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Understanding the dress codes of Orthodox Jewish women

Written by Hannah Tindle, CNN

Based on the true story of Deborah Feldman, a Jewish woman who left the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in search of a new life, the hit Netflix series “Unorthodox” has brought Hasidic culture — and its female dress codes — into mainstream focus. One of the most talked about aspects of the show is the clothing, which shapes lead character Esty’s (played by Shira Haas) story from beginning to end.

The show’s costume designer Justine Seymour spent hours on meticulous research, including a week-long stint within the Satmar community in New York. “I consider one of the biggest gifts of my job to be that it is very creative, but also very educational,” she said during a phone interview.

“You do have to be sensitive, respectful, and informed when you are observing a very closed community,” said Seymour, who is not Jewish. She said she discovered that the women she met during her research embraced designer brands for shoes, headscarves and handbags. “Kate Spade, Chanel, Ferragamo and Hermes were the stand-out designers,” she said, that “add a bit of glamour to the conservative dress code.”

Whether scouring second-hand stores for silk scarves (she said she purchased over 100 for the show) or building faux-fur shtreimels (hats worn by married Hasidic men usually made from mink) from scratch, Seymour said she worked hard to ensure that each costume would adhere to Orthodox Jewish laws, but also celebrate the nuances of individual style.

Esty on her wedding day in "Unorthodox."

Esty on her wedding day in “Unorthodox.” Credit: Anika Molnar/Netflix

Orthodox dressing can often be perceived by outsiders as overly restrictive, and as leaving little room for individual freedom and self-expression. Feldman and the fictional character of Esty both struggled with the pressures put on them by their communities, which extended to their appearance, but all three of the Jewish women interviewed for this article felt that there’s more freedom to explore one’s personal style than people might assume — particularly within less conservative households or branches — and many devout women do play with fashion to reflect their personal taste, while staying within the religious dress codes they have chosen to follow.

Orthodox Judaism encompasses many traditions and customs, with the Hasidim of Williamsburg being just one ultra-observant group. And while women living in this particular community tend to subscribe to more stringent rules for getting dressed, modern Orthodox followers, for example, choose to interpret some of the core principles differently.

Specific style codes vary from community to community, with clothing often dictated by practicality or religious occasion — Shabbat, Yom Tov (meaning holiday), weddings and bar mitzvahs — as much as personal taste. But no matter where you are or whatever the occasion, in the Orthodox Jewish world, what to wear is governed by the concept of modesty, called tzniut in Hebrew and tznius in Yiddish. From Tel Aviv to Massachusetts, it is with tznius in mind that clothing is chosen.

Tamara Fulton, a fashion stylist and lifestyle editor, who is married to an Orthodox rabbi and lives in London, explained: “There are lots of different Jewish communities all over the world with much diversity yet the underlying principles they share are the same. Tznius is the word in Judaism that is slightly mistranslated to mean simply ‘modesty,’ but it’s not just about modest dressing. Tznius applies to both men and women, and is based upon the concept of humility. It’s really about how you are in the world, and how you carry yourself in a reserved but dignified manner,” said Fulton.

This usually means the following for Orthodox women: trousers are not worn, and skirts and dresses must fall below the knee, including when sitting; arms are covered to the elbow, and necklines are high-cut. Often clothing is altered — with slits in skirts sewn up and false necklines added. Layering is also often used to create final looks.

The scene from "Unorthodox" when Esty's hair is shaved.

The scene from “Unorthodox” when Esty’s hair is shaved. Credit: Anika Molnar/Netflix

Once married, covering your hair is another one of the key principles of tznius. Not all women will shave their real hair, as Esty does during one of the most memorable scenes of “Unorthodox” (her hair is in fact shaved for her). But many observant women will either wear a scarf or a sheitel, the Yiddish word for wig.

A Jewish teacher who taught in Israel in a girls’ seminary and also lived in the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community in Manchester in the north of England agreed to be interviewed for this article, but asked not to be named for reasons of modesty.

She wears a sheitel herself and explained that they can often be used as an accessory or as a way to change up your look. Over the phone she said: “One (woman) I know has a selection of all different color sheitels in different styles. Because she says: ‘I’m covering my head and I’m thinking of a sheitel as a hat. So if I want to be blonde one day and brunette another, why shouldn’t I be?'”

