Chai Fashion: The Appropriation of Orthodox Fashion

Religious dress has often been a controversial topic, such as the burqa and the hijab, especially in a post 9/11 world. So it’s fair to assume to that religion and fashion must have little in common, but as we will see, there are areas in which they overlap. In recent years, celebrities and fashion designers alike have been inspired by the dress of Orthodox Jewish women, specifically for their propensity for dressing demurely and covering their bodies, which is notable considering how we live in a sex-driven culture. The constraints of Orthodox dress aren’t limiting, but a point of inspiration and appropriation. As women appropriate Orthodox dress, it may lose its religious meaning, but concurrently becomes the foundation of an alternative feminine identity. As bell hooks writes in “Eating the Other,” cultural taboos around sexuality and desire can be overcome, “a message of difference no longer based on the white supremacist assumption that blondes have more fun” can come about. (Hooks 21) Women can take pleasure from dressing demurely.

In order to understand how Orthodox dress is appropriated in mainstream fashion, I’d like to go over some of the rules that women must follow on a daily basis, specifically the rules of tzniut, which means modesty and privacy in Hebrew. The principal rule of Jewish modesty in regards to dress is that a Jewish woman “must always strive to never reveal body parts that may cause men improper thought”, as shown by the diagram below. (‘Hasidic’) But rather, tzniut implies that a woman must dress in a way that doesn’t overly accentuate their physical features. Orthodox Judaism requires women to substantially cover their bodies. Women usually wear long blouses with sleeves below the elbow and skirts that fall below the knee. That being said, Orthodox women are able “to construct and maintain a coherent and viable sense of self-identity through attention to the body, and, more particularly, the body’s surface” (Sweetman 293).

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As Roach and Eicher describe in their essay “The Language of Personal Adornment,” how we choose to dress ourselves is very much dependent “upon environmental resources, technical developments, and cultural standards for judging what is fine or beautiful.” (Roach/Eicher 109) That being said, it’s fairly obvious that mainstream fashion has been inspired by the modest and conservative way in which Orthodox women, and appropriated the ideas of tzniut and made it modern.

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In a world full of sexual enticement, there is still an audience of women that still wants to feel beautiful, without feeling exposed. The image above is of a maxi dress from online retailer Shopbop, a midi skirt from Forever 21, and a maxi dress from Zara, all of which have been described by Orthodox fashion bloggers as appropriate to wear out and about. What’s significant about pieces in the image above is that non-Orthodox women would find them attractive to buy, an indication that the meanings behind Orthodox dress have been “sustained through cultural dissemination, through cultural groups, through the accepted meanings of clothes and through the fashion system including images,” and made its way into a larger audience (Dant 378). The flowy silhouette of all three of these items may been deemed as bohemian or hippy, but the fact that they aren’t body conscious, means that men won’t be looking at the woman’s body but rather interacting with the women through conversation.

What’s so practical about the Orthodox manner of dressing is how timeless it is, specifically that “as the dress of the laymen changed, the dress of the religious did not-perhaps as a symbolic reinforcement of belief in the everlasting value of the tenets of the religion to which they subscribed.” (Roach and Eicher 117) Even more so, as Roach and Eichler describe in their essay, “the great the number of rituals and the more intensely these are observed, the greater the esteem accorded a person, and costume makes known to the individual and to others this degree of intensity.” (Roach/Eicher 118) When people learn the effort that Orthodox women put into their outfit daily to make sure they are dressed appropriate, fashion consumers want to associate themselves with the esteemed reputation that Orthodox women have in society, as women of respect and dignity. Orthodox fashion bloggers such as Fashion-Isha are becoming more relevant; regularly featuring runway looks from such designers as Oscar de la Renta and Burberry. She praises this look from Oscar for “its ethereal lace and sunshine-y looks,” and for being a “lighter, brighter” outfit. (‘Oscar De La Renta S/S 2013-A burst of Happiness’)

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Mainstream fashion’s ability to produce Orthodox appropriate garments has been highly praised by bloggers because while their clothes serve a practical function, “they also don’t want to be perceived as dowdy either,” as blogger Nathalie Rothschild writes in one of her posts. She goes on to say that, “it’s hard to find colorful clothes in stores that sell clothes for religious women,” as everything is either black or gray. (‘Spring Fashion Trends Find An Unlikely Customer: Orthodox Women’)

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Mainstream fashion’s Orthodox inspired designs show how a balance between print and modesty can be reached. Recent collections by Diane Von Furstenberg and Burberry further emphasize this idea of fashionable modesty. As shown by Burberry’s SS 2012 collection, designer Christopher Bailey employs use of layering and knits, pairing a tailored jacket with a bright sweater or a bright jacket and skirt with neutral heels. Diane von Furstenberg continues on this trend by pairing a wrap dress with printed leggings in her SS 2013 Collection.

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Whereas young Orthodox women may find it necessary to “buy shells- undershirts and slips (shown below) worn for extra coverage,” in an effort to make outfits conservative enough, mainstream fashion designers are presenting this idea that modesty doesn’t have to be achieved by wearing a lot of garments, but by finding a balance of color, print, and silhouette.

While the appropriation of Orthodox dress may allow Jewish women to shop in the same stores as their Gentile counterparts, it also reaffirms the idea that maybe less isn’t more. In addition to drawing attention away from the body and to the woman herself, Orthodox inspired ways of dressing may result in women buying pieces that will stay in their wardrobe for a lifetime. The trajectory of this trend is unknown, but if one thing is for sure, is that modesty can be beautiful.

Works Cited

Dant, Tim. “Consuming or Living with Things.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 378-84. Print.

“Hasidic.” Williamsburgh. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/williamsburg2012/hasidic/&gt;.

Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 21-39. Print.

Langert, Sharon. “Fashion-Isha: Oscar De La Renta S/S 2013 – A Burst of Happiness.” Fashion-Isha: Oscar De La Renta S/S 2013 – A Burst of Happiness. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <http://www.fashion-isha.com/2013/02/oscar-de-la-renta-ss-2013-burst-of.html&gt;.

Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 109-20.

“Spring Fashion Trends Find An Unlikely Customer: Orthodox Women.” Nathalie Rothschild. N.p., 10 May 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nathalierothschild.com/2012/05/10/spring-fashion-trends-find-an-unlikely-customer-orthodox-women/&gt;.

Sweetman, Paul. “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. 292-314. Print.

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