WHEN IT COMES TO FAITH-BASED DRESSING RESTRICTIONS, WOMEN ARE FINDING THAT THERE IS A LOT MORE FREEDOM IN STYLE THAN ONE MIGHT THINK.
by Sally McGraw
illustration by Grace Molteni
Dressing restrictions are frequently self-imposed; maybe you tried on approximately 900 pairs of high-waisted jeans, failed to find one that looked amazing, and decided to pass on the trend. Or someone once told you that pale pink makes you look like a flu victim, so you’ve avoided it ever since. But there aren’t a lot of true rules outside the ones we create for ourselves. Which is not to say that our choices are 100 percent repercussion-free. There’s the horrifying, asinine “asking for it” argument, there’s pushback from misogynist dress codes, and there’s plain old judgment and side-eye. But in terms of the laws of the land regarding clothing choices, many Western women are limited only by their creativity and budget.
This means that many Western women assume faith-based dressing restrictions are…well, restrictive. That they hamper women’s creativity, force them to cover up when they should feel free to expose, and subvert their power. Since some of these religious restrictions are tied to the idea that women’s bodies are distracting and should be covered to limit sexual enticement for men, some also deem modesty practices blatantly sexist.
Yet, the French Burqua Ban has received pushback from the very women it was created to protect, actress Mayim Bialik makes certain her “Big Bang Theory” costumes conform to Jewish law, and modest fashion blogs are on the rise. Women of faith from Mormons to Muslims have stepped up to say that their choices may be rooted in religious law, but that they’re not the confining, chauvinistic tools of oppression that outsiders perceive them to be.
Hasidic, Orthodox, and Conservative Jewish women typically observe some form of faith-informed modest dressing. Doing so is tied to the concept of “tzniutt,” which encompasses dressing practices for both men and women, as well as conduct and behavior guidelines designed to express humility. Since observing tzniut as a woman often involves dressing to cover collarbones, elbows, and knees; wearing skirts only and never pants; and covering hair with wigs or scarves once married, the practices may appear unwieldy and prohibitive. But I spoke with three observant Jewish women who would beg to differ.
“To be honest, I have a lot of trouble with the word ‘modesty,’” says Naomi Rose Herzog, director of operations at Wrapunzel, a community and online shop dedicated to the art of hair wrapping
“I think too often it carries a connotation of hiding something because it’s shameful. Although there’s no better word for it in English, the Jewish concept of tzniut is not at all that idea. It’s not about hiding something out of shame — it’s about internality versus externality; dressing in a way that puts the emphasis on your personality, mind, and soul, rather than on your body.”
“I don’t feel limited and I also have no interest in more revealing clothes,” says Brooke, an attorney who has a fresh perspective on faith-based dressing restrictions who doesn’t necessarily pay heed to trends or fashion week follies. “I don’t feel confident and comfortable in revealing clothes. I find that I can dress stylishly, comfortably, and modestly without feeling oppressed in any way. I also do not understand the sexist line since I think modesty applies to both sexes. I think society mistakenly limits the conversation around modesty to relating only to covering women’s bodies.”
My Therapist Told Me to Write a Fashion Blog creator Malky Weichbrod has a slightly different take. Her blog chronicles high fashion, pop culture, and the occasional photo of her and her daughter After wearing a uniform consisting of a long pleated skirt and button-front shirt for the whole of her early education, she did feel a bit stifled.
“In retrospect, I feel that although this school uniform was indeed ‘modest,’ it wasn’t genuine. It did not reflect my spirit, my personality, or my ‘neshama’ — my soul,” she says. “Yes it covered everything and then some, and yes it was plain and unassuming, but it was not Malky. It was not reflecting who I was inside. I personally feel the word tzniut should be defined as dignity and, more importantly, an integrity in dressing and in the way one holds oneself.”
After moving on to an orthodox high school that allowed for more creativity and choice, her perspective shifted.
