Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud

A woman sashays through a bustling street spilling with lemony taxis, acrimonious honks and anonymous faces, to head in my direction. My eyes wonder over her beige tailored jacket, nude eyelet top tucked into a taupe A-line skirt, and finally halt at her vivid vermilion pumps. I am left gaping like an editor feasting her eyes on Coco’s historical reflection gracing the prism of that descending mirrored staircase of Chanel’s 1954 comeback collection. What could it be: her hair, her face, her strut, her scent? None of the above; rather, something magical occurred the moment my gaze rested upon that bright hue in the sartorial sea of pallidness. This phenomenon is known to aesthetes and fashion cognoscenti as the “pop of color”. But what exactly is this mystical power instantly transforming an outfit from drab to fab? Monotonous to marvelous? Lurid to lovely? Miranda Hobbes horrid to Carrie Bradshaw beautiful?

Runways of Runways

Runway of Runways

The Talmud explains: “Poverty is beautiful for the Jewish people, just as a red strap is to a white horse” (Hagigah 9b) .Now that’s something you won’t read in the latest issue of Vogue. Of all visually appealing items, why compare poverty to a sash stuck on a stallion? How is poverty “beautiful” for Jews? Who wants to be pre-rock Jenny from the block? Understanding this enigmatic statement reveals how although the ancient Talmudic sages where neither couturiers nor magazine editors, they did divulge avant-garde insight for the fashion and moral conscious, transcending time, location, and even religion.

Let’s apply a bottom up method of analysis, beginning with a chromatic breakdown. We all feel a little spark upon the sight of rich red roses, red lips, and of course a refined little red dress. Red is the color of blood, leading to its symbolism of vitality. It highlights the essence of life: excitement, energy, sex, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence—all things intense and passionate. White on the other hand, is technically not even a color, but the manifestation of all hues. Thus, it stands for wholeness and completion— virginity, purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, truth, and coldness.

On its own, large quantities of bright red will lead to an eyesore, anger the fashion god’s and make the wearer look like a cheap call-girl–in contrast–plain white will send the observer snoozing, and the wearer down the wedding aisle. But together in appropriate doses, these colors foil one another, working wonders for the wearer and even the most persnickety spectator.

Interestingly, in a culture far far away from Babylonian Talmudists, the mélange of these two pigments has its very own word: Kohaku. In the nation whose flag shares these pigments, Japan, Ko means red, while haku translates as white. Red mixed with white indicates joy and celebration, their pairing in the matrimonial ornaments presents –noshi or kaishi– a compelling quality supporting man’s desire to create a bond between his own life and that of the gods.

There is nothing particularly striking about a red strap— it is just a dyed strip of treated animal skin. Yet sitting upon the snowy horse, vibrant rouge underscores the contours and splendor of a truly majestic animal. A soigné, well groomed steed educes a striking image of strength, dignity, and prosperity. Alone, accessories themselves are of no distinction, but upon the horse they highlight the otherwise unheeded features of equestrian elegance.

Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic. Hedi Slimane might have gone for the grunge in Saint Laurent’s most recent collection, but let’s face it –we’d all rather be the millionaire over the slum dog even if that meant giving up on a Jai Ho. Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway. Challenging times of need and deprivation induce a reevaluation of priorities; after all,  herculean stories of valor and altruism of the Great Depression, WWII, 9/11 and hurricane Katrina are moral pops of color par excellence. Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse.

For the 2011 Cannes film festival, Milla Jovovich took this Talmudic insight quite literally, landing her a spot on oodles of illustrious best dressed lists. Looking killer in Prada, Milla made us all wonder if the devil was involved in the wearer’s enchanted ensemble. The drop-waist gown and scintillating beads conjured up the great Daisy Buchan and her roaring era, while a posterior slit ensured a sexy back.But what makes this the finest look of them all, lies in a minute detail with the grandest impact.Beige, nude, taupe, champagne and all those naughty neutrals are on trend but let’s face it, they can wash the wearer out; that’s where the red accents on the collar, neckline, lips and minaudiere come in, delineating the silhouette’s muted hues. These few major accents play off the gown’s neutrality highlighting the subtleties of the contrasting couture creation.

What's cream,white, and red all over?

What’s cream,white, and red all over?

Another designer utilizing the power of the pop is Christian Loubiton— and boy has it recently developed into quite the brouhaha. Today, it seems everyone wants that tempered touch of rouge. Last year, in a case of high stakes over high heels, Louboutin indicted Yves Saint Laurent over using the French cobbler’s signature red sole. The Yves Saint Laurent heal at issue is monochrome red, covering the insole, outsole, heel and upper portion. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Christian Louboutin had a enforceable trademark for the use of red outsoles, but only when the rest of the shoe was tinted in a contrasting color. Judge Cabranes explained it was “the contrast between the sole and the upper that causes the sole to ‘pop’ and to distinguish its creator.” It’s that discreet hint of tomato red, blood burgundy or pale blush that gives quotidian monochromatic designs that holy je ne sais quoi worth fighting for.

 From right to left: Model in Alexander Huseby, Pippa Middleton in Issa, Angelina Jolie in Valentino, Model in Oscar de la Renta


From right to left: Model in Alexander Huseby, Pippa Middleton in Issa, Angelina Jolie in Valentino, Model in Oscar de la Renta

If the lesson of a white horse is so crucial, where else can it be found in the Judaic canon?

At the Hebrew nation’s very inception, Israelites smeared a strip of blood upon their doorposts for the angel of death to Passover their homes in Egypt; on the Day of Atonement, the high priest wrapped a scarlet thread around the scapegoat’s horn, who was then sent off a cliff to expiate Israel’s sins; the leper was purified through a process involving a crimson string  and releasing one of two birds ; during Israel’s conquest of Canaan Rachav the harlot was spared thanks to the rubicund thread hanging by her window.

Even Solomon’s provocative Song of Songs harnesses the powerful imagery as the lover describes how the maiden’s beautiful “lips are like a scarlet thread” which Rashi understands as “beautiful to keep their promise as the spies did to Rachav the harlot” in the merit of the crimson string (4: 3). The dove-eyed woman returns the encomium explaining “my beloved is white and ruddy” (5:10).

Besides pigmentation and a shout out in the bible, cattle blood, ribbons and lips share an unlikely feature in these sources—redemption. Salvation comes through atoning blood of Israel’s sacrificial lamb, scarlet threads, and luscious cherry stained lips. But how can a nice color combination lead to deliverance? Is the Bible really purporting Sola Colorem; salvation through style alone? Far from it, rather, the aesthetic message of a little red and a whole lot of white translates to the behavioral plane as well. Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticible when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush . Just as the sanguine shard makes Angelina’s Valentino gown, it was Martin Luther King’s ardent dreams that liberated a subjugate peoples, Stravinsky’s octatonic chords that form the Rite of Spring,a cherry on top which gives the Shirley Temple it’s tantalizing charm. So the next time you want to leave the house all dressed in white (even after labor day ) don’t forget a redeeming pop of color, as from  dress to demeanor —contrast is key.

milano2

Bianco e Rosso en Italia

Bianco e Rosso en Italia

2 Comments on “Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud”

  1. dorkychickinlipstick May 12, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    I’m so glad this popped up in my reader. Smart writing and an incredible trend analysis. Thank you!!! It makes me want to go out and wear white- my hair is already bright red! lol

  2. PaulC May 17, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    another nice post, Eliora. While poverty is something we all try to avoid, at least it teaches people to work, or to try to work. Being bought up in super wealth tends to teach children to make deals, and maybe not to work too hard — at being good at something for instance. Great wealth is maybe not the best thing for children to grow up in.

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