Two new feminist t-shirts entered the world this past month and I am not sure which will incite more scandal, considering the context.
One is a tight, black, short-sleeved v-neck tee that has “’Daughters of Israel, Do Not Dress Provocatively” printed across it in Hebrew. This is the same language women find on signs posted around religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem warning them to not show too much skin.
This shirt was the brainchild of Jerusalem-based Joanne Ginsberg, who came up with the idea after being harassed for her “provocative” dress a few summers ago. She was wearing long sleeves, a long skirt sandals and a head scarf.
Everything comes easier for me when I have a bit of intellectual stimulation, and exercise is no exception. Recently, as I pushed through another grueling post-baby workout, my trainer, sensing that I was in desperate need of distraction, told me something interesting. An Orthodox Jewish woman had recently complained to her that some of the women in her shul were purposely dressing frumpier and frumpier. This woman claimed that she and some of her friends were discouraged by the new trajectory of modesty that likely stems from increasing efforts to shield the seductive female body from the penetrating male gaze. (Yes, I said penetrating.)
Apparently modesty glasses haven’t yet made it to Los Angeles, and so women are taking long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and high necklines to the next level of unfashionable. No longer is it good enough to wear modest clothing that fits. It would seem that modesty, according to this story, is also about looking as unattractive and sometimes even as slovenly as possible.
I wondered, could this be true?
Most women would do or pay anything to be that beautiful blonde in the bar, the one getting attention from all the men. And most women probably would not understand being blonde and voluntarily giving it up — covering up the blonde hair with a headscarf, voluntarily shedding the sexy outfit in favor of a long skirt and long sleeves, and wiping off all the makeup. But at least one woman, Lauren Shields of Atlanta, recently did just that.
“A lot of men approach me and start random conversations about nothing,” Shields told the Sisterhood in a recent phone interview. “Generally they’re trying to get my phone number, and that’s nice and everything, but I don’t actually want that kind of attention anymore.”
Shields, a film-editor-turned-seminary graduate, did not, at the age of 29, suddenly become a Haredi Jew or a religious Muslim. She didn’t turn Quaker or fall ill. She didn’t decide it was her responsibility as a woman to decrease men’s attraction to her by covering more skin. She was simply tired of feeling the need to dress a certain way, as dictated by society, fellow working women and her own rigorous standards.
“I had started to feel like the way I looked was not as much up to me as I would like,” Shields said. “I was starting to feel like it was a requirement to have a trendy haircut, to make sure that if I showed my arms or legs, they had to be super toned. If I showed my feet, they had to have nail polish on them. It started to feel like it wasn’t me anymore, it was me trying to look like everyone else.”
When people ask what kind of a Jew I am, I tend to answer, “just Jewish.” It’s easier than explaining the Refoconservadox-style of Judaism I practice, and by that I mean that I pray in Conservative synagogue, keep what some would call eco-kosher (which does not abide by any halachic standard for kashrut) and wear pants and tank tops as often as I wear skirts that cover my knees. I’ve often described my way of moving within the different denominations of Judaism as wrapping myself in the traditions that speak the most to me, which is interesting when contemplating how, when and why I wrap my hair.
Whenever I think of the similarities between Jewish women and black women, hair is always high on my list. Like many black women, I relaxed mine for years. Seven years ago I stopped chemically straightening it, allowing it to grow in its natural coiling, zig-zagging state. I love my hair — most of the time — and when I don’t, I wrap it in a scarf.
Wrapping my hair is less about covering it and more about putting something on my head as a physical reminder of greater spiritual power. I don’t think my hair is particularly sexual or that it’s a private thing between my partner and me, but I’m admittedly intrigued by the religious significance of married women covering their hair. Something about wearing a scarf paired with a long skirt just makes me feel more Jewish.
Esther Goldberger’s fashion philosophy sounds almost sexy: “We should enjoy our clothes to the point we forget we’re wearing them.”
But designs for Dellasuza, her three-month-old Montreal clothing label, take a less sultry approach. An Orthodox convert from Brazil, Goldberger creates clothing that fits specifications for tzniut, or modesty — with what she calls a “trendy” twist.
