Throw Away This Schmatte: The Latest Trends in Orthodox Women's Headgear

Bands and bubus are in, berets are pretty much out. A visit to the recent fashion fair for modest Orthodox women.

Goodbye, Mother Theresa. Hello Kate Middleton. That was the message of a dozen or so designers of top-of-the-line head coverings who exhibited their wares at Israel’s preeminent fashion fair for the religious woman, earlier this month.

Indeed, judging from the samples on display at this biannual event for style-conscious Orthodox women, the bland, nun-like headdresses of yesteryear have clearly given way to new chic designs, bold colors and daring, hair-revealing wraps.

That’s right: The latest word in hair coverings these days is it doesn’t all have to be covered.

Many of the new designs, brightly colored and wrapped around the head in turban-like fashion, evoke African tribal headdresses. Others, with beads and precious stones hand sewn into expensive fabrics, look more like jewelry than headgear.

“To me, they’re a type of ornament,” says Reut Shayovitz, who designs her own line of hair coverings under the Chapachula label. “Something beautiful to frame the face.”

Many, like those bearing the Chapachula label, incorporate lace, chiffon and intricate appliques. Carrying a price tag of NIS 250, Shayovitz’s most expensive handmade hair covering is a wide hairband made out of light fabric and decorated with Swarovski crystal stones ‏(it comes in a special protective box to protect the glass‏).

Another eye-catcher, clearly inspired by the fashionable Duchess of Cambridge, is a tiny hat attached to a headband with a veil that dips seductively over one eye. Then there’s the rather daring itsy-bitsy version of the pillbox hat, also attached to a metal headband, with fingerlike black extensions that create the illusion of a spider crawling on the head.

For very special events, Shayovitz recommends her dark lacy band with white pearls sewn into the fabric, or any of her gold- and silver-trimmed creations; for more playful occasions, there’s a sporty line of mint-green bands with adorable little appliques.

At an adjacent booth, Vered Solomovitz - a graduate of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design - is tending to customers eager to treat themselves to some festive-looking headwear before the holidays. She pulls out a bunch of items from the huge pile of bold-colored scarves, kerchiefs, pashminas and headbands that she’s stacked on the table. “I can’t resist bright colors,” Solomovitz says almost apologetically, as she demonstrates the procedure for elegantly wrapping a scarf around the head.

These elaborate, often bejeweled head coverings are indeed a far cry from what in years past might have been mistaken for a schmatte thrown carelessly on the head.

“It’s an area that’s undergone huge change in recent years,” says Adi Burg, a stylist and personal shopper who specializes in fashions for Orthodox women. “Every one of the designers here has her own special signature head covering. There’s nothing really standard about it anymore.”

These designs are not appropriate for all Orthodox women, though, especially not those who uphold very strict standards of modesty. Indeed, as Burg notes, the main market for these rather edgy designs are women who identify themselves as dati leumi - religious Zionist, the Israeli version of modern Orthodox. “For Haredi women, these sort of head coverings are not sufficiently modest,” she notes. “They prefer to cover the entire head with a wig, but sometimes they’ll use one of these head coverings on top of the wig for some extra pizzazz.”

Shayovitz notes that her clients span a wide spectrum of religiously observant women: Some prefer to cover all their hair; others are fine with a few strands peeking out; while many more these days don’t mind revealing quite a lot of hair, whether worn loose and held back with a band, or gathered on top of the head and flowing out of an opening in the wrap in the fabric.

There are no rules when it comes to those who wear a hairband. “Some like it wider, to cover more of the head,” says Burg, “and others will fold it in half and show even more hair.”

Shayovitz, who lives in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, doesn’t quite look the part of the modesty maven; she covers only some of her hair, wears a skirt cut just above the knee and walks around bare-legged in sandals. But as she sees it, everything goes these days in the religious world. “Judaism has become much more open and welcoming,” she observes. “Whatever anyone chooses to do is fine with me.”

Or, as Burg describes the situation: “Things aren’t as black and white anymore.”

Conspicuously absent from the latest designs in head coverings are the traditional hats, once deemed essential for the wardrobe of modern Orthodox women. There is a good reason for that absence, notes Burg: “Covering the forehead has really gone out of fashion.”

The modesty fashion fair, launched five years ago, is a week-long event held twice a year, once before the High Holy Days and once before Passover. Drawing thousands of Orthodox shoppers before these holidays, it’s become the place to purchase modest, sophisticated-looking clothing and accessories at reasonable prices.

During the first half of the week, designers exhibit and sell their wares at the Binyanei Ha’uma convention center in Jerusalem; during the second half, they move to the more intimate setting of the Wohl Center in Givat Shmuel, a Tel Aviv suburb with a large Orthodox community. Men are barred from entering the exhibition while the event is being held so women can feel more comfortable trying on clothes straight off the racks, according to the organizers.

Sitting at a booth not far from Shayovitz is Hila Tawil, who creates and sells her head coverings under the Hilulim label, her signature touch evident in the intricate bows and knots that hold these accessories in place. “See this one,” she says, pointing to a bowtie-style applique on one of her head wraps. “It’s not just for cleaning women anymore.”

Some of her scarves, she adds, serve a dual purpose. They can be used as full head wraps or folded over into headbands, depending on what level of modesty the occasion or setting requires.

Ever hear of a bubu? It’s an absolute must these days, according to Tawil, for any woman who doesn’t have enough hair of her own to provide a head covering with some added lift from behind. The bubu, a spongy little pillow the size of a baseball, gets inserted into a special pocket inside the scarf, creating the illusion of greater hair volume when tied around one’s head.

Burg says she can spot a bubu a mile away. “Show me anyone in this room,” she boasts, “and I can tell you if she’s got a bubu stuck inside a headscarf or if it’s the real thing.”

So, we ask, doesn’t anyone wear berets anymore? Rolling her eyes a bit at the question, Burg provides the lowdown on these and other head coverings she deems unfashionable. “They’re for old ladies,” she posits.

Tawil begs to differ, however. Showing off her new line of berets, among them a shiny model in faux-leather, she points out some of the key differences with those little caps of days gone by. “These are much lighter,” she notes. “They’re made of the same fabrics we use in the scarves. And they’re also much more colorful. Look at this one here. Can you imagine? A pink and brown beret? My grandmother would have been shocked.”

Michal Fattal