I’d known the music for ages but hadn’t watched the full musical until recently. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is a fantastic golden-age musical that will leave you humming a tune. There isn’t much to talk about in the way of costumes, since it’s set in a poor Jewish shtetl circa 1905 in the Ukrainian region of Imperial Russia. But everything on screen is chosen to reflect the period and place so the story and songs can shine.
Fiddler on the Roof does that thing that only the finest artworks can do: it takes a story steeped in one culture’s tradition and values and makes it it universal and relatable without losing the unique qualities of the original culture. You can appreciate how this is a deeply Jewish story and also just a story of a family, a father and his daughters, and their relationships. This is a story of poor people living in an oppressive environment. It’s about change from one generation to the next. All of these things make it relatable to those outside the original community the story is about. Good music and songs help too!
The costumes were designed by Joan Bridge and Elizabeth Haffenden, who worked together on a few period films previously such as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). None are extravagantly costumed or excessively frock-y in ways that we think of them, but this team does appear to do decent historical character studies in clothing. That’s what we see on-screen in Fiddler on the Roof — subtle character expression through costume.
The father, Tevye (Topol), is a poor dairyman married to Golde (Norma Crane) and they have five daughters. The older three girls — Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small) — are each concerned with their possible marriages. They all wear simple clothes and have few costume changes throughout the movie. Things like mending and tiny patches communicate their social status, while the women’s covered heads at various times remind us of the modesty of their era and religion. Further, for special occasions, the family brings out the small fineries they do have, and this reinforces how important and rare these times are.
The costume designers relied on historical research too, and they had the expertise of Lillian Michelson, who was the often uncredited historian for numerous Hollywood productions. For Fiddler, she tells a story of how she got info about the relevant undergarments of the era:
“There was this song, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker,’ and there’s a line of laundry and the daughters of Tevye are hanging their underpants, their bloomers, on it. The costume designers said to me, ‘We don’t know how to make these underpants.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any pictures of that. Nobody took pictures of Jewish girls’ underwear in 1890s or ’90s. They said, ‘Well, what are we going to put on there? It has to be right.’ Of course, everything has to be right.
So, I decide to go down and sit on a bench at Fairfax and Beverly, which is a Jewish section of Los Angeles. I sit there, and little old ladies are sitting right by me. I start talking about this and that, getting pictures of this for a certain project — I didn’t mention the movie — and does anybody remember what you wore in those days? They were of that age.
They got so excited about helping me. The people were so wonderful, just wonderful. One little old lady — and she couldn’t run very fast — walked as fast as she could to her apartment. She says, ‘You stay here. I’m going to my apartment and I’m going to cut you out a pattern because we had to sew all our underwear.’ She brings me back a pattern with little scallops on the edges of the knee-length bloomers.” (Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story)
While they look like simple bloomers, they’re historically accurate!
The one fancy occasion is Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding, and the bride wears a very Edwardian white gown, starkly simple and elegant. Her veil is, like her mother’s Sabbath veil, also a fine lace.
Are you a fan of Fiddler, even though the costumes are plain?