“We value your femininity while maintaining your mystery,” Dellasuza’s Web site promises.
Tzniut standards can vary, but the most widely accepted rules mean covered arms, legs and torsos. “All women and girls, married or unmarried, must cover all parts of their main body (torso) plus parts of their arms and legs when in public or in the presence of individuals outside their immediate family,” writes Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk in “Modesty: An Adornment for Life,” considered an authoritative treatise on the subject.
Goldberger’s entering a crowded category. Sites like Tznius.com, KosherCasual, ModestWorld, and Leelach hawk modest clothing that ranges from nouveau-Amish to neo-Jersey Shore. Dellasuza’s web site touts a range of simple, patterned shells and dresses from about $50. An unscientific survey of women at Forward HQ, however, deemed the designs “awful,” but Goldberger’s seeing orders from around the world.
With summer approaching, the Forward checked in with Goldberger about modesty, comfort, and style.
Why did I find the image of a faceless man in a tush-in-the-air submissive pose so much more shocking than that of a woman? Have I become so saturated by ubiquitous tasteless American Apparel ads that I have become inured to just how disgusting they are?
American Apparel is famous for featuring, in its advertising, barely-clad young women who appear to be on the wrong side of the age of consent posing in overtly sexual ways.
A small Swedish clothing retailer, byPM, recently did its own photo shoot showing company owner Petter Lindqvist posing in a manner characteristic of women in the American Apparel pictures. I found the resulting image, viewed up against the female version, shocking. Even more startling was realizing that the image of the woman in the same pose didn’t give me a moment’s pause — which shows, perhaps, just how inured I have become to the sight of women in such positions.
Silver clogs. Fisherman sweaters. High-waisted jeans. These are just a few of the sartorial choices I’ve made in recent years that in no way flatter or turn heads, but that I adore. So I was thrilled to come across “Man Repeller,” Leandra Medine’s personal-style blog. Medine, 24, began the site in 2010 while in college at the New School and living at home with her parents on the Upper East Side. Through her blog, she’s crafted a career for herself as one of the most prominent fashion personalities of our time.
What explains Medine’s success? “Man Repeller” shares many traits with other popular personal-style blogs: It’s run by a young, photogenic woman who wears pricey clothes, covers runways, gets featured in the mainstream fashion press, and collaborates with designers.
When your synagogue attendance can only be described as sporadic, a few panicked thoughts and pangs of regret enter your mind as you step into shul for Rosh Hashanah services. These include, but are not limited to: 1.) I should have volunteered to teach Torah for Tots because they get to eat apples and honey and speak English 2.) My new year’s resolution is to kiss up to the rabbi’s secretary, so we don’t get these nosebleed seat assignments again 3.) I hope people think I look pretty in my new dress.
The latter of these concerns is also the most emotionally complex; it is as fraught with hang-ups as a kugel is with raisins. Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish holiday. I love the time I spend with my family, celebrating the New Year and the act of tashlich, symbolically casting off my sins. Unfortunately, while I treasure these aspects of Rosh Hashanah, the act of attending my childhood synagogue has become a neurotic fashion show of my insecurities.
That’s not meant to be a convoluted psychotic metaphor. Rosh Hashanah has actually become a personal fashion show whenever I return to the synagogue of my youth. I’ve known what I am wearing to this year’s Rosh Hashanah services (on Monday, September 17) since early July. As soon as I tried on this dress all those months ago, I knew it would be the perfect thing to wear. It flatters my figure, but is still modest. Essentially, it conveys to my fellow congregants that I’m an attractive, confident, put-together young woman. Or so I hope. But why do I put so much thought into clothes during a holiday that is meant to be spent making resolutions to better myself, reflecting on my sins and, above all, being grateful to God for blessing me with another year with my loved ones?
We all have our own emotional landmines that evoke the painful, awkward memories of childhood and adolescence. To spare you the details, I was the overweight, quiet kid in a Hebrew school classroom with girls who knew how to wear a Juicy Couture tracksuit with pizzazz and never invited me to their bat mitzvahs. Eventually I grew up, discovered welcoming Jewish communities in college and young adulthood, and realized pastel velour tracksuits had a limited shelf life. Still, the moment I visit my childhood synagogue, the insecurities come rushing back.
