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.
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.