Sally Dwyer-McNulty: Fashioning Catholicism and Jewish Allies

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American CatholicismToday we welcome a guest post from Sally Dwyer-McNulty, author of Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism available in paperback from UNC Press.

A well-illustrated cultural history of the apparel worn by American Catholics, Dwyer-McNulty’s book reveals the transnational origins and homegrown significance of clothing in developing identity, unity, and a sense of respectability for a major religious group that had long struggled for its footing in a Protestant-dominated society often openly hostile to Catholics. Focusing on those who wore the most visually distinct clothes—priests, women religious, and schoolchildren—Dwyer-McNulty tracks and analyzes changes in Catholic clothing all the way through the twentieth century and into the present, which finds the new Pope Francis choosing to wear plain black shoes rather than ornate red ones.

Common Threads is available in both print and ebook editions.


Fashioning Catholicism and Jewish Allies

Journalists covering the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s much anticipated exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” note that Christine and Stephen A. Swarzman, generous contributors to the exhibit and its festivities, are themselves not all Catholic. Christine is Catholic, but Stephen A. Swarzman is Jewish. Nevertheless it is through their support, as a couple, that this display of Catholic aesthetics and fashion comes to the public’s attention. Nearly a century ago, other Jewish allies lent their talents toward illuminating Catholicism visual presence in the form of school uniforms. Victor and Emil Eisenberg, Jewish clothiers in Philadelphia, held the first diocesan uniform contract with the Superintendent of Catholic Schools, and dressed generations of high school girls with their first uniforms. While it’s not the Catholic couture one will find in the Met’s galleries, the school girl’s uniform, nevertheless, deserves a place in the wardrobe history of Catholic clothing. And once again, it was with Jewish assistance that Catholic fashion or perhaps unfashion, reached the public eye.

Victor Eisenberg’s parents, Moses Aisenberg (later Morris Eisenberg and Katherine Scherman (later Katherine Sherman Eisenberg), emigrated to the United States in 1886 and 1891, respectively. Moses came from Kiev, part of the then Russian Empire and Katherine from Russia controlled Poland. Jews in Russia suffered severe discrimination at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, especially after the passage of the 1882 May Laws. Through these edicts, the Czar’s government restricted Jewish access to professional occupations, higher education, and property. Sewing was one of the acceptable occupations that Jews could pursue, and many, women and men, made their livelihoods in tailoring. Even worse, violent and death-dealing pogroms threatened the Russian Jewish settlements. The Aisenbergs and the Schermans joined the wave of over two million Jews who fled Russia between the years 1881 and 1914. Both Moses and Katherine readily found employment in the needle trade, met, and married in the United States. Two of their sons, Emil born in 1902, and Victor in 1905 grew up in Philadelphia, and followed their parents into the garment business.

When Emil and Victor entered clothing manufacturing after high school, the Archdioceses of Philadelphia did not outfit their school children in uniforms as a policy. Private and exclusive Catholic schools for young girls often insisted on a dress code and eventually a uniform, but the growing number of parochial and diocesan schools, the free or inexpensive Catholic educational institutions, did not. Alarmed at the growing variety of ready-made clothes and conscious of the financial constraints of urban Catholics, the Philadelphia Archdioceses, under the leadership of Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, moved toward a more standardized look for their schools’ girls. Victor, a cutter at John Wanamaker’s department store went into business to meet this growing demand for school uniforms. When the diocese eventually decided to bid the uniform contract out to one suppler, Victor and another colleague, a clothing salesman of Irish decent, Edward O’Hara, won the coveted contract. Emil then joined his brother in business too. For many years to come, the company Eisenberg and O’Hara devoted itself to this burgeoning market, Catholic school girl uniforms.

Eisenberg and O’Hara outfitted Catholic girls’ high schools such as the John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, West Philadelphia Catholic Girls’ High School and Little Flower, among others. With a single color assigned to each school, a sea of almost identically clad girls would alight from the buses and trolley cars each morning to walk toward their schools’ entrances. Uniforms, “correctly” worn, rendered the girls the pride of the Catholic Church; they were emblems of Catholic respectability. Sartorial rebels, with their mutinous appearances, could just as easily be spotted, and thus swiftly punished.

The Archdioceses of Philadelphia was one of the earliest promoters of uniforms, but many other dioceses followed this “unfashion” trend. Eisenberg and O’Hara hung a large map of the United States on the wall of their showroom at 13th and Market Streets, marking with pins all the places they sold their uniforms. “It was impressive,” remembers nephew Mel Praissman, “because it showed all the locations, and there were many, that Eisenberg and O’Hara sold their excellent uniforms.” By the 1960s the Catholic school uniform was indeed, iconic. The Swarzmans, while perhaps more interested in the intersection of Catholic art and fashion design, nonetheless continue the practice of Jewish support for Catholic clothing and its myriad forms of display.


Sally Dwyer-McNulty is professor of history at Marist College.