Clothes may not make the man, but apparently they do make the woman. In America, it seems that no matter how successful, intelligent or high-ranking a woman is, she will ultimately be measured by her looks. At least that’s the message gleaned from a recent interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:
Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
Clinton: What designers of clothes?
Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?
Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.
Depressingly, this is not the first time that Clinton — whose resume boasts titles such as Secretary of State, former New York Senator and former 2008 Democratic presidential candidate — has faced sexist commentary objectifying her body rather than respecting her work. As the Guardian asked, “She’s hoping to become the most powerful woman in the world — so why does Hillary Clinton wear such uninspiring clothes?” Fox News talked about her “nagging voice,” and when the Huffington Post ran a caption competition for a photo of Clinton with her mouth open, the obnoxious entries started rolling in. News cycles have devoted extensive coverage to her pants, her ankles, her skin and, perhaps most notoriously, her cleavage. During the 2008 elections, the Women’s Media Center compiled a compelling video montage of the pervasive sexism that women like Clinton have had to endure.
The September 2012 issue of Vogue marks the 120th anniversary of the publication. To celebrate, Editor in Chief Anna Wintour reflected on some of her favorite covers and offered insight into how they came together. One of those highlights was her very first cover as editor, in November 1988, which featured an Israeli model named Michaela Bercu. The image was positively revolutionary compared to previous Vogue covers: Bercu was photographed casually on the street, her natural waves loose and unstyled, her smile wide and infectious. Nothing about her evoked the heavy makeup or choreographed studio scenes of the era. She was the first model in Vogue’s history to wear jeans on a cover, and she sported a bejeweled Christian Lacroix jacket that showed a little bit of belly (“she had been on vacation back home in Israel and had gained a little weight,” Wintour explained). Although the high/low mix is now a staple in fashion, Bercu’s outfit was, like the rest of her look, ahead of its time.
But the clothes aren’t the only things that have changed at the world’s most iconic fashion magazine. Since Bercu’s big break, few Israeli models have appeared in Vogue. The most famous, Bar Refaeli, gets regular work, but she’s considered more of a fit for underwear and bikini shoots than for high glam. Unlike fellow swimsuit model (and fellow Leonardo DiCaprio ex-girlfriend) Gisele Bundchen, Refaeli has not fully crossed over into the styled shoots often seen in Vogue. Similarly, Israeli Esti Ginzburg appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but she never made the jump to editorial work. (She later took a break at the peak of her career to do her mandatory IDF service.) Moran Atias, a Haifa native, did some high fashion runway work for designers like Roberto Cavalli, but she ultimately switched tacks and became an actress, most recently appearing in Adam Sandler’s “Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”
Tavi Gevinson is cool. Really cool. There’s no denying it. Only 16, she started a popular fashion blog at age 11, now runs Rookie, an online magazine with a readership of 1 million inspired by the ‘90’s alt-chick bible Sassy, and has been profiled by the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the New York Times style section and the New Yorker. She has sat front row at fashion shows, appeared on the covers of alternative magazines like Pop and Bust, and she also just got cast in the new movie from indie director Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give” and “Lovely and Amazing”).
I like Tavi, I do. I think she really truly has great style, and I like how seamlessly she navigates being a feminist and a fashion icon. And Rookie is a great magazine, filled with confident and funny young female voices, and — and! — her mom weaves Judaica-inspired tapestries and her dad is a retired English teacher. I mean, the girl is totally unimpeachable.
But, and there is but, I just don’t find Tavi as truly alternative despite the endless praise she receives for being so. As much as she might adore Angela Chase from “My So-Called Life” and MTV’s “Daria,” and is nostalgic for ’90s ennui in general (me too! me too!), there is a big difference between an insider like Tavi, who rubs elbows with Anna Wintour and gets advice from Sofia Coppola, and the outsider types that fueled ’90s teenage rebellion. Trust me, I was there.
Teen Vogue magazine began mysteriously arriving in our mail a couple of months ago (probably because I subscribe to Vogue proper and the algorithms know how old my children are), and I am doing my best to keep it away from my 13-year-old daughter.
