Back in Black and Fashion Forward
Yelena Keller Wyman
June 15, 2013
I will be looking at fashion options for Orthodox women that allow them to be on trend while still honoring the customs of tzniut.
New York City is home to over 25,000 ultra-orthodox Jews. That is the largest group outside of Israel. It is usually pretty easy to recognize an Orthodox man or women. For those of us living in New York, it is not uncommon to see an Orthodox person or family. The men commonly wear black jackets, pants, shoes, and white shirts with no tie, along with some kind of black hat. Women are often seen in clothing that is not too bright or tight fitting that covers up most of their body. Outside the home, married women cover their heads to show that they’re married.
Some of the ultra orthodox are called Hassidic, others are called “Yeshevish.” There are many other groups, but these are two of the main ones. The Yeshivish typically dress more conservatively than the Chasidic, but there is a subdivision of the Chasidic, the Lubavitch, which also dresses more conservatively. It also depends on the individual and their immediate community, but these are the general ideas.
The Hassidic live in tight knit communities called courts. These courts are centered around a Rabbi. These communities have different rules and generally don’t associate with the other communities. They all share a similar belief in the torah. They believe that they are living a life close to god, and that they are a role model for the rest of the world. For example everything they do for what they eat, to how they dress is centered around becoming closer to God.
One rule about clothing for both men and women of all Orthodox groups is that they cannot wear a garment that has both wool and linen in it. This law is called shatnez. This could mean a top made with wool that has a button attached with linen thread. The meaning of this rule is not explained in the Torah, but some believe it is for not mixing animal and plant products, kind of like keeping kosher. There are labs that will test a garment.
However, the most important clothing guideline for Orthodox women is called tzniut. Tzniut is a concept referring to modesty and humility and is what guides the Orthodox to dress the way they do.
There are very specific rules when it comes to how an Orthodox woman is allowed to dress. Women should not dress in a way that attracts attention. Married women need to cover their hair. Women aren’t allowed to wear men’s clothing, so women never wear pants or shorts. Hair is covered. Bright colored and tight fitting clothes are avoided. You are not supposed to draw attention to yourself through your clothes.
The main part of the body (the torso) needs to be covered. The collarbone needs to be covered; however, the neck doesn’t need to be. The shoulders and any part of the neck that is more horizontal than vertical also needs to remain covered.
Basically, anything below the lowest point that a necklace would hang from on the neck, needs to covered. The upper arms need to be covered, but the lower arm doesn’t need to be. However, the elbow needs to be covered because the upper arm becomes the top of the elbow. The upper parts of the legs, as well as the knees, must be covered with a skirt. However, unlike the arms, the shape of the legs needs to be disguised. This means women have to wear a loose fitting skirt. The lower legs must be covered with tights or hosiery.
This also applies to children, but not in as strict a way, and not all communities follow all of these requirements. For example, there was a time when I took gymnastics classes and there were two religious Jewish girls in my class that would wear full-length leggings and long sleeve shirts during class and then when class was finished they would put their skirts back on.
However, the general rule in all communities is to be modest. The rules only apply when in public or when in contact with those who are not immediate family. These rules may sound very extreme, but they are what most Orthodox women are used to.
Hasidic people believe that this is important so that women don’t show off their bodies or distract the men. Also, they believe that their community is pure, and the outside world contaminates them. The strict rules help to separate the Hasidic community from the outside world.
There are strict consequences for breaking the codes for proper behavior in an Ultra Orthodox community. This is sometimes enforced by a community Modesty Police, who use different threats to enforce the code. The modesty police are known for beating up the offenders in Israel, where they recently even attacked an old lady. Here in New York State, a woman testified that “masked men from the religious modesty committee, based in Monroe, N.Y., had come into her bedroom at night when she was 15 or 16 years old. One store owner in Brooklyn was told to take down the mannequins in her store window, because she was told they were too revealing and were harming the community. In a case like this, the modesty police can turn a community against someone and make sure their store doesn’t have any business. As Rabbi Allan Nadler said, “They operate like the Mafia.”
Every community in the world has certain unwritten requirements regarding appearance. In our own society, there are certain ways people are expected to dress for school, work, weddings, funerals, and other situations. At school, people are generally expected to dress more conservatively and not revealing. At work it depends on your job, but generally, people are expected to look put together. At weddings, people are expected to wear nice, formal clothes. At funerals, people usually wear black.
I do have some experience with written dress codes because I go to a school with a uniform. However, it is not as strict as the rules for the orthodox community. My uniform is basically a polo or button down shirt and any solid pants or skirts except for jeans or leggings.
As a teenage girl, clothes are a big part of my life. I have a lot of freedom with how I dress, except for clothes at school, because we have a uniform. However we still can express ourselves a little bit with the uniform because there are still different ways of meeting the dress code requirements.
There are also other ways to express yourself even while wearing a school uniform with things like jewelry and hairstyles. For example my sister, and other people in my grade, dye their hair. Outside of school, I can wear pretty much anything I want to. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to wear something super revealing, but I wouldn’t want to anyways. Also, my parents would be the ones saying I can’t wear something, not the rules of my community. In my group of friends, people aren’t judged for what they wear, but we all have some similar styles.
There are, however, unwritten expectations for how to dress, and there are consequences in my community for dressing a certain way. People judge others and may treat them in a different way. At school, if someone doesn’t follow the dress code, they have to go and get ugly clothes from the PTA office and they might get lunch detention.
Living in New York, there is a huge range in what clothing is accepted. It’s more about your general appearance. If you look put together, and presentable, with clean clothes and neat hair, you are fine.