The style of sheitel is also dependent on the community. For example, some Hasidic women wear shorter wigs with a hat on top, so there is no doubt they are wearing a head covering. Sheitels are made from both human and synthetic hair. When she was living in Manchester, the teacher always preferred to wear her wig made from real hair for special occasions. “I would have real hair for Shabbat, and then synthetic for every day,” she said.

Wearing gifted jewelry on Shabbat or special occasions is also common. “It is believed that married women should be given beautiful jewelry,” said the teacher. “It might be modest, but it would be of high quality.”

Seymour noted that jewelry was an important component when assembling the costumes for “Unorthodox.” She remembered having to dress around 60 women for Esty and her husband Yanky’s wedding scene, all in replica diamonds and pearls. Later in this scene, the groom presents his new bride with a pair of latticed diamond earrings. “They are very close to the earrings Deborah Feldman was given in reality,” she said.

When is comes to color, like with other cultures and religions, different colors take on different meanings, but black isn’t the only color worn by Hasidic women. “When I lived in Israel, we hardly wore black,” said the teacher. “It was very bright colors. But not red — never red! As this color is not seen as modest. (In Hasidic communities) women will tend to wear navy, bottle green, browns and gray.”

“For all women, the clothes are an expression of yourself. The idea is to look smart, but not to draw too much attention to yourself,” she explained.

A look from the Erdem show at London Fashion Week in February.

A look from the Erdem show at London Fashion Week in February. Credit: Stuart Wilson/BFC/Getty Images

Orthodox women choose to buy clothing from a variety of different places — from Jewish-owned clothing stores within their community to other non-Jewish shops or shopping centers. For Fulton, there are several go-to stores that often sell pieces that work for her. “I prefer to wear clothes that are designed to be worn as they are, rather than layering or altering for modesty,” she said. “H&M and Zara are great for this.”

She also noted that many high fashion designers have been producing collections that offer options for women who choose to dress modestly. “It’s really interesting to see designers like Valentino, Erdem, and McQueen, for example, produce styles that just happen to be appropriate for women who might want to dress in a more modest way. I’m a big fan of the whole 1970s revival, too, with Laura Ashley-inspired designs and brands such as The Vampire’s Wife.”

Another brand that has become popular with both observant and secular women alike is Batsheva. The 2018 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winning brand is known for its ruffled, prairie-style dresses. Established by native New Yorker Batsheva Hay, the foundations of her namesake label are centered around her own personal history and culture.

Her husband, photographer Alexei Hay, began following Orthodox practices just before they started dating. At their wedding, Batsheva — who grew up in a secular Jewish family and who is not ultra-observant of Jewish dress codes — said men and women were separated, which is traditional, and Hay wore her mother’s wedding dress, made from Mexican lace and suitable for tznius.

Alexei and Batsheva Hay on their wedding day.

Alexei and Batsheva Hay on their wedding day. Credit: Courtesy of Batsheva Hay

With no formal fashion design training, Hay — a former lawyer — first started making clothes for herself while at home raising young children. She launched her brand in 2016.

“When I was starting Batsheva, I was finding that so many of the references that I was interested in were retro or old-fashioned,” she said over the phone. “Also in my (neighborhood), and in Brooklyn which is a quick subway ride away from me, I was seeing Orthodox women who dressed similarly to this.” Hay, who said she is compelled by working within specific, pre-laid rules, but interpreting them anew. In this way, she has developed a style that is modest but also distinctive and fun.

A look from the Batsheva Spring-Summer 2020 collection presented at New York Fashion Week in September 2019

A look from the Batsheva Spring-Summer 2020 collection presented at New York Fashion Week in September 2019 Credit: Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

“The goal for Orthodox Jews is not an abandonment of beauty,” she said. “It’s supposed to be working within that to still look beautiful.”

Seymour echoed this sentiment: “With the costumes in ‘Unorthodox,’ I wanted to honor women all over the world who want to look beautiful without breaking the codes of modesty.” She said she was struck by the pride many of the woman in the Satmar community took in dressing well. “If the show can inspire a little bit more glamour and beauty, and pride in the way (all women) dress, I would be overjoyed.”

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