Imagine, she says, that you’re leaving your country forever. You have to decide what to take with you, and it all has to fit in a gym bag.

Barbara Schreier is trying to describe what it was like for immigrants to come to this country–more specifically, what it was like for the some one million Jewish women who emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920. These women are the focus of a show she’s curating at the Chicago Historical Society, set to open in March. Schreier and her staff are in the midst of collecting objects and documents for “Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920.”

Schreier, 39, is sleek and long-legged, with bold gold earrings and a ready laugh. She’s wearing a black silk skirt, a cream blouse, and a cobalt blue jacket. As she talks, she seems to be explaining the hopeful voyages to herself. It’s as if by assembling this collection of pinafores, Bibles, nightgowns, photographs, and oral histories she were building a bridge from her experience–suburban Connecticut, Protestant, academic–back to Ellis Island, Saint Petersburg, Kovno, and little towns that may no longer exist or that no one remembers.

The objects, gathered in an upstairs storage room of the historical society, are so fragile and precious that a sign on the door forbids the use of pens. Schreier, curator of the costume collection, and Joanne Grossman, collections manager, tenderly lift a freshly pressed white apron with red stitching from a large table. Next to it is a child’s blue sleeveless dress and multicolored embroidered pinafore, brought over to Louisville, Kentucky, at the turn of the century.

This outfit had initially been offered by a descendant in New York City to the Jewish Museum there, which turned it down because it didn’t fit in with its exhibit at the time. Schreier and Grossman are still horrified that the outfit arrived in Chicago casually set inside a padded mailer, stapled–as homely a package as the dress itself. Grossman, who opened it, was afraid the staples would tear the 90-year-old fabric.

“A woman made it and gave it to her neighbor,” Schreier says. The friend gave it back after her daughter had worn it so that the seamstress could take it with her to the New World for her future children. Then her daughters wore it too.

Its origin? Grossman consults some papers: “Russia.” Indura, Russia, she says, though later it became part of Poland. “The boundaries kept changing,” she comments. “You’d go to sleep in Russia and wake up in Poland.”

Down the table is a plush hat with pink roses, a watch won in a tennis match by a 16-year-old girl, a brown bathing suit with bloomers worn in Lake Michigan, and a lace party dress circa 1910 designed by–as the label attests–one Madame Grossman of Logan Boulevard.

Schreier and her staff are collecting from scratch–the museum had none of these materials–and the show reflects a trend to document the ordinary and undocumented, a shift in museum ideology that stems from the inclusionary 60s. Like most historical museums around the country, Chicago’s was conceived as a three-dimensional scrapbook for the elite–most of whom were not turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant women.

To start their collection, Schreier’s staff advertised in Jewish magazines, the New York Times, and other publications. At this point they have a surfeit of women’s Bibles and about 1,500 photos. (“But you haven’t seen my grandmother’s photos,” they’re hearing now in protest.) What they need are corsets, an elaborate hat, one more pair of shoes, and some shirtwaists: blouses with high necks and leg-o’-mutton sleeves, once ubiquitous. And one more wig–a sheitel in Yiddish–of the kind worn by married Orthodox Jewish women to hide their natural hair from all but their husbands. Schreier cautions that only wigs from 1880 to 1920 are acceptable. “We don’t want the new ones that look like Farrah Fawcett.”

Adopting new clothing, says Schreier, was a quick, easy way for immigrants to become American. Buying a colorful hat or high-button shoes took only a few minutes. “Learning the English language took so much longer.”

There was a world of difference, for the poorer classes at least, between homemade Eastern European dress and U.S. ready-to-wear garments. Some women hadn’t worn shoes until they were in their teens, and the shoes they wore then were less shapely than the pointed-toe variety mass-produced here. In fact, such shoes caused considerable confusion, at least for one immigrant. “I was thinking, my God, what’s wrong here, what…kind of country is this?” a woman told an interviewer years later. “People have pointy feet.” (“Americanization begins at the foot,” Shoe Retailer magazine opined in 1903.)

