The Forward’s Alana Newhouse writes in Slate,
Jews have been dressing America since as far back as the 1830s, when clothing was still handmade. In those early days, itinerant Jewish peddlers roamed the country selling cloth and accessories. (One such peddler was a man named Levi Strauss, who, after noticing that the miners in the California towns he passed through needed more durable clothing, designed a pair of trousers from his last piece of tenting canvas and changed fashion forever.) By the end of the 19th century, several technological developmentsâ€”including, most crucially, the invention of the sewing machineâ€”allowed for the wholesale production of clothing. There was soon a demand for labor at every levelâ€”designers, fabric cutters, seamstresses, and pressers, as well as merchandisers, distributors, and buyersâ€”not to mention in the burgeoning accessories businesses (footwear, gloves, hats, buttons, belts, and more). In New York City, as well as in smaller urban hubs like Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati, Jewish immigrants flooded these fieldsâ€”giving an entire industry a distinctly Jewish flavor.
But times have changed. In contrast to the assimilationist postwar decades, ethnic identity has become a point of pride for young American Jews, one that is paraded in every field in popular culture. A Hasidic reggae singer has been in regular rotation on MTV, one of the biggest movies of 2006 was a piece of Jewish vaudeville, and prime-time television is strewn with Jewish references and characters. (One of these, Entourage’s Hollywood agent Ari Gold, is played by Jeremy Piven, who recently appeared in a Gap ad with his Star of David pendant hanging from a necklace clenched between his teeth.)
Even given this broad re-engagement with Jewish culture and history, the nostalgia for and interest in the shmatte business over the past decade has been overwhelming.