Over the past two years, Vi has grown her fashion history YouTube channel SnappyDragon to over 85,000 subscribers, posting period drama costume reviews, medieval hairdos, historical costume recreations and more. But when she discovered how little, if any, Jewish fashion history there was in the thriving historical costume community, she became eager to learn more herself and bring Jewish representation and acceptance to this space. Instead of identifying with historical fashion, she wanted to participate in a way that affirmed her Jewish identity. This means creating new videos focused on the historical dress and costumes of Jewish communities, using her background and lifelong interest in hairdressing to bring historically accurate interpretations to life.
For Vee, historical fashion is not just an interest, but a crucially unexplored way for people to connect with their ancestors. Her new YouTube series “The Clothes on Their Backs” takes this passion to even greater heights. Produced over six episodes, with funding and support from the Jewish Authors Initiative, “The Clothes on Their Backs” follows V in the process of recreating the Shabbat clothes worn by her great-grandmother Carolina. In the year In 1881 New York. The series goes into the design process – from choosing the right fabrics to finding antique buttons with stars of David on them – sewing the clothes, wearing them in the Tenement Museum and retracing the steps of Carolina on the Lower East Side.
Hey Alma recently caught up with the crew on the Lower East Side in a dress she created for the series.
The series follows you as you learn more about your ancestor, Carolina. What made you feel connected to her?
She was what I would become during that time. I think it’s common for people to watch a historical drama or read a historical novel and see themselves in that scene with their characters or images of themselves. And for most of my life I would read these historical fiction books or watch period dramas and wonder, “Where are the Jews?” I thought so. There are no Jews! So if I want to identify with that character, I have to literally forget that I’m Jewish and that it matters. When I think about someone like Carolina, I can look and see, no, this is what I used to be. If I put myself in that historical situation, I am. And that’s very powerful, because it gives you a way to see yourself in history without separating yourself from these parts of who you are.
Did your sewing and dressmaking background make it easy to connect with Carolina, who spent her days sewing clothes?
I feel like I don’t understand much visually because I know more about what it looks like. I don’t know what it’s like to sit in a factory with a younger brother for 12 hours a day, six days a week. I don’t know what it looks like. But I know what it’s like to try to make a dress for myself on a deadline. And I know what it’s like to think, well, what’s the fastest way to do it versus the right way to do it? I know what it’s like to sit at a sewing machine for hours a day, not 12, not an industrial sewing machine, not in a factory. But it gives me enough of a framework to be able to hear that and think, wow, how hard was that. Even if I don’t know it, right in my chest, I can imagine how my shoulders will feel three hours later – and four times the picture. [that]. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
You’ve spent the past few days walking around New York City in full historical costume. Does wearing the costume help you better understand what it was like to be a woman in the world in the 1880s? How does it feel different?
Physically, it almost changes your posture. The way the shoulders are on this body, I have to hold my shoulders properly. As 21st century humans we push forward. But if I do this, the back will drag and the front will start to wrinkle. So I have to have a good attitude. And down here, I’m wearing a corset, even though it’s a bit that people always worry about. My waist is no less. I will not change the size. It looks like a bra with back support. It’s not convenient. I mean, it gets a little tiring after a whole day in it, but it doesn’t hurt. I’m not bound to shrink my waist. It’s just a base layer. But it changes your position. I don’t lean back on the subway, I sit up straight. And even now, if I try to lean back, I feel like that’s not how a corset wants to sit. I haven’t left the house in 21st century clothes since Monday and I’m comfortable. That’s the thing. As soon as I started wearing it, I was surprised how at home I felt.
Can you describe what you wear – what are all the covers?
My first layer is a chemise and drawers, which means long floral underwear. Now I’m wearing modern woolen socks and lace-up boots. I wore over-the-knee cotton stockings and boots when I did the full outfit for the shoot yesterday. I didn’t wear them today because they weren’t broken enough and I started to get a little bit torn and I said no, wear lace boots, they’re not common these days but I can walk them all. Day in these. Next I have a corset, which is plain white cotton. Bone is very simple; It can be more flexible than my nails. It’s synthetic whalebone, which is a very similar material, but we no longer save it as a renewable resource. So it’s artificial, not the real thing.
There is a tumultuous tile. This is 1881, before large eclipses became fashionable. Big riots start to become fashionable in 2010. In 1883 So that is only tied at the waist of the corset. I also have a petticoat, which is just white cotton under the dress, just like a petticoat except it has a waist and drawers instead of hooks and eyes. It is a simple cheap fabric, it is easy to wash, because you want it to be a dirty layer instead of a good fabric.
What I don’t have, and should do but haven’t had time to do, is a corset cover. A corset lining is a small cam that adjusts the corset line under the top, and is another lining, so the metal buckle in your corset doesn’t wear out on a nice dress.
How did Jewish fashion differ from other fashions worn at the time?
That’s the question that ties everything I do into Jewish identity, because half the time we don’t know. There are things I can suggest. For example, I can say that sometimes the most fashionable women wear dresses with a low square neck during the day. Carolina probably wouldn’t have worn that if she came from an orthodox community. If she is orthodox, she starts covering her hair when she gets married; She wore more than just a hat. If you work with wool, you have to be careful with your materials in a way that non-Jews don’t understand if you don’t want to end up wearing shatnez. [mixing wool and linen, which is prohibited under Jewish law].
How did you come to choose Carolina as the central character in this series?
I was looking at ancestors that came back on my mother’s side – I have a great-aunt in 1904, my great-grandmother came over that side in 1919 or 1920 – but those were very widespread times. Covered, with stories that make me feel more covered. I then traced my father’s side and found Carolina, my first female ancestor on my side of the family.
I am not related to my immediate family on my father’s side. This is not possible or safe for me. And I was looking at that and thinking, this is a way to bridge the gap in my relationship with that side of my family. There’s so much I can’t figure out. I can’t tell anyone from my family about her. I don’t get a lot of personal stories. But how many people are struggling with the idea of connecting with their heritage, their family history, if they have some kind of disconnection or difficulty with their immediate family?
I talked to my colleagues in the Writers Guild who were helping me prepare this project and said maybe I shouldn’t mention it. They said: No, you talk about it. Because you have like-minded people in the audience who want to hear about what they’ve gone through.
What was it like to research Carolina’s history?
There is nothing that can rebuild that relationship with my immediate family. But it’s nice to be able to say that there are parts of me that I can’t stop myself from looking at that side of the family. Although in history research, or in dress rather than family history and personal connections, I don’t have to throw away the good to set the boundaries I need, which is a big deal. I think a lot of people struggle with feeling like you have to connect with you, even if it’s not healthy for you, or that you’ve completely cut off that whole part of who you are.
You are one of the few creators in the world of historical costume design that specifically tells Jewish stories. What prompted this interest?
It feels great to be able to tap into what feels like a void in the Jewish sphere, and it feels great to bring a Jewish perspective to a community of people who are interested in costume and fashion history, but perhaps don’t see Jews represented in this area. When I first talked about my Jewish identity on my YouTube channel, I got a lot of comments like this. It was my first video to get a lot of views and really go viral. And I’ve never seen people talk about the history of Jewish fashion, I’ve never seen him talk about being a Jew in medieval clothing. And certainly not in the way that they celebrate his identity instead of just talking about anti-Semitism.