One way that scholars have examined religion over the centuries has been through its establishment of guidelines and parameters by which its followers conduct their lives. In Judaism, there has always been a set of rules, called tzniut, which outline how a Jewish individual should dress. While these laws pertained to both men and women, often tzniut was more associated with women, as the laws for women could be interpreted as being more stringent. Certainly, in the Ultra-Orthodox community, they were seen in that manner. Just as in every religion, followers have picked and chosen which laws they chose to abide by, based on whether they felt that the law fitted into their value system. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that not all Modern Orthodox Jewish women adhere to all of these laws. Tiffany Fellus, who founded the modesty blog “Frum and Fashionable,” asserted “the choice is yours and nobody else’s.”1 Clothing has played a major role in the formation of an individual’s identity, particularly within the scope of a religion where there have been guidelines that may limit the choices of clothes available to a person. According to Liana Satenstein, “The public perception isn’t always positive about tzniut. It’s sometimes portrayed as the woman not being allowed to have the choice to dress the way that she wants.”2 While the laws of tzniut may have been restrictive to a certain degree, Modern Orthodox women actively established their own identities, with the help of social media and modest clothing stores that catered to their needs. Often times, Modern Orthodox women navigated the tensions between modernity and tradition. While being a part of contemporary society, Modern Orthodox women not only redefined feminine beauty standards through their choice of clothing that created a distinct identity for themselves but also aligned with their religious values. This paper examines the impact tzniut had on the identities of Modern Orthodox women who adhered to the laws of modesty and whether external factors, such as social media, contributed to enabling these women to express agency, individuality and community, yet remain within the frameworks provided by Jewish law.
In Judaism, the laws of tzniut were derived from the Torah as defined by its commentators yet left room for individualization. Micha 6:8 says to “walk humbly with your God.”3 Commentaries on the Torah explained that walking humbly with God includes the way in which one should dress. The first mention of clothing in the Torah was after Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In Genesis 3:21 it stated, “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife shirts of skin, and He dressed them.”4 Beyond this, clothing was not explicitly discussed in the Torah. Therefore, commentaries provided the framework for how one should dress by establishing certain criteria.5 A guideline was necessary in order to set a universal standard for the women who followed these laws. Parts of the body that were required to be covered include a woman’s torso, upper arms, and legs from the knees up. The degree to which these laws were upheld differed depending on the given Jewish community and sect of Judaism as some followed extra stringencies. However, the laws did not specifically dictate the styles of clothing one should wear. Therefore, while there were certain rules a Modern Orthodox woman must follow, there was much room for self-expression.6
Religious law, or Halacha, functioned within the Modern Orthodox community to maintain a continued Jewish cultural affiliation despite tensions of living as a diasporic people. Members of religious groups actively constructed their lives around religion and used dress as a way to express their religious beliefs and conformity to social norms as well as religious law.7 Within many Modern Orthodox communities, modesty was culturally taught as being appropriate and it strengthened communal identity and counteracted assimilating influences.8 Adina Waldman, a religious studies teacher at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, explained that she dresses modestly because of Halacha as she wanted to live her life “in accordance to religious laws and be consistent in my beliefs.”9 Through her commitment to her faith, Waldman did not view the laws of modesty as a form of restriction; rather, modesty was a way to express her identity as a Jewish woman.
The pursuit to righteousness and the development of a close relationship with God was stressed greatly by Rabbinic leaders and encouraged within Modern Orthodoxy. The Rabbis declared that this could be accomplished through an individual’s commitment to conducting his or her life according to Halacha and Mitzvot, religious and spiritual actions commanded by God. Since clothing played a major role in the lives of many individuals, adherence to the laws of modesty presented many Modern Orthodox women with a path towards attaining a closer individual relationship with God as they strived to achieve righteousness through the mitzvah of modest dress. Therefore, modest dress and the redefinition of femininity and beauty not only provided these women with a channel for self-expression, but also a way in which to reach and attain higher religious and spiritual grounds.
