Sisterhood Blog

The Semiotics of Skirts and Swimsuits

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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In Tablet magazine, Dvora Meyers recently wrote a brief meditation on her conflicted history with skirts and some of their Jewish cultural connotations.

I enjoy reading the semiotics of skirts, a fun game to play where I live, which is close to Crown Heights and equidistant from Williamsburg and Borough Park. Young women from Crown Heights wearing form-fitting, knee-length denim skirts and leggings underneath while they jog or bike to and from Prospect Park is a common sight. In communities where the subtleties of a woman’s choice of clothing are scrutinized for indications of how frum she is, the difference between a knee-length, close-fitting denim skirt with a slit and a baggy, to-the-floor denim skirt telegraphs at least something of her personal values.

Reading Dvora’s piece reminded me of the odd sight of orthodox Muslim women swimming in full burqua in the warm water springs at Sahne one hot summer day when we were last in Israel on vacation. But “burqinis” seem to be a growing fashion even here in America. When I recently went to a favorite swimming supply website to buy goggles, I was surprised to see a new, “modest swimwear” category right next to the usual Speedo and Tyr tank suits.

The bathing costumes featured are full-length dress-legging-hood combos, clearly aimed at the religious Muslim market. Of course there is a Jewish counterpart, though I’ve only seen these sold on specialty websites. Something about seeing these ultra-covered swimsuits on a mainstream site usually geared to swim teams and lap swimmers was a little bit shocking.

For now, though, it’s all I can do to deal with the floor-length denim skirts in favor with a certain segment of Haredi young women. And while Girlchik went on a Chabad synagogue-organized Shabbaton last weekend, I’m hoping she doesn’t start asking me for one of those any time soon.


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