When the Jews were sovereign in their land in ancient times, the standard of dress of those who were wealthy, such as successful landowners, reflected their status. The nobility and upper classes dressed more elegantly. The styles of the neighboring peoples also had their influence. But when the Jews were exiled (70 C.E.) and lived under foreign control, the impoverishment of many Jews became evident in their dress.
In some cases, over time the Jews adopted distinctive dress voluntarily, to separate themselves from the prevailing culture. In others, they were required by law to dress in a particular way, e.g., special hats and badges in medieval Spain and 13th-century Poland. Jews of Eastern Europe came to adopt fashions of the early modern Polish nobility, such as the black robe (caftan) and the fur hat (shtreimel), which are still worn by various groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The origins of men covering their heads with a hat or yarmulke (skullcap) are not clear. The Talmud relates several incidents where covering the head is considered a sign of submission to divine authority. Some attribute it to the Jews' need or desire to differentiate themselves from Christians, for whom removal of the hat was a sign of respect. By the 16th century, it had become common enough to be codified as normative behavior among the more observant, who still cover their heads all day or at least during prayer and study.
For women, the uncovered head was from earliest times considered immodest, if not worse. Married women covered their heads so as not to draw the attention of other men. The sheitel (wig) worn by very religious married women is a relatively late variation on this. These practices are observed today only in very traditional circles.
Over the ages, rabbinic authorities often spoke out on two matters related to clothes-- against excessive or gaudy styles and in favor of keeping clothing, particularly for women, "modest." On the other hand, it has long been a custom for Jews to have special clothes for Shabbat and festivals, contributing to the special character of these days.
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