I take a quick look through it and then tuck it a few layers into the recycling pile.
To be sure, Teen Vogue includes an occasional redeeming story, like this one about young philanthropist Yael Cohen, and her F*** Cancer organization, which has raised more than $1 million to fund education about the early detection of breast cancer.
Still, it doesn’t seem to counterbalance the dozens of stories about fashion and makeup and TV personalities that avalanche through on paper and on the magazine’s website: Ashley Greene in jeans showing that she has a huge space between her thighs! Fairy Tale Prom Dresses! Actress Emma Watson, looking oh-so-Twiggy, and her ‘Red Carpet Secrets!’ Kendall and Kylie Jenner, new ‘creative directors’ for Venus brand razors talking about why they never leave the house without shaving their legs! How they learned from their older sisters, like, how to shave and, like, the right way to do it with, like, shaving gel!
These are not the models of woman-hood I want Girlchik exposed to.
Coming this Sunday, to the intellectual and spiritual fountainhead of the Conservative movement, the best and brightest women (and men) in the movement will be talking about….clothing.
As Renee mentioned in this post, JTS will be hosting “What to Wear?” on March 11. It is an event billed as “An All-Day, Multifaceted Exploration of Women’s Clothing and Its Relationship to Religion and Culture.”
Much about the program sounds interesting: an interfaith panel, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish participants, on head covering and modesty; another panel, of female rabbis, looking at the messages sent by what they choose to wear; an examination of clothing in the Talmud, and an inter-generational session delving into the loaded topic of clothing and bat mitzvah.
Perhaps uniquely, JTS is able to bring together people from across the Jewish world, from Modern Orthodox to Reform, and from other faiths, and bring an intellectual perspective to bear on current cultural issues. And that’s great.
But something about this event seems more wrong than thrift store shoes on Carrie Bradshaw’s feet. My issue with “What to Wear?” isn’t the content, but that it’s happening at all.
Like all women, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Carol Ingall, a professor of Jewish education, and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a professor of American Jewish history and a dean, ask themselves “What to wear?” Their realization, after talking to female colleagues, of the pervasiveness of “this constant negotiation,” as Ingall puts it, led them to delve into this seemingly quotidian query. The result is a daylong program of interdisciplinary, inter-religious and inter-generational exploration of women’s clothing and its relationship to religion and culture.
“What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion” will take place March 11 at JTS, and will feature a panel discussion on head coverings in Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim tradition; a talk by Forward columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, of George Washington University, about how clothing helped Jewish women assimilate into American society, and wide-ranging sessions on everything from stripping in the Bible to clothing and Jewish stereotypes.
Among other highlights, Stefanie Siegmund, who chairs the Jewish gender and women’s studies program at JTS, will explore with attendees what clothing had to do with Christian-Jewish relations in the late 16th century. That “is the time of Shakespeare, and of the Italian comedies, as well as of the publication of many books of manners and customs, and legislation on who could wear what,” she wrote in an email. “Men and women were very self-conscious of the parts they played in the social hierarchy and also of the power of what they wore to change the way they were seen and treated.”
Israeli fashion magazine BelleMode is publishing a provocative spread in its February issue, featuring sexy young women wearing see-through clothes on what appears to be a gender-segregated bus in Israel.
Blogger Kung Fu Jew, better known to his friends as Ben Murane, wrote about it on Jewschool, and it was picked up by Gawker, which titled it “Sexy Israeli Photo Shoot Mocks Ultra-Orthodox Women Haters.”
The Jewschool post has a link to a Russian-language website that has a bunch of photos from the shoot, and a Hebrew-language “behind-the-scenes” video.
It used to be that while walking in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a fine spring day or attending wedding in nearby Boro Park, you would see how stylish Haredi women could be. Modestly attired to be sure, with heads cloaked in hats over wigs and clothing safely reaching to above the collarbone, to the wrist and to the calf, but chic nonetheless. Many wore sharply tailored suits and well accessorized blouse-and-skirt ensembles. Skirts were often navy or black, but the blouses and jackets and suits would be pretty colors, occasionally bright and patterned.