“I had to wear tights, button-down shirts, and skirts that covered my knees, but in high school I would wear a hot pink button-down shirt with a beautiful cashmere sweater that I scored at a sample sale and a suede skirt with paisley tights,” Weichbrod explains. “This whole world of color and texture and design was fully accessible to me that realm of tzniut and now I felt like [myself]. I felt like my clothes really reflected who I was inside.”
Herzog also supports the idea that there is room for personal authenticity within tzniut.
“There are definitely women in various corners of the Jewish community that find it challenging to dress according to Jewish law, whether it’s finding a hair covering that they feel like themselves in, or wearing skirts if they grew up in a less-religious household and are used to pants,” she says. “I think it’s important to try and hold on to your essence — to choose clothing that follows your spiritual guidelines but also preserves your individuality. If you are in a community where every married Jewish lady wears the same brand of European wig and you would rather be wearing a brightly colored headscarf, that can be really difficult. But in the end you’ll feel more comfortable dressing in a way that’s genuine to who you are.”
In terms of challenges, working head and hair coverings into chic ensembles can be tough, according to Brooke.
“It’s not always easy to find a hair covering that is appropriate for a given situation or that matches my outfit. I do not generally use wigs or falls to cover my hair.”
Weichbrod agrees, but she’s found a creative way to work around it.
“I love creating whole looks — a sartorial gestalt — and I find not every outfit goes with a hat or a silk scarf. But in a way, it actually helped me create a more signature retro ‘50s look. And in fact, I would have not been drawn to my favorite accessory — my tortoiseshell cat-eye glasses — were it not for my headscarf, so in a way for me it was actually a style building block.”
Working for a company that sells wraps and tichels, Herzog has considerably less trouble with head coverings, but struggles with footwear, saying, “Okay, I’ll say something silly, but it is actually challenging! I do a lot of walking. Finding shoes that are good for your feet over long distances, but that also look good with a skirt is really hard! It’s easy in fall and winter when it’s boot season, but summer is tough.”
Many modest dressing practices — including those of observant Jewish women — are viewed as old-fashioned by outsiders, but Brooke points out that some style trends are a boon to her wardrobe.
“The current trend towards maxi skirts has been awesome for me,” she says.
“I am always trend-conscious, but I usually only pick one trend that already fits seamlessly into my personal style,” adds Weichbrod. “For example, Gucci showed berets and eclectic dressing on their runways, Max Mara showed sweaters and pencil skirts, and Miu Miu showed gorgeous coats — all pieces that I already own in my wardrobe.”
But is it important that faith-based dressing practices become widely accepted and tzniut-aligned outfits flood the Fashion Week runways? Herzog says not so much.
“For me, it’s not so important that what I wear is mainstream, but I do love that clothing choices are becoming more diverse. I would love to see women feeling like they can wear clothing they feel authentic in without worrying too much about whether it fits the latest trend or not.”
In the end, all three women warn against judgment and conclusion-jumping, pointing out that what looks like a uniform to some may feel like a liberating choice to others.
“If someone feels that wearing longer skirts, a head covering, or long-sleeved shirts is not for them, that’s OK, but they shouldn’t pass judgment on women who do choose to dress this way,” says Weichbrod. “The act of choosing an outfit, dressing oneself and presenting oneself to the world is an incredibly personal act and it requires a level of emotional comfort that varies for each person. Each individual’s choice of dress should be validated and respected because ultimately we are all people; we are all human and we all have feelings.”
For more related stories about the integration of traditional customs with modern culture and Tznuit friendly fashion, check out our ‘Tracking: The High Holidays’ Pinterest board.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She is the creator the popular daily blog Already Pretty, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Huffington Post contributor, and the author of several books about style and body image. Sally is also a ghostwriter and editor who specializes in non-fiction books and book proposals. Her favorite word is “crepuscular.”
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram or at her <a href=”http: gemolteni.squarespace.com” target=”_blank”>personal website.