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Skirt Shorts

Denim defined fashion for a generation of frum schoolgirls, who played with Orthodoxy’s rules of modesty through small acts of sartorial rebellion. A slideshow of one woman’s beskirted past.

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Click here to see the annotated slideshow of skirts.

Lately, it seems like the whole fashion world has become Orthodox. Whether it’s hipsters wearing Borsalino hats as though they’re a unisex accessory or Urban Outfitters’ faux edgy headscarf marketing campaign or street-cleaning skirts, it’s clear that modesty is in for what is typically the most exhibitionist and immodest of seasons: summer. Warm weather tends to bring out plunging necklines, not hemlines, mini jean skirts, not the maxi type. But this trend, like all others, will surely pass. In a few months when this quarter’s fashions are discounted, the only ones who will be gleefully picking over the sales racks will be the ones for whom this type of dress is not simply a matter of taste but is actually mandatory—frum women.

While most people visualize religious Jewish women in wigs and long dark skirts, there is a significant segment of the Orthodox female population that almost slips under the mainstream radar with the help of a jean skirt. In a culture where jeans and T-shirts are de rigueur, the denim skirt allows observant women to fit in while still adhering to the laws of feminine modesty. And it speaks of aspiration—to be like everyone else, while still being Jewish and observant. The dual messages aren’t just for the outside world, but also operate for the wearers themselves. I should know. I spent the majority of the first 20 years of my life in them.

author as small-ish child

The early years

This photo was taken by my father during a summer visit to North Miami Beach, where he moved after my parent’s divorce. I was about to start the fifth grade, which meant I was a full-time skirt-wearer. Phasing me out of pants and shorts had been the work of several years, mainly because my mother has never been particularly committed to the cause. She had been raised Orthodox in the 1940s and ’50s in Williamsburg, and for her, Orthodoxy meant only two things: keeping kosher and observing Shabbos. She only stopped wearing pants when my centrist Orthodox yeshiva swung to the right, along with the rest of the Brooklyn Jewish community. She told us that she didn’t want to create any problems for me and my older sister with the school’s administration. My sister, eight years my senior, had already given up pants, and I would soon follow suit—at age 8.

For years before, though, I chafed at wearing skirts all of the time. They reminded me that I was a girl and couldn’t do everything I wanted to do, which at that age was primarily handstands and back handsprings. At recess, I was chastised by a teacher for leading my friends in cartwheels at the back of the classroom. The objection wasn’t that the move was dangerous but that when we turned upside down, we exposed our underwear. It didn’t matter that there were few men in our all-girls school and we were only 7 years old. The purpose of our skirts was to show us that even in a single-gender environment, certain types of activity were improper.

Outside of school, I wore jean skirts, which created the same problems when it came to acrobatics. There, though, no one stopped me—least of all my father, who only saw me once a year and wasted no time on discipline. Also, my father’s relationship with Orthodoxy at this point was tenuous at best. I had seen him flipping light switches on Shabbos in his Florida apartment. He was not going to be the one to keep me from doing cartwheels.

Nor was he going to enforce the Brooklyn dress codes in Miami. Pictures from the same trip revealed a gap-toothed girl with unruly bangs in culottes. While they weren’t exactly Daisy Dukes, they were most certainly on the forbidden attire list. I was hardly alone in this transgression. Though my classmates and I were warned by school administrators to uphold the same modesty standards at the beach as we would on Avenue M in Brooklyn—and yeshiva urban legends about girls who were sanctioned or even suspended for being caught in shorts or a swimsuit abounded—most of us took the view that what happened in South Florida stayed there.

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Hannah Lee says:

Thanks for the fashion show and commentary, Dvora! I’ve forwarded this to my daughters, age 16 and 22.

A more fun role model would be Maria making play clothes for the Von Trapp children out of drapery material.

At my JCC gym, some women wear leggings under long skirts made of jersey material (and kerchief ‘tichels’). The former aquatics director banned the wearing of long T-shirts in the pool after one woman almost drowned after getting entangled in her waterlogged shirt.

This is a great article that explains something I’ve been wondering about. One thing I’m expecting to happen is a swing of the pendulum from women and young girls showing ‘way too much skin in modern scanty fashions to much more modesty. Fashion always swings back and forth over the centuries, and I’m thinking it’s starting to happen again now. What do you think?

Susan Jablow says:

I enjoyed your personal history of the denim skirt. You have some wonderful insights, and I well remember many of those styles from my high school and college days. I laughed out loud when I read your description of footwear in Modern Orthodox synagogues since my husband has often made the same observation.

Very interesting! I like your closing thoughts a lot. I have the same feelings about modesty. Covering up reinforces the idea that are bodies aren’t here for our own use, they are an object of men’s pleasure, the very idea the religious world is trying to denounce in the secular.

I had a skirt like that with the fabric sewn in high school. Oh fashion.

I remember one afternoon at YCQ when all the classes let out at onec and the swish of long denim skirts was punctuated by a drumbeat of CLOGS– it was like a frum parade!

Jackie,

I’ve always felt that covering up shows that I respect my body enough not to share it with all and sundry. I dress modestly for me, not to protect the male population.

Dvora,

Interesting perspective – I grew up “traditional” rather than frum, and I remember being forced to wear jeans when I much preferred skirts. I would have worn skirts full time if my mother let me! So in a sense, I’ve won by “frumming out” – now I do get to wear skirts all the time!

My brain just exploded at BIS, a label I’d forgotten all about.

I loved this piece — quirky, meaningful social and cultural commentary thru fashion, the kind of offbeat way of looking at serious issues that Tablet does so well. Brava, Dvora.

(And I also remember the thrill of having a loop for my non-existent hammer!)

Dvora says:

Marjorie, my brain exploded when I managed to find a BIS skirt on eBay. When it arrived, I couldn’t believe that this was what I had coveted so badly all those summers at Camp Sternberg.

gugs says:

Dvora-

The mention of BIS made me laugh. Growing up girls would come from overseas for lubavitch post-HS girls seminary and bring their BIS with them. At that time it seemed the coolest thing around. I was so glad when my sister went overseas and brought one back – I felt like part of the team.

I particularly remember when I was 18, travelling and visiting a friend I hadn’t seen in several years. I was very sheltered and I was shocked when she casually mentioned one day the fact that her mother would not let her wear jean skirts because it was “prutza”.

marcia says:

omg i rem these skirts i used to live in them from day to day they were sooo comfortable i wish they would still sell them id totally wear them still

kag1989 says:

I really enjoyed reading this article and comparing the different skirts.

I grew up in a nonobservant home, so I grew up in jeans and with jean skirts. I refused to wear tight pants or mini skirts.

Now that I’m an adult, I find that even though I might think of myself as “liberal” and belonging to a “Reform” Temple; I wear clothes that tend to be more modest.

Just this past week, as the weather got very warm, I tried on a short sleeve t-shirt that I had worn last summer. It had a square neckline. After wearing shirts with 3/4 sleeves and a small slight scooped neck (more of a crew neck really), I felt too uncomfortable in my t-shirt! I thought to myself that the square neck that I had enjoyed so much last summer, was much too revealing this summer.

While I’ll never dress “frum” (I live in my slacks and jeans at work and at home), I do think that I might be secretly more at home with conservative clothing.

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Skirt Shorts

Denim defined fashion for a generation of frum schoolgirls, who played with Orthodoxy’s rules of modesty through small acts of sartorial rebellion. A slideshow of one woman’s beskirted past.

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