Vi poses in Battery Park in New York City, dressed as her great-great-grandmother Carolina in 1881. (Photo/Courtesy)
Vi poses in Battery Park in New York City, dressed as her great-great-grandmother Carolina in 1881. (Photo/Courtesy)

Watch this Oakland YouTuber recreate her great-great-grandmother’s Shabbat dress

A young woman stands in a bedroom. Wearing a white cotton chemise and drawers, she hums “Hinei Mah Tov” before tying a corset and bustle pad around her waist.

Then she delicately pulls on a three-piece Victorian-style dress that she’s spent weeks sewing in painstaking detail. With the addition of boots, a hat and white gloves, she walks out the door to New York’s Lower East Side.

The woman could be a 19th-century Jewish immigrant in a period piece. In fact, it’s a 27-year-old YouTube creator and seamstress who recently shot this scene in New York’s Tenement Museum for an innovative series exploring fashion and Jewish history.

Vi, who lives in Oakland and uses a pseudonym to protect her privacy, debuted “The Clothes on Their Backs” last month on her YouTube channel, which has 86,000 subscribers. In the six-part series, she researches styles of working-class women’s clothing of the late 1800s and seeks historically accurate fabric and buttons, including ones from the time that appear to have Stars of David on them.

In the third and fourth episodes, she meticulously remakes the dress she would later wear at the Tenement Museum — one that her great-great-grandmother Carolina could have worn on Shabbat as a Hungarian immigrant to New York in the early 1880s.

Vi said in an interview that she was inspired to undertake the project after realizing that period dramas either exclude Jewish characters altogether or portray them in the context of fleeing persecution and antisemitism.

“I wanted to find a way for [Jewish] people to see themselves in history in a way that was more positive,” she said.

On June 21, she will bring her dress to Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and talk about her series, which was developed with support and funding from the Jewish Writers’ Initiative Digital Storytellers Lab.

In 2018, Vi took up sewing historical costumes — by hand and with a modern sewing machine — as a hobby. She refined her skills by watching historical costume creators on YouTube and by reading blogs, and she posted her first historical costuming video in late 2019.

The next year, she discovered a blog about medieval women’s clothing that briefly mentioned a blue-bordered white veil that Jewish women in 13th-century Italy were required to wear to identify them as Jews but that also represented the long history of Jews proudly choosing to wear blue-and-white garments.

“It was the first time I’d seen any mention on a historical costuming blog of Jewish people,” she said. “And I grabbed onto it, and I dug my little claws in, and I researched everything I possibly could.”

Vi remade the 13th-century veil and posted a video about it in December 2020 on her YouTube channel, which at the time had about 5,000 subscribers. To her surprise, the video took off and was shared widely. It received 40,000 views in one month, becoming Vi’s most-watched video at the time.

“This is wonderful!” wrote one commenter. “I grew up as the only Jew in my school until high school…There are times where I’ve wanted to be visibly Jewish, for many reasons.”

To date, more than a dozen of Vi’s videos have topped 100,000 views. One about medieval hair-washing has crossed 1.1 million views.

The positive feedback motivated her to find more ways to engage with Judaism through costuming and history. A one-time hairdresser, she said the closure of salons during the pandemic lockdowns accelerated her embrace of YouTube.

Listen to “What Maisel Wore and More, with fashion historian Vi from SnappyDragonStudios” on Spreaker.

“The Clothes on Their Backs” was one of 13 projects selected for funding out of nearly 300 applications to the Jewish Writers’ Initiative Digital Storytellers Lab, which is sponsored by the Maimonides Fund.

Sarah Lefton, the lab’s creative director, said Vi’s application “leapt out from the pool” because of its originality and how it blended her Jewish ancestry into the story.

“She’s talking about her own life through talking about her roots and navigating difficult issues, then imagining what must have been true for her ancestors, and getting to talk to folks in genealogy, and in immigration history and in fashion,” Lefton said.

The fellowship allowed Vi to hire a five-person crew to aid in her research, film production and marketing.

Vi grew up in Boston and attended a Reform synagogue, but she didn’t know much about her Jewish ancestry before starting this project. (She told Hey Alma she is not in touch with her father’s side of the family.) Through genealogy research and, she learned that her earliest Jewish female ancestor to arrive in America was Carolina, her paternal great-great-grandmother, who arrived by boat in 1880 at age 18, along with her youngest brother.

Carolina’s parents owned a store in Hungary, Vi learned, and the family was likely working class. Once in New York, many Jewish immigrants ended up working in the garment industry. Vi’s decision to sew a Shabbat dress also tapped into the type of work her great-great-grandmother may have done.

The final two episodes of “The Clothes on Their Backs” were shot in New York City this spring. In them, Vi visits the two addresses on the Lower East Side where Carolina once lived and tours Castle Clinton, the main immigration station where Jewish immigrants were processed before Ellis Island opened in 1892. She also visits a synagogue that was frequented by Eastern European immigrants of Carolina’s time.

The highlight of her last day in New York City, Vi says in the final episode, was meeting the fourth-generation owner of M&S Schmalberg, a handmade fabric-flower manufacturer in the Garment District started by a Jewish immigrant family in 1916.

After selecting a flower to pin in her hat, the series ends with Vi smiling as she takes a bite of a kosher dill pickle she buys from a gourmet pickle store called The Pickle Guys.

“I want other people to be able to watch and say we were there,” Vi told J. “And we weren’t just there suffering because of antisemitism or we weren’t just there being in poverty. Those things happened and they were awful. But we were [also] there just being people and wearing pretty dresses and feeling accomplished that we’ve made something beautiful for ourselves.”

“In My Ancestors’ Shoes: Getting Dressed in the Tenements, 1881”

5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 21 at Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.