Sisterhood Blog

Message in a Mini-Dress

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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My colleague Elissa Strauss, in this Sisterhood post, asks why I focused on the way author Deborah Feldman is dressed in recent press photos promoting her memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.”

As Elissa notes, I wrote in my Sisterhood post that Feldman seems somehow immature, that in photos she looks like nothing so much as one of the 13-year-old girls I see on the bat mitzvah circuit who wear super-high heels and super-short dresses. These girls look like they are playing a sexy version of dress-up.

Elissa observes, correctly, that Feldman is dressed no differently than countless other young women today, including herself, and writes: “Never did it occur to me, and I assume, to many of them, that dressing like this in 2012 would cause anyone to think of us as childish and therefore take us less seriously.”

Elissa continues: “Your assessment of Feldman…did tap into some of the same fears about a woman’s body and how it should be hid, to some degree or another, in order for the world to take us seriously… Why bring in the skinny jeans?”

I understand Elissa’s point, but it is not quite the one I was attempting to make in my post about Feldman and “Unorthodox.”

It’s true that I described the way Feldman was dressed when trying to convey my sense that she is, in some way, immature. But I really got that impression, at least in part, from the way she poses in the photos, and the expressions on her face, and the way she is holding her cigarette in one of the pictures. There is something in them that conveys to me that this is not a woman who is centered and confident.

I wasn’t making any general point about grown women who wear sparkly mini-dresses or skinny jeans (which I wear myself. The jeans, I mean). Or to suggest that women who dress that way ought to be taken less seriously. There is a discussion that could be continued about the messages sent by what we choose to wear, since of course everything about the way we present ourselves sends messages, whether they are intended or not.

Elissa writes: “We have dedicated space on this blog to defending women’s right to dress modestly. And now I am going to defend a women’s right to dress immodestly, especially if all it that means is in the stylish combo of skinny jeans and heels.”

I am right there with you, Elissa. I find the extremes abhorrent, both the zealous focus on covered-upness and control over the comportment of girls and women in the part of the Haredi community Feldman fled, for instance, and the bare-all aesthetic all too much on view at some of the bat mitzvah parties I’ve attended.

But I’m curious about something, as we explore on this blog the subtle semiotic differences between messages sent by different ways of dressing.

Does donning revealing mini-dress send a different message than “just” wearing a “stylish combo of skinny jeans and heels?”


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