Orthodox women’s modest dress code, known as tzeniut – covering the elbows, knees, and collarbones – may seem far from mainstream norms, but could it be the contrary? Is modesty becoming mainstream?
On the surface, fashion and fitness cultures appear to oppose the fundamental values of modesty. Fashion is an opportunity to channel your identity through clothing, while fitness emphasizes the objective of attaining a specific body type. In contrast, dressing modestly is contained within the parameters of religious laws, which instruct women to show minimal skin and reduce attracting attention to their appearance.
But paradoxically, these opposing subjects have recently converged.
“It’s really not hard to infuse fashion and spirituality,” Sharon Langert, 47, an Orthodox modest fashion blogger, said.
When Langert got married, she moved with her husband to Lakewood, N.J., one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities on the East Coast of the United States, where Jews make up nearly half of the town’s 70,000 total population. She was devastated.
“I didn’t feel there was a place for women that wanted to be fashionable but still be modest,” she said. At the time, these two values felt like they were always conflicting.
In 2011, Langert started a modest fashion blog called Fashion-isha, which has about 30,000 hits per month and over 44,000 followers on Instagram. Her blog became a place to express the tension she had been experiencing and connect with people that had the same desire to follow fashion trends while dressing modestly.
Similarly, in 2013 Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, Hasidic sister-in-laws living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, started a modest fashion brand called MIMU MAXI.
“It’s not about suppressing your beauty or self-expression, it’s about doing it within the channel of Judaism,” Hecht said in an interview with Refinery29.
The co-founders didn’t view their commitment to follow a rigid dress code as an obligation, they saw it as an opportunity to further develop a fashion trend and create interesting smocks, frocks and cascading dresses. Other faith groups have been drawn to MIMU MAXI for its balance of fashionable and conservative clothing.
But modest clothing isn’t restricted to religious groups. Recently, the trend has stretched far beyond these communities, and corporate clothing brands have capitalized on it. In 2013, Tommy Hilfiger started an annual Ramadan collection and in 2016 Dolce & Gabbana began selling embellished hijabs and abayas. Valentino’s 2018 spring haute couture collection was full of non-denominational long skirts and dresses, achieving cutting-edge fashion with modest taste.
In 2016, 65,000 millenial-aged women were involved in the modest fashion trend worldwide. In 2021, the projected global expenditure on modest clothing is expected to reach $368 billion, according to the 2016/2017 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.
“I think that designers want to accentuate something for all body types,” Shirel Shayo, 22, an L.L. Bean brand manager, said. “Confidence doesn’t have to equate to showing skin.” This perspective is gaining popularity in the fashion world for reasons apart from religion.
On Aug. 25, the fifth annual International Modest Fashion and Design Festival was held in Toronto. The two-day event included a runway show, marketplace for international and local vendors, modest fashion influencers and fashion workshops.
“I was a designer at [one] time and they didn’t have any modest fashions shows or festivals that served as a platform to show my work…so I created a platform and made it internationalized,” said Nateka Pitter, 30, founder of the festival and creator of the local clothing brand Victorious Me. Pitter was Christian, became atheist and is now Muslim.
“There are people out there that still have conservative values even though they are not religious,” she said. “They don’t need to have their body on display in order to feel liberated…and are more empowered.” Pitter is hoping to collaborate with Jewish designers in the future.
Aside from the fashion industry, fitness culture has also experienced a major shift. In the past, fitness has been associated with appearance driven motives. But recently, there has been a transition from fitness to wellness. Now, wellness is understood as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being.
“I think in the fitness industry there has been a shift all together, from fitness to wellness,” said Karen Turack, general manager at Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC). “We embrace that shift here.” The MNJCC’s fundamental objective, to engage the mind, body and spirit, aligns with the virtues of wellness culture.
“Wellness is not contradictory to any form of modesty. I think a lot of fitness and wellness has moved away from body image and being an esthetic and [has] more [of] a holistic definition. At least what we have been trying to do at the MNJCC is…engage your body with your mind. I think that in any definition of modesty, the two can absolutely coexist,” Daniel Eisenkraft Klein, the MNJCC athletics and recreation co-ordinator, said.
The rise of wellness culture encourages the same fundamental values as modesty, shifting the focus away from body image and towards nurturing each individual’s physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
In the past, fashion and fitness have favoured the esthetic side of both respective industries, but these recent changes, in both women’s clothing and wellness culture, have dramatically shifted these prior values. Unintentionally, this shift has aligned with the Jewish value of modesty and promoted a positive projection of self.