On February 5, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Ruth Dayan, founder of the luxury women’s fashion house Maskit, passed away due to cardiac arrest. She was 103.
Maskit, perhaps Dayan’s most notable achievement, was developed in 1954 and displays hand-embroidered pieces that embrace the traditions of Hungarian, Bedouin, Druze, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jewish artisans, among others. Its place of origin can be traced to a cramped, dinky warehouse hidden within a Jaffa alleyway, and yet, springing from the back of the most powerful woman in Israel, the brand has landed on the cover of Vogue alongside Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Christian Dior.
Aside from the elegant cuts and bejeweled bargello, though, Maskit also flaunts a heart-warming and motivational narrative about women, Israel, different cultures, and immigration. Journeying back to the 50s, when Israel was but a newborn, Dayan allotted jobs to the recent influx of immigrants. She was the wife of Moshe Dayan, the Chief of Staff of Israel Defense Forces during the Suez Crisis and a beloved war hero with a memorable eyepatch. He advised her to place the immigrants in agricultural work.
One day, when meeting with a group of Bulgarian women—all of whom had no water or agricultural experience and were struggling to grow their tomatoes—she stumbled upon their beautiful needlework. The weavings stood in stark contrast to the crumbling huts that housed the immigrants, and Dayan soon had a grand idea: employing the women’s artisanal skills would generate much more profit than their feeble attempts at farming.
Cloth was rationed in the 50s, so all Dayan could muster up were scraps of sacking. The Bulgarian women, however, excited at the prospect of finally earning money, transformed the scraps into charming handbags and clutches— the epitome of “rags to riches.” Quickly, they gained popularity, and Dayan started visiting other settlements as well: Syrian weavers, Yugoslavian knitters, and Arab jewelers.
Within a few years, the government-funded craft program grew into a fashion brand that Dayan named Maskit, which translates from Hebrew to “sacred jewel,” “small beautiful thing,” and “imagination.” The word itself appears in the Torah on 14 separate occasions.
Dayan was the daughter of Russian immigrants and underwent Turkish rule, British conquest, the proclamation of the first and only Jewish state, and countless bloody wars that promised peace. She was a witness to some of history’s most revolutionary, defining moments, and she poured this flavorful identity of hers into Maskit. In this sense, she did not merely create Israel’s first fashion house but, in so doing, was a trailblazer in bridging political, religious, cultural, and social divides. In one interview, she explained, “Politics is one thing. Art and understanding other cultures [are] another.”
Founded in Israel in 1954 by Ruth Dayan, Maskit helped impoverished immigrants by employing them to design authentic embroidered clothing
Her partner in the brand, Finy Leitersdorf, was in awe of the “Israeliness” of the clothing. Tal Amit, the director of Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, described the brand as “an aesthetic melting pot.” Just as Israel embraces all cultures, colors, and creeds, so too does Maskit. Just the range of hues exhibited in the line is breathtaking—the desert beige, tainted black inspired by Bedouin tents, and ever-changing navies and turquoises of the Mediterranean. “It was the mother of Israeli high fashion,” Amit said.
Dayan was one of the earliest proponents of feminism and social justice within entrepreneurship. Neri Oxman, the pioneering researcher, designer, and MIT professor, labels Dayan as Israel’s first-ever “activist designer.” Oxman came of age in Haifa surrounded by talk of Maskit and its alluring pieces. “It was through design that she practiced social entrepreneurship,” Oxman explains. “Her taste for fusing tradition with high modernism was embodied in Maskit’s objects and the company’s culture.”
Dayan with some of her pieces at a Maskit showroom
More than anything, Dayan wanted to integrate the inner workings of war and peace through her work. Alive for more than a century, she had endured the goriest, most war-torn periods of Israel’s history. If nothing else, Maskit enlightens others about the hidden, grim realities many face every day. Dayan recalled, in a 2020 interview, having to justify delayed shipments to American buyers: “apologies but the artist is fighting in a war and won’t be back for several months.”
It’s genuinely incredible when an artist is so influenced by their milieu, political climate, and upbringing. Dayan’s parents were strong-minded socialists who had signed a pact in high school to always stand with their country. Half of Dayan’s childhood was spent in London, where her mother studied chemistry and education and her father political science and Jewish theology, despite the fact that he was an atheist. The other half was set in Palestine, where, after joining a socialist scout organization, she dropped out of high school to attend an agricultural school in Nahal. There, she encountered Moshe Dayan, and immediately, the two fell in love.
They married, even though she considered him a consummation bourgeois, and she knew he was a ticking time bomb. Mr. Dayan soon joined Haganah and made the grave mistake of carrying a weapon. It was eventually discovered, and he was thrown into prison for two lengthy years. While incarcerated, Ms. Dayan sent him Shakespeare and O’Hara, and he carved her jewelry from peach pits. When he was released, he was almost instantly sent into combat on the Lebanese border, where a sniper rammed shrapnel into his left eye, leaving him with a patch and unexpectedly transfiguring him into a sort of sex symbol. The Dayans quickly became the Kennedys of Israel, and Moshe Dayan felt untouchable enough to have a string of affairs. Ms. Dayan found sleeping in the same bed as him unbearable, and so the couple divorced. “Divorce shouldn’t be such a calamity either,” Ms. Dayan later proclaimed. “It’s part of life, like abortion. Did I ever have an abortion? You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”
The government sold Maskit in the late 70s, and in 1994, it officially closed. It wasn’t until Sharon Tal, a former designer at Alexander McQueen, came along and won over Dayan that Maskit was revitalized. With Dayan as the honorary chairwoman and Sharon the head designer, the company relaunched in 2013.
Ruth Dayan’s last contribution before she passed was bringing children from Palestine and East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to see the sea for the first time. She truly touched so many lives, including mine. Inspired by Neri Oxman’s projects and Ruth Dayan’s passion, I have embarked on creating my own biodegradable fashion line called Two Degrees, A Husband, and a Silk Suit. The clothing is made of entirely ecological elements, such as silkworm spit and the bioluminescent organelles of dinoflagellate plankton. The line’s purpose is to promote a more sustainable lifestyle that harmonizes with the natural world. Ruth Dayan has certainly been a role model of mine in the process. When it came to creating diverse art that challenged the norms of society and exceeded the standards of conventionality, there was no one as fearless as her.
She left an indelible legacy and paved a path for so many young girls. She inspired us to be accepting of one another and to refuse to be trampled on. She is a catalyst that will forever spur women in every corner of the world to dare to be bold.
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