A Jewish woman should most certainly dress to look attractive, but not with the intention to attract. However, Michelle Honig remarked that this idea did not imply that a Modern Orthodox woman should dress poorly as the Torah instructed always to present a pleasant and dignified appearance.10 Maria Alia, a modest model in the fashion industry, stated that “everyone has their own interpretation of modesty, but the idea that it’s just very plain, no adornment, humble way of dressing---that was some other person’s definition.”11 Whereas the generalized interpretation of modesty implied docility, shabbiness and low self-esteem, Judaism defined it as a source of power, self-worth and a prerequisite for spiritual growth.12 A woman concerned with the laws of modesty could be conscious of her appearance, but her standards of what was beautiful were not necessarily determined by what was fashionable in contemporary society. Instead, she has searched for the beauty in modest dressing. According to Lynn Davidman, “Orthodox women find empowerment in concealing their bodies…rather than accepting secular influence of revealing themselves in order to feel attractive; they express beauty in other ways.”13
One reason that dressing modestly posed a difficult challenge for Modern Orthodox women was that it was often seen, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as the point where modernity and Judaism clashed. This was especially true as secular society tended to oversexualize women and the clothing they adorn. Rabbi Avi Shafran stated that “despite the feminist arc of our society, women’s bodies are still being used to sell beer and attract people to television shows and movies.”14 Tzniut did not negate the female body, but rather employed it for a purpose higher than self-display.15 Maya Namdar, owner of the Jewish store Maya’s Place, exclaimed that while dressing modestly, she felt beautiful and contented.16 Susan Weidman Schneider stated that the “women who follow the traditional tenets of Orthodoxy claim that they are not acting in response to some male weakness-of-the-flesh but are expressing their own strong sense of Jewish self-identification.”17 Fellus noted that “dressing modestly helps define who I am because it has aided me to be a confident and highly esteemed woman.”18 Modest dress enabled women to create their own identities, as they aspired to an ideal of womanhood and femininity that did not include publically engaging in sexual tropes. Rather, their ideal of womanhood and femininity countered the ways that many women were being portrayed and presented in contemporary society.
The intention of the laws of modesty was not to restrict a woman’s femininity, but to enhance it and her beauty in a respectable manner that highlighted her individuality within a religious framework. Tzniut was not intended to squash individuality, but rather to channel it. These Modern Orthodox women, through the choice to dress modestly, actively took a stance against the hyper-sexualization of women that was rampant in modern-day society. As Miriam Steiner, a social worker at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, noted, “modesty is not a restrictiveness…but a self-expression that I am more than just my body.”19 Through their choice of dress, Modern Orthodox women attempted to redirect attention away from their bodies so that their personalities were the focal point.
Bari Mitzmann, who created the modesty blog “Barianna,” described modesty as being “the physical reminder to exude dignity and confidence in ourselves and our bodies.”20 Genesis 1:27 explained that people were made “in the image of God.”21 Since Judaism viewed the body as a reflection of God, laws of modesty protected and enhanced what was holy. As Estee Soniker explained, “the same way I protect my jewelry and other valuables, I cover my body because it is special to me and I want to retain its worth.”22 Jenna Kessler, who founded the modesty blog “Fashionably Frum,” clarified that modesty was not supposed to hide a woman’s beauty; it was the way in which a woman could express both her inner and outer beauty in a respectable manner.23 This idea was further emphasized in Psalms as it stated, “The entire glory of the daughter of the King is within.”24
It is important to emphasize that the Modern Orthodox women who adhered to these laws did so voluntarily. Thus, if they felt their beauty or femininity was restricted, they would not keep the laws. Amy K. Milligan exclaimed, “Femininity is not something which is frowned upon within [Modern] Orthodoxy, and women take pride in feeling womanly.”25 Tziporah Zucker, associate principal at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, believed that by dressing modestly, she felt she presented the best version of herself.26 Femininity and beauty were not to be suppressed within Judaism; rather, they were to be expressed in ways that complemented the woman while also reflecting her religious beliefs. To further reiterate this point, Kessler stated, “if modesty is making you feel and look ugly, you are doing it wrong!”27 Therefore, religious traditionalism did not automatically equate to the disempowerment of a woman’s ability to express herself, her femininity and her beauty. To further prove this point, Milligan asked, “If men are free to engage in ritualized behavior without it…affecting their masculinity, why do studies of women presume anxieties of femininity?”28
In 1927, Sammy Gronemann, a German Jewish author, exclaimed in a foreshadowing way, “Judaism has literally come into fashion: everyone’s wearing it again!”29 Gronemann was not wrong as in the twenty-first century, modest fashion had become more than just a religious observance; it developed into a billion-dollar industry.30 To prove this point, Kessler commented that all she had to do to find modest clothing was walk into a modern and trendy store like Zara, H&M or TJ Maxx.31 Thus, consumerism facilitated the development of clothing brands that were not antithetical to the religious values and needs of Modern Orthodox women.
In addition, consumerism offered new ways to display and cultivate a sense of belonging for these women as they created a market that catered solely to their needs and empowered them to practice self-expression.32 Ann D. Braude, the director of the women’s religious studies program at Harvard University, rationalized that these fashion brands enabled women to practice mainstream fashion, while still maintaining the requirements of modesty.33 Eliana Aisenbaum, who founded the modesty blog ”Soso Tznius,” exclaimed, “there are so many tzniut stores that have up to date fashion trends!”34 For example, the Frock Swap in Crown Heights was a chic Jewish store built on the notion that women could be both fashionable and tzniut.35 Stores like the Frock Swap broke down the tensions that might have existed between religion and society as they proved that an individual could be part of the larger secular culture and still uphold personal religious values.
