No self-respecting, progressive young woman in 1965 would buy her clothes in any shop other than the Handicrafts of Asia chain. The cotton clothes she bought from those shops made a clear political statement that the young woman was concerned about the following:
1. natural (and not synthetic) materials;
2. the rights of women workers in Third World countries;
3. owning cheap, long lasting dresses;
4. ignoring the dictates of fashion houses in Paris and Milan; and
5. defying her mother’s tastes.
My Gap Year programme, 1966, Jerusalem. Dancing dresses
The Ata Textile Factory, that was founded in Kfar Ata near Haifa in 1934, was fascinating. It was established by the Moller family, Czech Jewish industrialists, at a time when the nation’s most important social organisations were the trade unions (Histadrut) and the Labour government. By 1946, Ata had over 900 workers living in Kiryat Ata, all enjoying the community rights that made life pleasant eg housing, childcare and subsidised groceries.
In addition to the socio-economic story, the history of Ata also relates the story of the factory and its textiles i.e the physical appearance of Israeli society. Israel’s workers and soldiers wore Ata clothing, as did members of youth movements. When every prime minister in the world would have worn a suit and tie, David Ben Gurion proudly chose khaki shirt and slacks that suggested he was a man of the people, a worker of the land. Sandals were de rigeur.
One of the primary values behind ATA clothing was national solidarity. The factory's fashionable products in its early years included a drill fabric called Army and a cotton satin called Officer. There were only four colours available - khaki, white, black and blue.
David Ben Gurion, prime minister from 1949-1963 (except for 2 years).
In the 1960s, Ata realised the company needed to modernise its image so they established a female apparel division called Splendid Model. They started creating fashionable dresses in bright colours, not hippy but certainly reflecting the 1960s zeitgeist. But the times were changing faster than Ata was. The State of Israel was moving towards a capitalist model, raising the threat of privatisation, cutting the economy off from governmental management and making large cuts in welfare budgets. It was a tragedy for workers, but a great boon to industrialists. Soon urban and bourgeois Israelis preferred more stylish clothing from abroad, and they wouldn’t touch the old Ata lines with a barge pole.
The history of the Ata Company has been displayed at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, revealing the economic, political and social changes that took place in Israeli society during the most important decades in the state’s short history. The exhibition is called Factory, Fashion and Dream. It displays these national memories in a broad historical context, moving FROM pioneering spirit, workers’ rights, concern for the community and a commitment to basic, somewhat utilitarian clothes. It moves TO a rolling back of workers’ rights, modernity, private greed and lack of interest in the history of the state.
Ata: Factory, Fashion and Dream exhibition, Tel Aviv Museum