New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel

Orthodox Attire

Orthodox Jewish Fashion

By Sydney Hecht and Bethany Freynk


Advertisement for shirts that go under blouses to cover elbows and collar bones.

In Jewish law, there is a concept known as Tzniut, which means modesty. It is a staple of life that has to do with how one walks down the street, how one associates with others, and famously, with how one dresses. Once reaching a certain age, both married and unmarried Orthodox women dress in a certain way, covering certain body parts. Many women wear skirts that cover their knees and shirts that cover their elbows and their collarbones. The laws of skirt and sleeve length are merely there as a guideline to limit the women’s exposure of her body. A guideline is necessary, knees and elbows, in order to set a universal standard for the women who follow the laws to live by. Saying “an inch above the knee,” or “two inches below the elbow,” would not work because this would look different on every woman. The strict guidelines create a standard ruling, with no discrepancies among the followers. Once married, many women take on the custom of covering their hair, by not exposing it to men except for their husbands. Some women wear wigs, and others simply cover their hair with different hats or scarves.

Lingerie Store

A “lingerie” shop in Borough Park.

There is often a big misconception regarding women and the laws of modesty. This mistruth is often along the lines of that women have to hide themselves so that men will not be tempted. That is not necessarily correct. The Torah teaches that the body is a holy creation by God. The way to maintain and respect the body is to keep it covered. The source of the laws comes from the Oral Tradition in the Talmud  (not the Old Testmant) but they are developed by later generations of Rabbis and are continued to be developed as more modern questions arise. Human beings are made up of a body and a soul, and the more one covers up the body, the easier it is to focus on the soul. It is not covered because it is shameful, but rather because it is beautiful. While women should not dress in a way that attracts attention, this does not mean dressing poorly. There is a big difference between being conscious of fashion and being ruled by it. A woman concerned with the laws of modesty most definitely is conscious of fashion, but her standards are not determined by what is fashionable. She instead will choose not to wear what will compromise her dignity as an Orthodox woman. Orthodox men approve of the laws of Tzniut. They are happy that Orthodox women understand their self worth and dignity and that they uphold laws that have been passed down for generations.

One reason why dressing modestly is so challenging is because it is often the point at which modernity and Orthodoxy clash. Modern secular society seems to sexualize women, and often teenagers in particular. Research shows that in television productions, music videos, song lyrics, video games, advertising, and throughout the web in general, women in revealing clothing are often objectified. It is frequently said that the line between what is meant to be public and what is meant to be private has been erased. When a person tries to make public what is meant to be private, there is a loss of dignity. The rules of modesty try to prevent this from happening. The purpose of Tzniut is to liberate the woman from social pressures and constraints. The rules relate to the way in which a woman carries herself, and how she interacts with others. They help women maintain a sense of personal integrity, and avoid the need to be drawn towards the often-demeaning standards of society today. To learn about similar rules in the Islamic religion, click here.


Simi Polonsky and Chaya Chanin of Frock Swap

It would seem, that with the Torah’s rulings about modesty, Orthodox Jewish women would not be able to express themselves through clothing. Yet, this desire is hard to diminish when living in one of the world’s greatest capitals of fashion, New York City. Today, even Ultra-Orthodox females show off high-end brand names while remaining modest. An article from Fashionista magazine explores this new trend in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, Crown Heights, which is located in Brooklyn. The piece focuses on a spunky new store called The Frock Swap, and the two Orthodox sisters that opened it. The idea behind this trendy store is based on the notion that women can be fashionable and Tznius at the same time. Similarly, MIMU MAXI, a skirt line for Orthodox women, stands out with its bright prints and affordable prices for modest clothing. This creative surge is only growing in popularity throughout the community. For example, MIMU has a locally renowned Instagram page with over ten thousand followers and a developing fan base. Moreover, many females in Jewish neighborhoods admire their original “skirt leggings” as they allow individuals to be tasteful, while remaining modest. Polansky, one of the founders of The Frock Swap states that instead of instantly noting how humbly an Orthodox woman is clothed, “We would want for someone to look at her and say, ‘Wow, she looks great, she looks really stylish.’”

Many people believe that in the Orthodox world, the expectations of modesty that are placed on women are at odds with the norms of the secular culture. However, after speaking to the women in Borough Park, one would see that this is not necessarily true. Clothes 3While walking around in Borough Park, a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, one would notice that nearly all of the women dress in accordance with the laws of modesty. However, they don’t look frumpy or old-fashioned. These women take the laws that they follow, and without altering the regulations, dress in a way that is both modest and trendy. The women in this neighborhood take pride in the way that they dress. They understand that people may not like the way that they are clothed. “It looks like they’re being choked,” stated an Orthodox bridal shop owner while explaining an outsider viewpoint, “but they have a good flare for fashion.” They are proud that they are able to continue following laws that have been there for thousands of years, while still looking good.

Borough Park was a fascinating neighborhood to explore, as cultural garb and contemporary styles converged in single outfits. After talking to a variety of shop owners, the idea behind Orthodox fashion was very clear. The first store we entered was a bridal shop, named Bridal Couture, which rents dresses to Hasidic brides. The owner explained to us that there is a certain beauty to Orthodox-ism that she would not give up for the world.

