For women, keeping up with the ever-changing dictates of the fashion world can be exhausting. For most of us, keeping up with trendy 'dos' and 'don’ts' is a matter of choice. But worrying about staying chic seems like a piece of cake compared to keeping up with the dictates handed down by the rabbis and their modesty squads in various ultra-Orthodox enclaves around the world.
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For the latest in Haredi fashion news, you need to turn to the unofficial muckraker of the ultra-Orthodox world, Shmarya Rosenberg and his FailedMessiah.com website. It's not the place to learn much about the majority of Haredim, normal people, calmly going about their lives. But if you want to hear about the latest crimes, scandals, violence and extremist dictates from within the community, there’s no better place to go.
The latest fashion-related scoop on the site is the new marching orders handed down to lingerie stores in the Jerusalem suburb of Beitar Illit.
A letter sent to the stores, supposedly by women in ‘education’ and the wives of rabbis, imposes restrictions on how to display their wares – no open undie displays, everything hidden away in drawers and closets. But the restriction that grabbed headlines was its ban on colored underwear.
According to the dictate, the only acceptably modest shades for bras and panties are tan, black and white. No red, no pink, no orange – and no other colors.
And apparently, it’s not even OK to be a little bold and sexy at the time you’d think it might just be appropriate – your wedding night.
The shop ladies are forbidden “to suggest, advise or guide women – and especially brides – to buy items which are not in traditional colors, like white, tan, or black.” Unlike the rest of the world, these fashion arbiters have decided that wearing black is Unsexy. It seems none of them has heard of the little black dress or the potential horizons for lacy black undergarments.
But that isn’t the only update from the fashion police in the last few months, as reported on the site.
While flesh-colored underwear is ‘in’ in Beitar Illit, the color is ‘out’ in Lakewood, New Jersey, when it comes to stockings. Earlier this month, FailedMessiah published a photograph of a sign in that town’s Orthodox area declaring that “Stockings whose color closely resembles the skin are not to be worn.”
Mind you, it’s not only colors that are restricted. There are also fabrics that have fallen into sartorial disrepute. Two separate Hassidic sects in New York, Bobov and Satmar, recently banned women from wearing leather. The reason, according to Bobov, is that "this style originates from the lowest of the [non-Jewish] peoples of the world and we cannot allow it to penetrate into our midst, as it is so unbefitting for a Jewish daughter [to wear]."
The dictate, by the way, only applied to ‘smooth leather.’ Suede is kosher.
Not wanting to be viewed as lenient, the Satmar sect followed suit with its own leather ban, just a few days after the Bobov edict. Satmar's leaflet featured a leather-clad, helmeted guy on a motorcycle. As if anyone would mistake an ultra-Orthodox schoolgirl for Easy Rider.
I’m no expert, but this all feels like it’s being taken to a whole new level over the past few years in much of the Orthodox community. Fashion minutiae, like skirt length, sleeve length, colors of garments and types of shoes, seem to be occupying the rabbi’s minds more than is healthy.
It also appears that the phenomenon has crossed over from the Haredim to the religious-Zionist community. There was a major backlash when a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi, Rav Shlomo Aviner, published a disturbingly detailed rulebook for female dress, warning against excessively transparent garments and “problematic” fabrics, like jersey, Lycra and tricot. He even had hairstyle dictates.
I’m with the Zionist-religious movement, Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, which commented on the publication: “Rabbi Aviner's collection of instructions narrows down the value of modesty and damages the values of sanctity. The obsessive engagement in pieces of clothing is in itself immodest, and all this advertisement distorts Halacha, which seeks to reduce a person's engagement in matters of human urges."
In the interest of being fair and balanced, however, I have to note that things are also getting a little weird on the Jewish feminist side of the fence, when it comes to fashion. From the beginning, while I have admired the struggle of the Women of the Wall for the right to pray as they wish at the Kotel, I have found it a little off-putting when the struggle focuses on the outfit – wearing a tallit and tefillin (leather!) – rather than the activities of praying and reading from the Torah. As one friend joked, ‘leave it to women to make it all about the accessories.’
Now, in an act of feminist solidarity, a high-profile Israeli fashion designer has decided to make the Women of the Wall struggle fashionable by putting out a collection that it says was inspired by the group.
The fashion house, Comme Il Faut, is no stranger to political controversy and seems to favor it as a marketing tool, Benetton-style. In 2004, they shot a fashion spread at the separation wall, and their summer collection was all about Islam.
This winter collection is dedicated to Women of the Wall, who the company praises in its press release, saying “every feminist struggle can learn from their courage and determination.”
The ‘inspired’ collection seems to define Women of the Wall as their opponents do - as women who are trying to emulate men, with models wearing garments that closely resemble the 19th century Polish garb of ultra-Orthodox men.
I get that fashion is an irrational beast, but trying to dress like a Hasidic man to make a feminist statement makes as little sense as the uber-modest women buried in fabric, doing everything short of wearing a sack over their head, so as not to appear attractive to the opposite sex.
And if the whole point of the exercise is to hide from other men while, underneath it all, being attractive enough to your spouse to be fruitful and multiply – I really don’t understand the problem with red underwear.