The resurgence of modesty into a mainstream fashion trend granted Modern Orthodox women the autonomy to create their own modest fashion lines and publicize their products for no cost on social media platforms such as Instagram. Mimu Maxi, a skirt line for Modern Orthodox women, was able to develop its brand through its Instagram page which garnered over 10,000 followers. Other Jewish clothing stores such as Junees, Kosher Casual, Maya’s Place and Basic Colors utilized Instagram in advertising their products and simultaneously built up their following, and became well-known within the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. Social media empowered fashion-forward religious women to redefine what beauty was to them by thrusting modest clothing into the cultural consciousness, and helped it become a sustainable and lucrative market.36
Social media also provided Modern Orthodox women who followed the laws of tzniut with an online community of support and agency. Namdar excitedly said that “Instagram is filled with so many modest fashion bloggers and influences that give a lot of inspiration for Tzniut.”37 These women shared their modest fashion finds with other Modern Orthodox women and empowered one another to discover outlets for individuality within the parameters of their religion. Mitzmann expressed that the growing popularity of her Instagram page enabled her to pursue her passion of promoting clothing brands that made women feel confident and beautiful without compromising their modesty standards.38 Kessler claimed that “having a modest fashion blog was instrumental in keeping me strong. I got to share my outfits and help inspire other girls to do the same.”39
A major dilemma faced by many women was the desire to express their differences and individuality while concurrently fitting in. Waldman posed the question, “When you dress according to what is in fashion, do you feel you have to?”40 Penny Storm highlighted the point that women wanted to be “unique but not different, outstanding without standing out and in fashion, not fashionable.”41 The pressure to fit in was something Modern Orthodox women struggled with as they desired to represent themselves as modern, fashion-forward women and also according to their religious ideals. Differentiation in clothing was accomplished when an individual asserted her uniqueness from others. Since popular fashion trends were widespread and varying, Modern Orthodox women could conform comfortably without sacrificing their religious principles. As Mitzmann explained, “there are so many modest fashion brands out there that create beautiful items that are both modest and fashion-forward.”42 Kaustav Dey, the marketing director for Tommy Hilfiger in India, argued that fashion and clothing communicated a person’s differences to the world and through what one wore, these differences need not be embarrassing as they were expressions of oneself.43 The differentiation in styles of fashion provided women with choice and personal agency over what they wore and allowed them to fit in and also stand out.44 Therefore, dressing stylishly and dressing modestly were not seen as being exclusive from each other.
The laws of modesty kept by Modern Orthodox women did not clash with modernity as these women did not reject mainstream ideals of fashion, beauty and femininity; they simply redefined them to encompass their religious morals. As Braude noted, these women were “promoting fashion and religion at the same time… promoting internal virtue and external appearance…”45 In doing so, they participated in contemporary society and also maintained a degree of separateness, which led to the creation of distinct communal and personal identities. Tzniut dress took attention away from the physical aspects of beauty, so that a Modern Orthodox woman’s character could be conveyed. Gila Manolson stated that “Tzniut takes the powerful light of a woman’s physical self and rather than extinguishing it, uses it to radiate a message about her deeper identity.”46 The Jewish guidelines of tzniut did not limit a woman’s wardrobe; they guided it. Hence, the laws left room for the celebration of individualism among Modern Orthodox women both as a personal statement and as a collective consciousness. The opportunity to personalize the laws gave Modern Orthodox women agency as well as independence over their religious experiences and bodies, which included their choice of clothing. Modern Orthodox women opened clothing stores that catered to their needs and utilized social media platforms such as Instagram to help themselves and other women adhere and advance in modest fashion; they took charge in establishing themselves as individuals and as a cohesive group. While clothing served as a channel of self-expression, tzniut clothing did not define a Modern Orthodox woman’s identity; it merely reflected what was already beneath the surface.
 Tiffany Fellus in discussion with author, March 2019.
2 Liana, Satenstein, “Orthodox Jewish Women Find New Ways to be Fashionable in Crown Heights,” (May 09, 2013), https://fashionista.com/2013/05/orthodox-jewish-women-find-new-ways-to-be-fashionable-in-crown-heights.
3 Artscroll Mehadorat Yafeh Torah, (NY: Mesorah Publications, 2009), 457.
4 Ibid., 12.
5 Opra Slapak and Esther Juhasz, “Jewish Dress,” (March 24, 2019), https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-around-world/jewish-dress.
