches of character and identity.

Anonymous, "Sarah Brandon Moses" (AJHS); Digital Version
in Loeb Database of Early American Jewish Portraits
Second and similarly, the early nineteenth-century miniature of Sarah Brandon Moses (1799-1828) uses clothing to respond to and counter early racialized and gendered messages regarding Jews as loose, immoral, and less civilized.  Although the official biography of Sarah in both Loeb Database of Early American Jewish Portraits and David de Sola Pool's Portraits Etched in Stone: Early Jewish Settlers, 1682-1831 (NY Columbia University Press, 1953) presents Sarah as the daughter of two Sephardic Jews from Barbados, archival evidence suggests she was born into slavery as the natural daughter of Sephardic Jew Abraham Rodriguez Brandon and a slave women of partial Sephardic descent.  Sarah was manumitted as a child with the help of her father and later converted to Judaism (probably in Suriname) prior to her marriage to Ashkenazi Jew Joshua Moses in London in 1817.

Anonymous, "Urania, Muse of
Unknown Plaster Vatican
Museums and Galleries, Vatican
Firmin Massot, Portrait of the
Empress Josephine (1812)
Sarah wears a neo-classical, "Regency style," white vertical gown, probably made of muslim or silk, fabrics which were favored in the era because they suggested a resemblance to the marble of classical sculpture (left; Cunnington 28). Although Sarah's portrait is undated, the neckline, high waist, and sleeves of her dress suggest that it was created ca. 1815, when Sarah was sixteen years old (see Cunnington  34, 38-54).  After a high waist, the gown would have had a long, narrow skirt that combined with the light material would have draped "gracefully" over her lower body and would have "evoked the clinging draperies of antique statues" (left; Byrde 23). Her hair is likewise swept up in a neoclassical style, with ringlets to either side of the face as was popular in 1815-17 (Cunnington 63).  Sarah's neo-classical dress not only positioned Sarah as cultured, but also depicted her as free.  In France, the style was associated first with the Revolution and then with Roman-styled emperor Napoleon and his wife, the Empress Josephine (above right).  Sarah's white dress with its delicate lace bespoke not only of the wearers' elegance, style, and purity, but also her literal freedom from labor: the dress's whiteness and delicate lace would be easily tarnished by the physical work it took to clean and run a nineteenth-century household. 

Anonymous, "Portrait of a Surinamese Girl"
(ca. 1810). Copyright, Rijksmuseum.
Thomas Sully, "Sally Etting"
(1808) Jewish Museum, NY
Sarah's dress also genders her in response to racial messages about Jewish women and women of mixed African descent. Although when the Regency style first appeared its exposure of the body's lines was considered "indelicate" and "shocking," by the time Sarah's portrait was made, the style was considered "chaste, neat, and simple," even though the shape of the breasts were often emphasized and in evening versions a fair amount of the back and bosom might be exposed (Cunnington 28; Ribeiro 118). Notably Sarah's dress is more modest than that of some of her North American Jewish contemporaries like Eliza Myers (1808) or Sally Etting (above right and 1808, 1815-18) who wore dresses of similar make that were lower cut, had bare shoulders, or had shorter sleeves.  In this sense, Sarah's portrait reflects other early miniatures of young women of mixed-African descent from Suriname from this era in the Rijksmuseum (above left and Anonymous, "Portrait of a Surinamese Girl" ca. 1805; Rijksmuseum).  Sumptuary laws in Suriname forbid enslaved women from covering their chests in order to emphasize their lack of governance over their own bodies. Thus in this context, the ability to cover the body more signaled greater freedom not less. Sarah's portrait defies racial stereotypes and demurely covers her body.
J.L. Riker's daguerreotype of "Johannes Ellis en Maria Louisa de Hart" (1846). Rijksmuseum

Detail of Maria Louisa de Hart
(1846). Rijksmuseum
My third and last example of clothing and the intersection of race, gender, and religion comes from 1846 in Suriname (above). J.L. Riker's daguerreotype depicts wealthy mixed-race newly weds Johannes Ellis and Maria Louisa de Hart (Rijksmuseum).  Like Sarah, Maria Louisa de Hart (born 1826) was the daughter of a slave and a Jewish plantation owner, Mozes-Meijer de Hart.  As a child she was manumitted along with her mother.  Her husband Johannes Ellis (born 1812), was the son of Abraham de Veer, the Dutch governor of Elmina in present-day Ghana, and the Ghanaian Fanny Ellis.  Unlike nineteenth-century U.S. racial laws which posited blackness and whiteness and inflexible, biological categories, Surinamese law divided so-called “quadroons” (people with three white grandparents and one black) into two categories: those born of legal marriages who were officially “white” and those born from Surinamese marriages and non-legal relationships were categorized as “coloured” (Hoefte and Vrij 157).  Whiteness could also be conferred to children ex post facto if the father married the mother after the children's birth.  Since Maria's father married her mother after her own and mother's manumission, Maria had the potential to be categorized white.  (Her mother's parentage is unknown.)  Her parents' marriage, however, was not a Jewish one, and Maria was raised as a Christian and never converted. Her clothing helps support this white, Christian identity.  