In other places, like the suburbs, everyone wears the same brands and dresses really similarly. If you dress differently, you won’t be accepted. Some clothes may be seen as childish. Some people dress a lot younger than their actual age and are criticized for that. People who don’t follow these unwritten rules may get looked down upon, not have a lot of friends, or even miss out on opportunities.
In addition, if you just don’t look “presentable”, you may be treated differently. If someone smells bad or is dressed in their pajamas, they won’t be taken seriously. People are technically allowed to walk around in their bathing suits all the time, but they won’t be accepted. In our culture, there aren’t any written rules regarding modesty, but if a girl is dressed in a very revealing way, she may be labeled as a slut. People also might not take her seriously, or she may be thought of as stupid.
But some things are changing. Nowadays, some Orthodox women are finding it is possible to honor tzniut while also being fashionable. There are less conservative communities they can move to, but many aren’t willing to leave their whole life behind.
So instead, there are now many options available for fashion conscious Orthodox women that allow them to shop in mainstream stores while still being respected in their communities. Exactly what a woman will wear depends on several factors; a woman’s age, where she lives, and how strictly religious she is.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I live, its common to see women with their hair covered, long sleeved blouses, and long skirts. But even for these women, there are still ways to be a fashion risk-taker while being modest and keeping tzniut. In fact, there are now multiple Orthodox fashion bloggers who talk about being fashionable while still staying true to their beliefs. One of these is Fashion-Isha. Isha means women in Hebrew. She is an orthodox woman who loves fashion but stays modest and true to her religion. In one of her posts, “How do I Make These Modest??,” she talks about adding fabric to necklines, arms, and lengths. She also goes to events like Fashion Week and photographs the modest outfits or puts suggestions for how to make an outfit more modest. She says, “The outfits express the individuality of the person wearing them…not their bodies. This is the essence of modesty in fashion. It’s not about dowdiness, but rather a celebration of the beauty of the person within.” For her, this is a very important idea when dealing with modesty. She also writes about her experience being an Orthodox Jewish woman.
A current trend in fashion is high neckline shirts, button up blouses, and maxi skirts. During the right season, these kind of clothes are available at many major retailers, such as H&M, Target, and Forever21, and many other stores.
I wanted to see what it would be like to shop for clothes that would meet the standards of being modest enough for orthodox women to wear. The clothes had to cover the knees, elbows, and color bones and also not mix linen and wool. To do this I went to several mainstream stores. First I went to Forever 21. However, I found nothing that would fit the standards. Instead, I found a lot of summer clothes that, while appropriate for most women, would not be appropriate for Orthodox women who are following the rules tziunit.
Next I went to Nordstrom Rack, and while there were some items that would be appropriate, they looked like old lady clothes. Finally, I went to Ann Taylor, and though I didn’t find any dresses or skirts and blouses that would work on their own, I did find items that would work if you layered them. For example, I found a long dress that was also light so it would work in the summer, but you would need to wear something like a collared shirt or a high neckline shirt with it because it had a neckline that showed the collarbone. You would also need to wear a sweater, blazer, or jacket over it because it was sleeveless. I also found a lot of blazers that were fashionable and could cover up your arms. There were also a lot of long dresses that went to the ankles that worked. I also found long sleeved sweaters that would cover the entire arm and could be used over a dress or with a dress.
But what I had a hard time finding was modest clothing that I, myself, would wear. Most of it was very different from the things we wear in our culture, where we don’t necessarily cover our elbows or collar bones or knees. These items–like short shorts, crop tops, and short skirts–would not be approved in the orthodox community.
Despite not finding actual modest clothes to buy, though, I did find many non-modest clothes that could be modified to become modest. Some had shoulder seams which could be raised. Others had problem necklines, but you could add a dickie. Many of the clothes could also be layered for modesty, with a turtleneck under a shirt or dress with an immodest neckline. I also found sweaters and blazers which could be worn over otherwise immodest blouses or dresses. The truth is, there are many ways to modify clothes to make them more modest.
Another source for modest clothes are the many stores that specifically sell modest clothes. One of the stores is called Junee’s, which has locations in the Orthodox communities of Boro Park, Midwood, Lawrence, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey. They have a lot of clothes to choose from, and it is easier to get modest clothes from stores like these, rather than from mainstream clothing stores. However, the clothes are very basic and not super fashionable. The prices are a little high. For example, a skirt is anywhere from 40-60 dollars.
Trying to shop for modest clothes at the stores I already knew was a hard task for me, but if I were used to it, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal because I would be used to going into orthodox stores. I don’t think it would be difficult to avoid immodest clothes—it would feel the same as in our community if I saw something I liked that was too scandalous–I would be like, oh, I can’t wear that, not a big deal. Most of the women in an orthodox community dress pretty similarly, or at least it looks like that to me, so it doesn’t seem like it would be as much of a big deal to dress like the other people around you.
I really don’t like having a uniform for school and I can’t imagine being told what to wear all the time. I would not like being forced to dress in a way very different and more conservative than the people who surround me. I would also not like to start being told that I have to dress in a completely different way than I dress now. I would not like to have to follow the rules in place for the orthodox.
But I think it must be more annoying to orthodox women who have a role in the outside community who want to stick to their values but don’t want to stick out in the wider world when they leave the orthodox community to go to work. It’s probably for many of these orthodox women that finding ways to dress for two worlds—the orthodox and the fashionable—and to be risk-takers while still staying true to what they believe in, is most important.