6 Sarah Bunin Benor, “He has Tzitzis Hanging out of his Ponytail: Orthodox Cultural Practices and How BTs Adapt Them” in Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 52-80.
7 Linda B. Arthur, “Religion and Dress,” (March 24, 2019), https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-histroy-eras/religion-dress.: My Jewish Learning, “Jewish Clothing,” (April 19, 2019), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-clothing/.
8 Carlos J. Torelli, “Cultural Equity” in Globalization, Culture and Branding: How to Leverage Cultural Equity for Building Iconic Brands in the Era of Globalization (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 35-61.: Albert Isaac Gordon, “The Search for Religion” in Jews in Suburbia (Boston: Beacon press, 1959), 148-167.
9 Adina Waldman in discussion with author, March 2019.
10 Michelle Honig, “How Orthodox Judaism’s Laws of Modesty Gave Me a Sense of Style,” Vogue (February 1, 2017), https://www.vogue.com/article/orthodox/judaism-fashion-laws-of-modesty.
11 Paula Knight, “As Sex Ceases to Sell, Modesty has its Fashion Moment,” Bloomberg News (December 13, 2018).
12 Miriam Kahn Steiner, “Halachik Judaism Promotes Healthy Body Image in Adolescent Women” (M.A: Thesis. Yeshiva University, 2008), 12.
13 Lynn Davidman, Tradition in a Rootles World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism (Berkley: University of California Press, 1993).
14 Maslin Nir, “Outfitting Hasidic with Stylish, yet Modest, Fashions.”
15 Gila Manolson, “Your Body/Yourself” in Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniut, (Southfield: Targum Press, 1997), 39.
16 Maya Namdar in discussion with author, March 2019.
17 Susan Weidman Schneider, Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 234.
18 Fellus, interview.
19 Miriam Kahn Steiner, “Halachik Judaism Promotes Healthy Body Image in Adolescent Women”, 17.
20 Bari Mitzmann in discussion with author, March 2019.
21 Artscroll Mehadorat Yafeh Torah, 7.
22 Estee Soniker in discussion with author, March 2019.
23 Jenna Kessler in discussion with author, March 2019.
24 Artscroll Tehillim, (NY: Mesorah Publications, 2012), 96.
25 Milligan, Hair, Headwear and Orthodox Jewish Women, 127.
26 Tziporah Zucker in discussion with author, April 2019.
27 Kessler, interview.
28 Milligan, Hair, Headwear, and Orthodox Jewish Women, xii.
29 Leonard J. Greenspoon, “Weimer Jewish Chic: Jewish Women and Fashion in 1920s Germany” in Fashioning Jews Clothing, Culture, and Commerce (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2013), 113.
30 Alexandria Gouveia, “Hijabi Cover Stars Highlight the Power of Choice and What Modesty Means Today,” Vogue (March 27, 2019), https://en.vogue.me/fashion/hijabi-vogue-arabia-april-2019-cover-starts-the-power-of-choice/.
31 Kessler, interview.
32 Gideon Reuveni and Nils H. Roemer, “Introduction: Longing, Belonging and the Making of Jewish Consumer Culture” in Longing, Belonging and the Making of Jewish Consumer Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1-23.
33 Sarah Maslin Nir, “Outfitting Hasidic with Stylish, yet Modest, Fashions,” New York Times (March 22, 2016).
34 Eliana Aisenbaum in discussion with author, March 2019.
35 Sydney Hecht and Bethany Freynk. Orthodox Jewish Fashion, (March 13, 2019), https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/whatwewear/semitic-style-2/.
36 Michelle Honig, “11 Up and Coming Modest Jewish Brands You Need to Know Now,” (October 23, 2017), https://forward.com/life/style/385761/11-up-and-coming-modest-jewish-brands-you-need-to-know-now.
37 Namdar, interview.
38 Mitzmann, interview.
39 Kessler, interview.
40 Waldman, interview.
41 Penny Storm, Functions of Dress: Tool of Culture and the Individual, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1987), 323.
42 Mitzmann, interview.
43 “How Fashion Helps Us Express Who We Are and What We Stand For,” Ted Talk video, 12:34, posted by “Kaustav Dey,” November 2017, https://www.ted.come/talks/kaustav_dey_how_fashion_helps_us_express_who_we_are_and_what_we_stand_for_?language=en#t161555.
44 Storm, Functions of Dress: Tool of Culture and the Individual, 331.
45 Maslin Nir, “Outfitting Hasidic with Stylish, yet Modest, Fashions.”
46 Manolson, Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniut, 39.
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