Detail of Maria Louisa de Hart's dress
(1846). Rijksmuseum
Maria's dress is at the height of 1846 fashion and bespeaks changes in gender and the flexibility of racial categories in Suriname.  Compared to Sarah Brandon Moses's dress, Maria's waist line has lengthened and narrowed, and the skirt has become wider. These changes in dress reflect a movement away from the freedom of the Regency style and towards a new vision of femaleness in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  As Clare Lyons and other have argued, gender became more fixed by the early nineteenth century.  By the early nineteenth century, a new discourse on gender began to replace the old "one-body" model of human anatomy that had argued that "men and women had a common physiological existence, which required the proper functioning of all four humors for health.  Because humors were not fixed but could change from one substance to another, a person's character and even gender could be transformed." Under this model, gender was revealed and created through clothing and deportment, rather than being rooted in the biology of the body. By the early nineteenth century, however, a new discourse on gender began to replace the old model.  Although clothing still supported gendered identities, women began to be seen as "inherently different" in terms of anatomy and biology.  Male and female bodies were suddenly "radically incommensurable" (Lyons 152-53).  Like Benoit's 1830s portraits of white women, Maria's dress marks her as distant from the male gaze, and makes her "unassailable and untouchable" (Byrde 21).  It also, however, literally remade her body as radically different from that of both men and working women who physical activity precluded the "privilege" of tight lacing (below). 
How corsets reshaped and remade female bodies to be "radically incommensurable" with male bodies. O'Followell, Le Corset (1908)
1845 Corset from Valerie Steele’s The Corset
Whereas the regency style relied on long, relatively loose stays, the narrow waist and full skirt of the 1840s relied on petticoats and corsets (above and right).  Maria's dress's narrow waist line depends on the tighter lacing that became popular in the 1840s. Indeed despite health concerns about corsets and pregnancy, Maria is heavily corseted with a fashionably narrow waist even though she was pregnant at the time with future Surinamese minister and Dutch cabinet member Abraham George Ellis (1846-1916).  In Maria and Johannes's wedding portrait, Johannes has the leisured pose of a gentleman, whereas Maria sits upright.  She has no other choice, as her corset did not allow her middle section to bend as his does.  Ironically, though, her restricted dress connoted and required leisure as much as his relaxed pose and white pants did, as she could not have performed hard labor wearing it.  Maria's dress which distanced viewers from her lower body also constituted sacrifice.  Hooped petticoats (1856+) had not yet made their appearance, so the width of her skirt would have required layers of woven and/or horsehair petticoats (Tobin 14), an almost unimaginable fashion given the hot and humid weather of Suriname.  Her extensive jewelry and lacy fingerless gloves (mitts) attest not only to her class, but also her sense of fashion. Fingerless mitts created a delicate barrier between women hand's and objects and were an important part of ladies' dress,  They can be seen in fashion magazines and other daguerreotypes from the 1840s.  Her necklace also bespeaks privilege and similar to other French Rococo necklaces from  the decade.  Her clothing attests to her status as wealthy, leisured, and privileged, despite childhood experiences with slavery. Moreover, in the language of nineteenth century dress it styles her as desirable in a refined, elegant, and unassailable way.  Although she did not identify as a Jew, her style of dress coheres with fashionable, young North American Jewish women of the same class and era.

Amelie Dautel D'Aubigny, Phebe Yates Lazarus (ca. 1840). Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association
Both notions of Jewishness and gender changed radically in the 1790s-1840s, and women's portraits reflect and respond to messages about what it mean to be a Jewish American woman.  I hope this post could begin some discussions of how we might think about the intersection of religion and clothing beyond an assimilationist vs. devout model.

Works Cited and Resources
Byrde, Penelope.  Nineteenth Century FashionLondon: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1992.

Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations (Dover Fashion and Costumes [1937]. NY: Dover Publications, 1990.

Godey's Lady's Book (1830-98). Online free at the University of Vermont (1855-58).  Full archives by subscription at Accessible Archives.

Handler, Jerome S. and Michael L. Tuite Jr. The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. [Includes digital versions of Benoit's work]. University of Virginia. updated 13 Nov 2013.

Hoefte, Rosemarijn and Vrij, Jean Jacques, "Free Black and Colored Women in Early-Nineteenth-Century Paramaribo, Suriname," in David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (eds), Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004. 145–68.

Loeb Database of Early American Jewish Portraits. American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS)

Lyons, Clare A. Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina P., 2006)

Ribeiro, Aileen.  The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Schreier, Barbara.  Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1995.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural HistoryNew Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Tobin, Shelley.  Inside Out: A Brief History of Underwear.  London: National Trust, 2000.


This is fantastic, Laura, and such great images! For my own work, I'm patiently waiting for Sally Dwyer-McNulty's Common Threads
A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism
, out this spring.
Unknown said…
Thanks Monica! That book looks awesome. I am definitely pre-ordering a copy.
Unknown said…
Hi Monica hope you doing great. Thanks for sharing a historical post with us.
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