Women's Whispers: Escaping modestly

Every visit in the Jewish world started with a quick once-over, and I was slotted into a category based on my dress.

Today I slipped into Filene’s Basement and tried on some forbidden clothing. It’s an indulgence I permit myself about once a decade. In the intervening years, I surrender to Jewish law and custom regarding which parts of my body must be concealed, and although I am sanguine about this, occasionally I am tempted to find out who I am outside their bounds.
I grew up dressing like a regular Australian girl; my parents did not pay attention to the symbolism of dress. They judge a person by her substance, not the garments she’s draped in. But at the religious school where they sent me, form was substance; piety was graded by dress. Over time, I capitulated to the school’s values.
When I was eight, I was caught wearing shorts by classmates; burning with shame, I vowed never to wear them again. Approaching bat mitzva, I asked my mother to lengthen my sleeves, but at this my father stepped in. Although observant, he had escaped the hassidic lifestyle and did not want me to fall into that abyss. Relieved by his intervention, I roamed short-sleeved until I met my future husband.
Pants disappeared from my wardrobe too, but this was temporarily reversed when I started at public high school. “The rabbis cannot possibly have decided it’s modest to wear a skirt playing basketball or skiing,” a new friend announced. Capitulating again, I bought a pair of gray corduroy overalls, snug at the waist and flared over the legs. There weren’t too many opportunities to flaunt the overalls, because mostly I wore school uniform, but just owning them felt conspiratorial. The last act of sedition I engaged in before leaving for an Israeli yeshiva was a shopping trip to try on the revolutionary new bubble stretch jeans. My nonreligious companions gasped when they saw me – a size zero with big breasts – in tight pants.
“What’s the point of having figure like that if you’re just going to hide it?” they chided.
“A figure isn’t an obligation!” I retorted. “Because I have one doesn’t mean I have to flaunt it.”
The jeans stayed at the market.
After Israel, through college and law school, I continued to dress like a yeshiva girl: no knees, no shoulders, no cleavage. In other worlds, my getup might have been an announcement of ethnic identity, but in Sydney it was only an exercise in self-perception: There wasn’t a single observant Jew on campus. Who noticed or cared what I wore? Wanting to display my Jewishness more positively – as the boys did with their yarmulkes – I added a Magen David to my outfit.
Within two days of finishing law school, I moved to New York, where every inch of covering and uncovering had meaning. Wearing skirts with no stockings indicated that I didn’t belong in the haredi community. Arms covered to just above the elbow meant I was halachic modern Orthodox. Every visit in the Jewish world started with a quick once-over, and I was slotted into a category based on my dress.
Then I started dating a man who, judging by his garb, was haredi. After our engagement, he asked that I cover my elbows. Now, one might think that a few extra inches of cloth shouldn’t be cause for a fuss between new lovers, but I heard my father’s voice protecting me from that oppression and I hesitated. “Show me the source!” I demanded of my fiancé.
He acknowledged that the body part that must be covered might be the shoulder, the arm between the shoulder and the elbow or the elbow itself. Delighted with the ambiguity, I asked why my elbows couldn’t be free. He responded honestly, “It’s not really a legal issue, it’s just that it’ll be unbearably embarrassing to introduce you to my family with your elbows on display.”
I was unconvinced, but my mother intervened. “Look, Viva, he’s not asking you to wear stockings, or to do up the top button of your shirt. If it makes him happy, do it!”
I was shocked to hear this from a feminist who believes any compromise to a man is treachery. I capitulated, and spent most of our engagement at the dressmaker’s, augmenting a wardrobe of sleeves.
And so, 15 years after my elbows disappeared from view, I descend intoFilene’s Basement during a break at work. My eyes alight upon anirresistible pair of Ralph Lauren flowery blue pants. Next thing Iknow, I am in the dressing room, and the pants are on. Deliciousindeed, that feeling of capaciousness, of being able to stretch my legsas far as they will go. How much freedom a pair of pants gives comparedto the heavy folds of a skirt. I survey myself. Not a size zeroanymore, but not bad anyway. Then I take the lovely garment off andhang it on the rack.
There is no need to bring that kind of temptation home: not the temptation of another’s body, but of my own.
The writer is a lawyer in the US.