Fashion designers leave their labels on their creations. But costume designers don’t have the same privilege, said Deborah Nadoolman Landis.
Landis, the founding director and chair of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, will co-host “Jewish Thread: The Hidden History of Costume Design in Hollywood” alongside UCLA history professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein. The event, being held Sunday at the James Bridges Theater, will highlight both costume design’s history and the significance of Jewish individuals in the field, Stein said. Organized by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, the event will allow Jewish costume designers to discuss Judaism’s influence on their work.
“There are a lot of niches of modern culture that tend to gather particular ethnic groups for reasons that are quite complex,” Stein said. “This area of costume design is an area that Jewish artists and practitioners have gravitated towards, and we don’t know why.”
A Jewish costume designer herself, Landis said she conceived of the event when considering the significant number of Jewish colleagues in her field, wondering if it was a coincidence. Panelists will be asked about their cultural upbringing and what attracted them to costume design as a field.
One potential reason for strong Jewish influence in the field could be historical discrimination that the community has faced over years, Stein said. When they first started immigrating to America, they were turned away from many occupations in other industries and had to work marginal jobs, said Vincent Brook, a lecturer in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. But even within the entertainment industry, anti-Semitism has been prevalent, Brook said. For instance, “moguls,” the term commonly used to describe studio heads, is found to have anti-Semitic elements, according to Brook.
“Since the movies were not considered even a reputable industry, that was left open for (Jewish people),” Brook said. “They were in the right place at the right time and then, ironically, they were pushed into this industry by anti-Semitism in America.”
The long history of Jewish involvement with textiles and fashion, Stein said, can also be connected to costume design. Stein said some of Hollywood’s prominent Jewish costume designers have family members who immigrated to America and worked in the fashion industry. Once Jewish individuals became concentrated in the fashion industry, Stein said, family history could play a part in shaping the careers of future generations.
“We are interested in the trajectories these people took and the shape of their art,” Stein said. “(The goal of the event is) to lend a Jewish history to costume design and also to put this art form into the larger story of Jewish history, which has neglected it.”
Landis also said there may be a link between costume designing and the traditional Jewish profession of tailoring. Though this relationship has never been fully explored, Landis said she hopes the discussion will reveal answers to this question, while also exploring how being Jewish contributes to the point of view of costume designers.
Landis’ own love for costume design stemmed from her experience of growing up in Manhattan, New York, in a conservative Jewish home. Her parents took her to the theater from an early age, and she put on shows and made costumes for productions at her parents’ summer camp for deaf children.
“All of (the costume design panelists) are first-, second- and third-generation Americans,” Landis said. “We’ll talk about our life experiences, how we feel connected to our Jewish culture and how – and if – this connection has an impact on our work and our relationship with our job.”
Landis said she hopes the event will highlight her colleagues and the many Jewish founders of costume design, such as Adrian Adolph Greenberg. Greenberg dressed Dorothy in her iconic ruby slippers and blue dress for “The Wizard of Oz” but is largely unrecognized for his costume design work, Landis said. Landis herself has worked on characters like Indiana Jones, as well as Michael Jackson’s costume for his “Thriller” music video.
“Everyone knows who, for instance, Indiana Jones is, but I don’t know how many people … know that I created that character,” Landis said. “Our parents are very happy, because our parents know that we designed all these famous movies, but generally the general public doesn’t know.”
Audience members might not be aware of the panelists’ names but will likely be familiar with their works, Landis said. Through Sunday’s event, she hopes to spotlight Jewish influence on costume design, as well as reiterate the importance of the field, she said.
“Many of my colleagues are Jewish and amongst us we’ve made such an incredible impact on international popular culture,” Landis said. “It just seems like for such a niche profession, (Jewish designers) seem to have this overarching influence.”