Saturday, February 24, 2018

title pic The Fiddler on the Roof Movie’s Costume Study

Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on March 26, 2013

Fiddler on the Roof Film Costumes

Today I’d like to study the costumes from a film that is very dear to my heart – Fiddler on the Roof!  This is my second favorite film in the whole world, and it contains some of the most magnificent music and dancing in motion picture history!  Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of a poor Jewish family in a Russian village whose lives are turned upside down by the political uprisings in their area, but whose love and determination make even the most challenging situations bearable. 


The star of the movie, “Tevye”, was masterfully played by Chaim Topol, who explains how their lives would be impossible without their all-important, “TRADITIONS!”.  In this tight-knit community, the Jewish people rely on centuries-long traditions to tell them what to eat, what to wear, and even who to marry (with the help of the town’s matchmaker)!  Along the way, we see three of Tevye’s five daughters insist on marrying very non-traditional men!  In a day and age when girls weren’t allowed to decide who they would marry, Tevye’s soft heart forces him to give his permission to allow them to have the futures that they hope for.


But that’s not quite what I’m supposed to be discussing. : )  I will try my best to stick to the costume aspect of the movie, but forgive me if I get distracted by other parts because I just love this film!!  Fiddler on the Roof’s costumes were planned by not one, but two seasoned costume designers.  When you first watch Fiddler on the Roof, you won’t instantly think, “Oh, what gorgeous dresses!”, because the truth of the matter is that these people were very poor.  However, if you look closely you can tell that the women were all wearing calico print versions of what American and European women wore during the late Edwardian era!  Think of the shirtwaists/blouses and long walking skirts that Anne Shirley or Diana Barry wore in Anne of Avonlea, then imagine those same costumes made from a cotton print rather than a pastel batiste, and you pretty much arrive at exactly what the Jewish women wore in Fiddler!


For the Sabbath scene on Friday evening (“Erev Shabbat” with the lighting of the candles), Golde (Tevye’s wife) did have a black taffeta gown with a lovely handmade lace shawl.  It seems that all married women were supposed to have an outfit like this, as we see many matronly women wearing similar dresses at Motel & Tzeitel’s wedding.

A Fiddler on the Roof Wedding

And speaking of Motel & Tzeitel’s wedding, this is one of the best scenes from the whole film!  Whether Jewish or not, I think that any culture would connect with the universal feelings portrayed in the song “Sunrise, Sunset”, a gorgeous ballad expressing the emotions of two parents who wonder just when their little girl grew up to be a woman.


The canopy (chuppah) under which the bride and groom are standing is a centuries-long custom in Jewish weddings.  Traditionally the chuppah was made of lace, and after being used for their wedding ceremony would become a tablecloth which they were only supposed to use for their Erev Shabbat ceremonies during the first year of their marriage.

The Chuppah

Nowadays at Jewish weddings (and I’ve been to a lot of them!), the canopy might be made out of satin, tulle, or really any sort of white fabric, which is attached to four poles.  This contraption is carried down the aisle ahead of the bride and groom by four men carrying the poles. (These men are in addition to the actual groomsmen.)  At one wedding I was in, the ceremony continued on so long that one of the pole-bearers fainted on stage and had to be revived to resume his duties! :  )

Tzeitel’s Wedding Dress


Tzeitel’s wedding dress was certainly the most glorious costume in Fiddler on the Roof!  Made in a similar fashion to Golde’s black taffeta dress, Tzeitel’s gown has a high Edwardian collar, long sleeves, floor-length gathered skirt, and a beautifully fitted bodice.  This ivory jacquard costume has the most beautiful tucks in the bodice front!


Instead of using regular darts or pleats to shape the bodice, the costume designers used a type of tuck which is often seen in vintage garments as late as the 1940s.  They are stitched on the outside of the gown rather than on the inside, and create a very flattering shape while controlling the fullness in the lower bodice.

The Bridesmaid Dresses


Tzeitel’s younger sisters, Hodel and Chava, apparently got new dresses for the wedding, too, though they aren’t quite as becoming as Tzeitel’s gown was.  I love the dainty lavender cotton print fabric, but, um, Peter Pan collars are way too “little girlish” on bridesmaid dresses for my liking!  I realize they’re still not married women and all, but if the sisters could have worn upstanding Edwardian collars like the other women it would have been so much prettier!  Oh well.  At least they had pretty satin ribbons in their hair.


A rare publicity shot from the 1971 production.

Another unforgettable aspect of the wedding scene is the dancing!  The troupe of bottle-dancers are just outstanding, and it’s not at all uncommon for religious Jewish celebrations to contain the same sort of celebrating today – minus the bottles on their hats, perhaps!  In Jewish thought, the more energy you put into dancing the more you are truly celebrating, so if you attend a real Jewish wedding you will probably be quite amazed at the intensity of the folk dances.


Here’s a quick side note:  In 2009 Chaim Topol himself came back to the States to perform his “Farewell Tour” of the Fiddler stage play, and my whole family was able to attend the last performance he gave.  When it came to the part where all the villagers were celebrating at the wedding, Chaim was doing what’s known as “flying mayims”!  A “mayim” is a standard step in Israeli folk dance (think “grapevine”), but a flying mayim is off-the-charts in energy level.  I was really amazed that he was putting so much effort into leaping off the ground when he was well into his 70s, but this type of dancing is so much fun that you can’t help giving it everything you’ve got!   It was so wonderful to see him so obviously enjoying the role!

Hodel’s Engagement Outfit


Back to costumes – I think that one of the best-thought-out color combinations in the movie was Hodel’s engagement outfit.  Against a background of vibrant fall leaves, Hodel’s golds, browns, and orange tones were really lovely.  I think the brown leather vest was the nicest part of the outfit, and you’ll notice that Tevye and Perchik are also in warm, fall colors for this scene.


And finally, perhaps the most poignant scene in the whole movie is what’s known as the “Chava Ballet Sequence”.  It really wasn’t ballet at all, but it was a lovely montage of dancing scenes that portray how the three older daughters all leave, one by one, to start their own lives.


 Sadly, Chava (the third daughter), was cut off from her family when she married a member of the Russian Orthodox church, which at the time was known for its anti-Semitism.  Tevye could not reconcile the fact that his daughter had married outside the faith.  At the very end of film, she is partially reunited with her sister and parents, but this remains a very sad and realistic portrayal aspect of Jewish life.


When Tevye and his community are forced to leave their homes and villages, much of the populace sets sail for America to escape the pogroms and persecution so common in Europe at the time.  With a lot of hard work and determination, the so-called “poor tailor” from Fiddler on the Roof soon became Levi Strauss of Levi’s Jeans, Isaac Singer of Singer’s Sewing Machine, or a famed fashion designer such as Hattie Carnegie or Edith Head!  Meanwhile, the proverbial “fiddler on the roof” may have become one of America’s famous Jewish composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Mel Torme’, or Benny Goodman.  The list of famous Jewish Americans is quite astonishing, and includes such notable people as Albert Einstein and Michael Landon (Eugene Orowitz)!

I am incredibly proud of my Jewish heritage, and I hope you enjoy this film as much as I do!  Some of you may know that this week is the Biblical feast of Passover, so I’ll end with the traditional Passover seder toast, “L’Shanah Ha Ba’ah b’Yerushalyim!” –  Or as Yente famously said to Golde, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Happy sewing,