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Modest Chic: In One Season, Out the Next—Unless You’re an Orthodox Jew

Back when I was in yeshiva high school, three-quarter length shirt sleeves were all the rage at the Gap. My friends and I joyously rifled through the racks at Brooklyn’s Kings Plaza branch of the store, thrilled to buy a piece of clothing that we could wear right off the hanger—no alterations required to meet modesty guidelines. It was a victory for female Orthodox Jewish shoppers in the late 90s.

I have no idea why the powers-that-be at the Gap and other stores decided that season that covered elbows were “in.” But my friends and I were grateful that, for once, we could shop in the same chain stores as the rest of the country and be part of what, in retrospect, was a really ugly moment in fashion history.

Another such moment is now upon us. As this BuzzFeed article observes, it has never been a better time to be a fashion forward Orthodox Jewish female. Decreed by designers, retailers, and trend-setters—reality TV star Olivia Palermo, stylist Rachel Zoe and the regal Kate Middleton among them—modesty (or tznius, as Ashkenazic Jews are wont to say) is officially back in style.

The necklines are higher and the hemlines longer. The fabrics are less clingy. It is finally possible for an Orthodox (or Mod-Ortho) Jewish girl to walk down the street and not be immediately identified as such, blending in with the rest of the young, hip set.

(I’ve got an internal chip that is like one of those police scanners but instead of picking up on the presence of a cop car, I can distinguish a skirt-wearing Orthodox girl from the general skirt-wearing population. Same goes for sheitels, the wigs that married Orthodox women wear. No matter how expensive they are, I can pick them out from a mile away. I’m like a bomb sniffing dog for wigs.)

Unlike many in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic camps, some more mainstream Orthodox folks do wish to be able to slip into the wider society every once in a while. Many go to secular colleges and are avid consumers of pop culture. They live tantalizingly close to the mainstream and though they put religious priorities above all else, they are still greatly affected by Madison Avenue. When congruous with religious law, they want to be part of American culture.

But designers are probably not responding to Orthodox girls’ deep seated desire to blend in. So this begs the question—what exactly is driving this current mainstream fashion trend to cover up?

I like to (wholly and unoriginally) call this the Brooklyn Hipster Effect. Though hipsters are much maligned and the term itself has practically become a punch line, certain fashion sensibilities of the Williamsburg kids have taken root and started to influence threads not found in a thrift store. Their sartorial challenge: I’m going to pilfer the racks of this secondhand shop for other people’s cast offs and layer practically to the point that it seems like I’m wearing my entire wardrobe all at once—and dare you to not find it sexy and alluring. And so far, it’s been working. No need for cleavage and knees here.

But can the influence of Brooklyn hipsters last forever? Odds are, no. Fashion is nothing if not constantly evolving. Some day real soon those aspiring artists will decide that overt is sexy and the plunging necklines and tight fitting clothing will return. And failing that, I’m sure that the spandex-loving 80s trend will reassert itself in, say, 2018. (Just a guess.)

So, frum girls, do as my circle of friends did all those years ago—stock up. Buy those skirts and blouses in every color and texture, because this too shall pass.

Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, Tablet and several other publications. She is the author of the essay collection Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess and blogs at Unorthodox Gymnastics. You can find Dvora on Twitter here.

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