Fashion Activism for Social Change
Rut Dayan: Remembering an Innovator in Ethical Fashion
A few weeks ago in Tel-Aviv, an extraordinary woman passed away at the striking age of 103. The woman was Rut Dayan - an Israeli activist, promoter of co-existence, and a vigorous human being. In a recent interview, her grandson, Lior Dayan, quoted her as saying that "there was much less panic during the Spanish Flu."Somehow, her witty spirit and broad view of the world could even make the Covid-19 pandemic seem manageable.
Rut Dayan was a woman of many virtues, driven by her kindness and genuine desire to help improve the world around her. She was an advocate of peaceful relations between Israel and Palestine, worked on behalf of new immigrants, Bedouins’ rights, and women’s causes. She was the founder of social organizations, including a Jewish-Arab social group, the Maskit Fashion and Decorative House, and the Variety Israel Organization, supporting children with disabilities and their families.
You will find many articles, books, and stories about Rut, but we would like to focus on one - her invention of ethical fashion, decades before the term was coined. This month's insider is dedicated to Rut, celebrating the inspiring light of her actions and personality that will forever shine on the HÍDAS brand.
Rut Dayan. By Yael Rozen, 1973
Rut Dayan’s story is deeply rooted in the history of Israel. She was born as Rut Schwartz in 1917 in Haifa, during the region’s Ottoman Empire rule to Russian immigrants parents. Her pioneering character probably runs down the familial feminine line, as her mother, Rachel Schwartz, was the first woman in Palestine to ever obtain a driver’s license! When Rut was two, her family relocated to Britain for a mission, where her young and only sister, Reuma, was born. The family spent six years in London before they headed back and settled in Jerusalem. At the age of 18, Rut left home to study agriculture and farming at the village of Nahalal, where she met her future husband, Moshe Dayan. He later became a legendary Israeli military leader and world-known politician.
Israel of the early 1950s was a melting pot. New immigrants from Europe (Romania,Poland, Bulgaria), Asia ( Yemen, Iran, Iraq) and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) had arrived in this developing country and tried to find their way around. Seemingly, they had nothing in common other than being persecuted Jewish refugees who arrived in a country that generations have dreamed of for 2000 years. Building the country by the hands was the motto endowed by the government, and so - the newcomers were usually trained to agriculture work.
At the time, Rut worked as an instructor in the new immigrant villages and taught domestic skills such as cooking and vegetable cultivating. Soon enough, she noticed the endless frustration all around - the extremely harsh conditions, such as lack of water and rat infestations, were tough to cope with. She felt that what she was teaching went to waste, not helping the newcomers to earn a living and settle in their new country.
Rut didn’t have an affinity for fashion or arts in the first place, but the humanitarian motives are the ones that drove her to action, led her to establish Maskit - a fashion and decorative art house that provided jobs for new immigrants and preserved ethnic crafts and cultures of the various communities living in Israel at the time.
The idea of Maskit first crossed Dayan’s mind in 1949, as she noticed a few Bulgarian women in the village embroider traditional patterns on fabrics. She figured that it would be much more productive to utilize their already rooted skills to generate revenue. A spark of action ignited her, and she began searching the country and locating various artists who have expertise in traditional crafts. In five years, She managed to extend the work into 20 villages, receive governmental support, get more instructors to join her, and develop professional courses and workspaces so more people can join.
Ruth Dayan visits carpet manufacturers under her management and guidance. Photographed by Rudy Wiesenstein, Ha’Tsalmania, Perry-Or, 1954.
By 1954, Maskit was a government-supported company. As they expanded, Rut hired Fini Leitersdorf, a Hungary-born fashion designer, to design the first collections which were a blend of the artist’s authentic offerings and Leitersdorf’s classical-cosmopolitan education.
Maskit’s innovative legendary style was a fusion of biblical myths, a combination of the newcomers’ origin cultures and heritages, and Israel’s unique landscape and sunlight.
Maskit had set a brand new Israeli style, offering Haute Couture garments at a time fashion in Israel didn’t really exist. The company owned ten stores in Israel, one in New York, and supported over 2000 families. Its products were sold at department stores in the US. Its garments and decor objects were presented in galas and fundraisers for Israel Palestine Bonds.
If this is not Ethical Fashion - What is?!
I was lucky to have met Rut Dayan once at her modest yet wonder-filled apartment in northern Tel-Aviv. It was a sunny Wednesday morning. The two of us met with Fabiana Magri (who wrote a piece about the social power of fashion) and shared our stories. I remember Rut sitting among embroidered colorful cushions, the walls behind her filled with unique art, photos of her family members and dear friends. She had a story to tell about every carpet, painting, picture, and vase in her house - who made it, how they made it, and why.
I remember her careful attention to detail. When I visited her, she was just in the midst of reading ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama, which was released earlier that year. Her vision was already weak by then. She squinted with her eyes but still managed to finish the book. I remember her taking care of her plants, observing a leaf closely, feeling its texture, moved by its shape and color.
Rut at her apartment sitting in the right side of the picture, next to her my super mamager standing, Fabiana is sitting in the BRIDGING cape, myself, and Reuma Waitsman, Rut’s sister. We spent hours talking, listening to the incredible stories of those two YOUNG ladies, and laughing. Since that meeting, we stayed in touch by phone. Rut always remembered the Wearable-Science scarf I gave her.
Rut was one the most open-minded people I have ever met, deeply interested and inspired by people and cultures, listening wholeheartedly to different stories, including my own.
For her, it was always about the people. “Even in times of war, as her husband Moses entered and left Gaza as army commander, Rut entered Gaza to find the local goldsmiths and weavers.
‘I just sat with the people. (...) That's part of it. Sit with them, eat their food, hear their troubles, bond. Human relations are not a substitute for politics, they are a basis. The secret is humanity, to treat the people on the other side as human beings.’” (Aviad Fohorlis, Israel Hayom).
For us at HÍDAS, everything begins with human connections as well: A conversion with a Palestinian architect from the gaza strip. Time spent listening to the stories of Syrian Refugees. Memories of a Jewish Calligraphy artist from Jerusalem. Our collections combine the expertise of different artists, fused together on detailed patterns and high-quality fabrics. Learning from the story of Maskit, we always seek the possibility of using fashion as a tool to promote social change.
Maskit is a timeless brand. What makes it one is not only its majestic designs and unique aesthetics or the statement every piece carries. More than anything, it was Rut’s values that shaped the success of Maskit:
The way she looked at someone, put herself and her ideas of what this person might need aside, feel what they actually need, and then get to work to collaborate and create with everyone she met in a meaningful way.
The example Rut set in her innovative approach to fashion is one that we at HÍDAS admire and hope to continue in our work.
Michal & the HÍDAS team
Photo credit: Inbal Marmari