Frum fashion

If a young woman wants to dress more modestly, why shouldn’t she?

Frum 521 (photo credit: Pyrio Fainberg)
Frum 521
(photo credit: Pyrio Fainberg)
Years ago, Mrs. Goy owned a lovely long skirt. But she never wore it.
Because I like fashion, because I thought it looked good on her, and because she never said why, I badgered and needled her about it, until one day: Me: You never wear that lovely long skirt you own.
She: I look religious in it.
End of conversation.
We used to live in a city where the citizenry was far more observant than in the cesspit of iniquity that we now call home. (A place I quite like, incidentally.) You know, the sort of place where there is a synagogue for every 50 inhabitants, and where arguments concerning the status quo relate to whether certain streets should be closed on Shabbat, rather than whether certain shops on certain streets should be allowed to sell pork and shellfish on Shabbat. That kind of thing.
Anyway, I was still young in Israel at the time, and it didn’t take me long to notice an interesting fashion phenomenon among the young women of the city. (It didn’t take Mrs. Goy very long, either, to notice that my attention had been drawn elsewhere, as it were. “Have you no shame?” she asked. “They’re religious....” It wasn’t that, of course. Even I have some shame.) Actually, it was the vagaries of Frum Fashion I found fascinating, the adroit manner in which young Orthodox women negotiated the tension between maintaining tznius and keeping up with popular trends.
So you had, for example, denim skirts slightly too short to pass muster, but paired with cycling shorts that maintained a veneer of respectability. Or tops with sleeves that ended beneath the elbow, but with enough in the way of subtle darts and tucks to retain a basic femininity.
What intrigued me was the fashion sense that maintained the letter – if not the absolute spirit – of the dictates of modesty; a style that tested the boundaries of (relative) good taste and communal values, as favored by most young people, observant or not, in their dressing.
(Just to be clear: I’d be interested in the fashion sense of the observant male, as well. However, since the fashion sense of the average Israeli male doesn’t extend much further than making sure his clothes are clean and the colors don’t clash too violently...) NOT VERY long ago, Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein, an Av Beit Din in Bnei Brak and leading light in the Lithuanian haredi community, was thrust into the spotlight, unwillingly. It all came about following an... inspired halachic pronouncement.
Rabbi Zilberstein had been consulted by a religious girls’ college about the well-being of a young student. She wished to dress more modestly, but had been prevented from doing so by her parents. Somehow, she had come to the idea of slashing her legs and using the result as a pretext for wearing longer skirts. But was this permissible? Rabbi Zilberstein’s response was unequivocal: “She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin.”
And now, I shall dress myself in the robes of sanctimony and proceed to reprove the rabbi sternly...
Actually, I won’t. But not because I agree with the good rabbi, because I don’t.
Encouraging young people to slash their legs can never be a good thing. There are enough teenagers struggling with self-destructive behavior without using religious observance as an excuse to add to their number.
But that’s not all the story. From what I’ve gathered, the main criticism leveled against the rabbi was that he didn’t seem to realize that we live in a pluralistic age; that to insist on a dress code at all brings one terribly close to religious absolutism; that his “solution” – such as it was – was merely another example of how the observant were trying to encroach upon secular values.
There is some truth to all this, of course. But there’s another side that seems to have been scarcely explored: Why shouldn’t that young lady dress more modestly, if she so chooses? If you put a gun to my head, I suppose I’d call myself agnostic. It’s a rather clumsy way of describing my views about organized religion – which, I should say, change from one day to the next, but generally coalesce around the presumption that there should be both freedom from religion and freedom of religion.
Each to his (or her) own, as long as it hurts no one else.
So I get terribly depressed whenever discussions about religious values degenerate into a rush for the lowest common denominator, where the best position in the argument is the role of victim, of the defenseless and wronged party.
In this little tale, secular values – personified by the “oppressed” young lady – were cast in the role of victim; the big bad oppressor was the rabbi, who helpfully lived up to his role by proposing an ill-judged and blinkered solution.
But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the equation: Weren’t the young lady’s parents equally culpable – for refusing to allow her to dress modestly? I have no idea why this young woman wishes to dress more modestly.
Perhaps she is moving closer to God; perhaps she is rebelling against her parents’ values.
The only thing that is clear is that life is complicated, and that pointing an accusing finger is not the best way to untangle the complicated mess of competing value systems, even if it is the easiest. In fact, it’s rather reactionary.
It’s a shame when things come to this; people might at least try to get along with one another.
P.S. I was going to write about stupid laws passed by the Knesset this week, but apparently independent thinking has now been outlawed.