A recent New York Times feature showed the latest fashion trend: dresses that a woman would wear because she chose to be covered up. There was a photo of a long-sleeved striped shirtdress, with a simple collar and a hem that grazed the midcalf. You wouldn’t blink if you saw an Orthodox Jewish woman—like me—crossing the street in it.
Another recent Times article describes the proliferation of long sleeves and high necklines on runways and red carpets as the defining look of the 2010s, evidence of women’s quest for empowerment and desire to wear “the kind of dress that prioritizes the individual and her needs over the clichés of female role play.” Yet another Times article breathlessly observed that, in “a radical about-face,” the au courant bride is wearing a less-revealing gown.
Forget secular society’s usual low necklines and short skirts. Now, apparently, if you’re covered up, you’re cutting-edge. So why does this trend make me both happy and sort of queasy?
I was born into an Orthodox family. Rules of modest dressing—very generally, high necklines and covered knees and elbows—were a given. My mom, my sister, my friends at my all-girls Orthodox school dressed as I did. Same for the women on our side of the mechitza at shul and the girls in my Shabbat afternoon group. How we dressed was part of who we were.
The flip side of our being special was that others were not. My neighborhood wasn’t exactly an Orthodox enclave, so the outside world—meaning the non-Orthodox, whether Jewish or not—was visible to us, and was clearly Other. The women’s clothing, in particular, reflected it. Sleeveless tops and knee-baring skirts were a symptom of what these others were: unrefined. Unaware or unappreciative of the beauty of an Orthodox life.
So I dressed modestly and it never occurred to me not to. With the styles of the 1960s and ’70s, making sure my skirts were long enough was often a challenge. As I grew taller, my thrifty and creative mother would lower my hemlines until no hem was left, then attach a border to add another few inches of life. I still remember a cherished plaid wool skirt in glowing earth-tones that my mother edged in a three-inch wide band of thick granny crochet, itself trimmed in tassel fringe. Sunflower yellow. I adored the look. I was 10, so it worked.
And as I grew older, my world grew, but not that much. College was the first time I was in daily contact with non-Orthodox people, but I was old enough for this not to be freaky, and I was surrounded, still, by enough Orthodox friends that dressing the part was natural and, as ever, not something I questioned. And I might never have, had I not become what they call an “older single.” There I was, in my late 20s and then my early 30s, spouseless. It’s hard enough to not be paired up when you wish you were. But I felt that Orthodox society saw me as fundamentally lacking until and unless that happened. Now, I felt Other.
With not many single Orthodox friends left, I spent most of my days with colleagues at work. And socializing with them wasn’t much of an option; I couldn’t very well pass as a carefree young(ish) woman when my modest skirts and sleeves branded me, at least to my mind, as a Superannuated Orthodox Single. I resented having to look different but felt guilty if I cut corners. By then I had learned the point of dressing modestly: to show the world your worth beyond the external. But I wasn’t feeling it.
Still, I persevered with dressing modestly and the search for the right guy, even as I began to lose faith in the value of either.
When I met the man who became my husband—an Orthodox, forward-thinking man—and then as a wife and then mother, dressing modestly was once again beyond question, for I was representing not just myself but my husband and children, too. They deserved me to look the part of the Orthodox woman.
Not that I never feel Other, these days. When I’ve gone to a non-Orthodox black-tie event, no matter how beautiful a dress I wear, I end up feeling strange, surrounded as I am by lithe women in the strapless/sheer/plunging fashions of the day.
Now the oracles of capital-f Fashion have discovered modest dressing, and I found myself feeling both gleeful and resentful. As in: Isn’t it awesome there’s so much more stuff I can buy! And as in: After all these years, all those let-down hems, it’s cool to cover up? Radical about-face, indeed. I love the idea that secular society is recognizing how modesty is empowering. I wish they’d figured this out when I was feeling so left out of life, back when I was single. But whatever is behind this latest change in fashion, I’m glad for it.
I found I even felt validated: What we’ve known all along about modesty is what they think is important now, too! Which instantly made me feel ashamed. What does it say about me that I felt better about dressing modestly if the secular world saw value in it? The articles touting the new fashion reminded me, again, that modesty is a sign of the intrinsic worth of a woman, beyond the skin stretched over her flesh and bones. I tend to lose focus on why I dress modestly because now, as when I was growing up, most of my interactions are with the Orthodox world. Covering up is what my crowd does. But if I adhere to the rules of modestly automatically, as some knee-jerk re-enactment of the us/them distinction I made as a child, then I haven’t progressed spiritually beyond my 10-year-old self.
I admit that a mildly neurotic voice in my head wondered if it isn’t somehow better—holier?—to wear modest clothes when they aren’t in fashion, as if God is less impressed with my dressing modestly when it’s easy to do.
Nah. If how I dress says my value is more than skin-deep, saying it stylishly is just a bonus. Still, trends are, by definition, fleeting. I suspect that covering up will soon enough lose its cachet, and dressing Orthodox will once again be unorthodox. It’ll be interesting to be avant-garde again.
Sharon Silver is a lawyer-turned-writer living in Manhattan.