Over the past few years, that has changed. Now even on young girls, as well as on boys and men, clothing is mostly black and white, and unremittingly drab. I’m not the only one to notice. Judy Siegel-Itzkovitch, in a “reporter’s notebook” in The Jerusalem Post about the recent Puah Fertility Institute conference, wrote: “Haredi woman and even schoolgirls have in recent years abandoned colorful dresses and coats (even housecoats), and shops in Haredi neighborhoods illustrate the darkening female wardrobe.”
I have my own theory as to why — that it is part of an ascendant culture that expects women to diminish their presence, to disappear except when absolutely necessary. But I also thought I would check with an expert. I reached out to the Forward’s “Wonders of America” columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of Judaic studies and of history at George Washington University, whose specialty is the relationship between material culture and identity.
While my son’s religious yeshiva recently invited mothers to an evening of mother-son learning, my daughters’ mixed-gender school decided to hold an event for women that revolves around “styling.” The flier reads: “Dear community chaverot (meaning either female members or female friends), you are invited to a unique evening on the subject of ‘Style Together’ ….”
Some apparently famous fashion writer/stylist will be lecturing on the subject of “How to use fashion to transmit social messages,” followed by tips on dressing for image and personality or whatever. The flier is brightly adorned with silhouettes of tall skinny young women wearing flared mini-dresses and high heels, with flowers in their hair. How fashion sends social messages, indeed.
I can imagine the protests already, before I’ve even started explaining why this is so upsetting to me:
What’s the big deal? It’s just a fun evening. Don’t we all want to dress well anyway? Isn’t this useful information? Practically every school has fashion-show fundraisers, so how is this different? Come on, why are you being such a stick in the mud? This is why people say feminists are too serious. Let women have their night out. It’s just a night for women to get together and bond — like going for manicures
(Suddenly midrash manicures don’t look so bad — at least they have a midrash component).
The Babble parenting website has come out with its list of “100 Moms Who Are Changing The World” list, and as might be expected, there are Jewish women on it. After all, Jewish mothers can be quite formidable.
Jewish women did not make an appearance in all 10 categories on the list - activism, charity, creative, education, entrepreneurial, executive, green, health/science, inspirational, and politics – but they are disproportionately represented when taking into consideration the number of Jewish women in the general population. Perhaps we should even take it as a sign that the tribe was represented by exactly 12 Jews.
Fashion designer Donna Karan was on the list for her philanthropic work for cancer treatment through her Urban Zen Foundation, emergency housing in Haiti through Shelterbox, and cancer research and HIV/AIDS awareness through Seventh on Sale and Super Saturday.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, Senator, presidential candidate and current Secretary of State, is arguably one of the most powerful women in recent history, and yet she still comes under fire for her choice of clothing, from cleavage-gate to her pantsuits to her haircuts and figure and beyond.
Her most recent critic is television personality Tim Gunn, who stated during an appearance on the George Lopez show that due to Clinton’s choices, she seemed to have “gender” confusion and mocked her “cankles.”
This naturally enraged many a commentator, but perhaps the best comeback came from none other than reigning fashionista Lady Gaga, who guest-hosted The View on August 1. Gaga called Gunn “a bully” and said that she thought the Secretary of State has “more to worry about than her hemline.” (“I don’t,” she added self-deprecatingly and charmingly.)
The Satmar community’s Central Rabbinical Congress last week banned tank tops, among other women’s popular warm-weather wear. Of course, the hipsters and the Latinos who live in the neighborhood, alongside the Satmars, probably can’t read the Yiddish posters that Hasidim hung on light posts throughout the area to promulgate the ban.
We’re not sure if the ban is targeted at Hasidic women who, in a recent fashion trend in other Orthodox communities (though perhaps not Williamsburg), have taken to wearing spaghetti-strap dresses and other immodest wear over long-sleeved tee shirts.
The rabbinic powers-that-be over at the CRC probably would have been happy to have the women who had planned to ride in the naked bike ride through Williamsburg on Shabbat wear anything at all — even tank tops. The ride, organized by the organization “Times Up,” was put on to protest “indecent exposure to toxic pollution.” The ride was scheduled to conclude with a party at the Times Up headquarters in the neighborhood, which is the New York City home base of the Satmar Hasidic community.