Most immigrants hadn’t worn corsets. And hats had a different meaning in Eastern Europe–they were usually functional, except those worn in urban areas and by the elite. But in America working girls eagerly bought them, arrayed with all sorts of plumes and flowers.

Schreier is writing a 150-page catalog for the exhibition; it recounts story after story of the importance of dress to Jewish immigrant women, even before they left home. One Romanian woman was warned by her son-in-law in North Dakota, “Don’t take any clothing, because when you get here we will not let you wear those clothes.” A Polish woman was told by her mother to “keep the tradition.” But, thrilled by the possibility of a new life, she threw her sheitel overboard as soon as she left the harbor. A Russian woman on her way to the United States showed off the contents of her trunk to a fellow passenger who’d been in New York. Instead of admiring the clothes he said, “These won’t do in America.” So she did the reasonable thing and threw them into the Atlantic.

Why Jewish immigrants? Why women? Why clothing?

Most immigrants, Schreier says, adopted American clothing styles, but Jews were clothes-conscious to begin with. Many of them worked in the clothing trades in Eastern Europe, and many more did so after immigration. Jews also had distinct religious traditions associated with clothing. And they were motivated to become American quickly–unlike some other immigrants, most Jews came to this country to stay. They were leaving inhospitable places, and didn’t come here to earn money and return.

Jewish women accounted for almost half the two million Eastern European immigrants from 1880 to the mid-20s. No other immigrant group, except the Irish, had a higher proportion of women. Many of the Jewish women arrived young, in their teens and 20s–the peak of their clothes-conscious years. And men’s clothing, much like today, was not half so diverse or accessoried.

Schreier brought the idea for this exhibit with her when she was hired by the historical society in 1990. The concept grew out of work she’d done earlier on an exhibit she termed a failure. She’d been a consultant to curators of a 1989-’90 show at the Smithsonian Institution on gender and clothing. “It was very unwieldy,” she says. “We made some decisions to focus on the middle-class white experience everyone else had done. I was disturbed. We eliminated issues of class, issues of race.” Her dissatisfaction spurred her to look at working-class groups, and she proposed in a grant application to study the dress of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. That was deemed too broad, so she narrowed the scope again. And again.

The struggle between honing and expanding has been the theme of Schreier’s intellectual life. She was an uneasy art history major at Trinity College in Hartford. “I had been feeling cranky,” she recalls, “that I had to keep narrowing and narrowing my interests.” On a semester abroad, in Rome, she had a teacher who pointed out that you could determine when a painting had been done by examining the clothes in it. By focusing on costume, she realized, she could combine history, art, sociology, women’s studies, and popular culture. Schreier eventually earned a doctorate in the history of costume at Florida State University, then taught at Kansas State University before returning east–to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. (She also found time, during a sabbatical, to do stand-up comedy about being a 30-something single–again–and toured New England as an opening act.)

Though Schreier had her doubts about curating a show about a group she’s not part of, she says she’s been welcomed by Jewish groups and individuals she’s met. Her own grandparents– Protestants from England and Germany–have died, and she says making house calls to collect objects and histories has been “like having instant grandparents again.”

The Jewish community did raise one concern Schreier hadn’t anticipated: a fear that the show would give credence to the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess, overly concerned with material possessions. But Schreier’s research shows that Jewish newspapers criticized young women for their showy fashion statements. Women’s clothes consciousness was motivated by their desire to become Americanized, but they certainly weren’t alone in that. “In settlement-worker accounts you can find somebody saying that [one ethnic] group is the best dressed or has the most love of finery,” she says. “I wouldn’t put Jewish women in a hierarchy as being the most likely to spend money on a hat.”

As the goods come in, Schreier still can’t quite project herself into that time and place. Leaving Massachusetts three years ago was difficult enough: “When I moved from Northampton to Chicago, it took every bit of energy and strength I had.” She can’t imagine herself leaving suburban Connecticut at 16, “saying good-bye to everyone I know, getting on a boat going to a place where I didn’t know the language, and starting a new life.”

To donate or loan items, or to volunteer any oral histories of immigration, call Carla Reiter at the historical society, 642-4600, extension 372.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.