There is a certain beauty to Orthodox-ism that I would not give up for the world.”                                   -Bridal Shop Owner

The woman proudly showed off the dresses she sold, emphasizing that just because a woman cannot show her elbows does not mean that she does not want to look gorgeous at her wedding. She had a glowing smile as she held up an intricately designed dress that was modeled after a twenty thousand dollar gown created by Monique Lhuillier. Furthermore, she clarified, multiple times, that religious females were completely aware of the way they dressed and the contrasting world around them. The interviewee even stated that she always reminds her customers to try on dresses with a shell underneath, as the whole look will alter as soon as an extra layer is added. Yet, Orthodox Jewish women continually seek out the beauty in their modest clothing and do not find it hard to dress in the way that they do.

The stores we visited also varied greatly in prices, as each shop targeted a different consumer audience. Some were extremely high-end, with famous brand names such as Valentino and Gucci. Others were regular department stores, for the general middle class, that sold less expensive clothing items, that were still trendy and stylish. The bridal store had an array of dresses for women from all economic classes. Wealthier brides are able to design their own dresses, often to model the work of famous designers. Those who spend less, share designs with friends, allowing the cost to split in half, or even into four. Renting a dress is also cheaper than buying a gown at such a store; accordingly, most women in Borough Park do not purchase this costly type of garb. In addition, every sect within Judaism has unique rules having to do with dress. Ultra-Orthodox Jews usually wear only black clothing. Regular Orthodox individuals cover their collarbones, elbows and knees by wearing basically any color combination on their skirts and blouses. All other types of Jews, like Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox groups do not have clear cut laws throughout, as such women can be spotted wearing any garments that they feel satisfy their beliefs. If one’s parents dress modestly, even if they do not consider themselves Orthodox, the children will probably grow up dressing in the same way. Accordingly, much diversity can be found within the Jewish religion.


With the exception of one shop owner, all of the individuals that we spoke to insisted that it is not difficult to find companies that cater to Orthodox laws, as vendors for their stores. According to these businesspeople, many clothing companies are willing to add an extra few inches to the length of their products to make it Kosher. In a few of the stores, this affects the final price of the items, causing higher costs. In other shops, the businesses absorb these costs and have comparable prices to any other clothing stores of the same type. During our exploration, we entered all sorts of clothing centers. These included: teen, children’s, bridal, maternity, and adult fashion stores. Each targeted a different consumer audience, as some sold clothes for bargain prices while others marketed extremely pricey, high- end fashions. Consequently, every employee and owner that we communicated with had a unique response to our questions.



After introducing ourselves as honor students from Baruch College, and explaining the goal of our final project, we usually received a positive response. Then, we asked a series of questions, similar to these:
• Why do you choose to dress the way that you do? What are the general rules?
• Is it hard to dress modestly in the present day… since fashion trends change so often?
• Do you follow new trends?
• Who makes the clothing you sell? Where do you get it?Shell Shop
• Do you face a lot of competition in this neighborhood?
• Are all of your customers Orthodox Jews?

The rules of modest dress are explained above, but the rest remains ambiguous. After viewing the pictures on this page, taken from an array of stores in Borough Park, it is clear that even the most religious women look for chic outfits while shopping. Many of the skirts shown can presently be found on the runway, during fashion week, even though
they may be a few inches shorter. We also stumbled upon many cropped shirts with skimpy, spaghetti strapped sleeves. Yet, such females are accustomed to heading to The Shell Station for a matching shell, or liner, for their exposing t-shirt. These shells are basic, cotton tops that cover the elbow and the collarbones, but are thin enough to wear under other blouses. It is stimulating to observe the norms in a community that is located in the same city as us, but contains families that lead completely contrasting lives to our own.



It is also interesting to see how fashion has developed in this area over time, even though the Torah has not been altered. Orthodox families on the street definitely wear more color now than ever before. As the owner of the high-end clothing store explained, many are starting to add brighter hues to their wardrobe, but plenty of women stick to their traditional black outfits. In addition, the owner of a trendy women’s clothing store described the lack of modesty in present day Orthodox styles. She stated that many of the new skirts worn are very tight, or have long slits along the legs, causing pants to be a more modest choice. This observation implies that Orthodox fashion will continue to evolve over time, as it is impossible to completely ignore the influence of such a fashionable urban environment when residing in New York City.

“Be trendy, be modest, yet be religious.” This is how Gitty and Raizy, who work at the maternity store in Borough Park, described how they choose to dress. These women do not have a hard time finding clothing to sell or to wear. Manufacturers work with them, and if they order enough quantity, they add fabric to make the clothing more modest. If they don’t add extra fabric, the shops are still able to sell the clothing by adding a shell or liner underneath. The storeowners were extremely enthusiastic about their jobs, and the clothing they sell is extremely stylish and fashionable. They explained that people love their clothing so much that many of their customers are not from the Orthodox world. Like the other shop owners, Gitty and Raizy state that they do not struggle with dressing modestly. The women in Borough Park make it work, and they are successful in being trendy, modest, and religious all at the same time.




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