Fashion is and always has been a representation of the current social, political and economical status in the world.
Without stepping on too many toes I want to make it clear that in this piece I am not condemning any minhagim (customs) of various different religious communities. This is simply a discussion to break down the preconceived notions of the origins of dress codes practiced by the Westernized Orthodox Jewry. For example, historical facts easily refute that Jews in Syria, India, Yemen, Greece and so forth were wearing black hats/white shirts/black pants back in the day.
Yet in most orthodox circles dressing this way constitutes being “religious” and “orthodox” which in a way is robbing those of their ethnic/cultural identity of their particular Jewish dress codes of the past. Firstly however, let me expand a little bit further on how much significance fashion has in the world.
Again, fashion has always been a representation of the current social, political and economical status anywhere in the world. For example, in the 1920s when women became flappers and wore shorter lengths it was through a man-made version of first wave feminism. Women were encouraged with various articles, advertisements and patriotism to dress less.
What does the part about Patriotism mean you ask?
Well let me break it down for you: during World War I, the demand for material for more uniforms for our troops overseas went up as the war intensified. What did that mean for America?
It was too expensive to manufacture those long, full length, petticoat-filled dresses for women.
So instead, they encouraged women to forfeit their modesty with less threads by enticing them with images of “freedom”, “feminist expression”, and “patriotism”. And guess what? It totally worked. The same concept can be applied to the “typical” fashion attire taken on by many Orthodox Jewish communities that were indeed a reflection of the times.
The frum world of fashion has never been the same way always, contrary to what people are taught in schools and the pictures that they hang in their home. To be orthodox 60 years ago or more is much different from what it means to be orthodox today.
I come across so many girls and young women in their teens and 20s, and even 30s and 40s, who have no inkling of this knowledge. I don’t just mean following the basic tzniut (modesty) rules. When I say the “frum” world of fashion I am referring to a world that relies mostly on the recent Westernized Orthodox Ashkenaz interpretation that has been taken on by some Sephardim and Mizrachim that are living within the same geographical area. We are, for the most part, stuck in the westernized 1950s world when it comes to the fashion scene in Frummie Land. This is where all our concepts of being “strictly religious”, “Black hat Yeshivish”, “Hemishe”, and “Ultra Orthodox” stems from. However, if we truly are stuck in the 1950s–that means that at some point in time we connected with the 50s.
The post-holocaust world of the 1950s pushed many new immigrant Eastern European Jews to what they viewed as the key to their survival–assimilation. Supporters of the Nazi regime’s extermination plans did so via the process of dehumanizing the Jews, Blacks, Gypsies and other minorities present in their labor camps.
They rationalized that if these people were not truly human beings, then they were not truly “killing” people In the 1950s Jews had to remind the world that they were not caricatures in a Nazi propaganda poster but rather flesh and blood human beings that were just like non-Jews. Blending in, therefore, really was key to the survival of the European Jews moving to America to restart a new life far from the carnage that was the Holocaust.
They wanted as badly as every other new immigrant to America to be classified as “real” Americans. To further illustrate this example, allow me to turn my attention to the origins of the modernization of the Chabad community of Crown Heights.
The Rebbe Schneerson’s family was touched by the evil of the holocaust as well. When he came to Crown Heights where other Lubavitchers had already fled he understood more than the older generation of the necessity for the Jewish people to embrace the secular world & the religious world hand in hand. This includes yes, even the fashion world.
You know those lovely black hats that Lubavitchers are well known for?
Well guess what? They were trending in the 1950s.
The Rebbe saw this and against the opposition of all the older generation of Chassidim, he started rocking those infamous brimmed hats. This is important to mention because Chassidish sects tended to wear the whole fur hat thing until he, as a Rebbe, was working that hat. The men in Crown Heights all started emulating his fashion sense and embraced the brimmed hat as well.
The 1950s fashion influence can also be spotted in many sects from the ultra orthodox world to the Bobov world.
You know what I mean.
Those 2 to 3 piece suits on women? Their Jackie-O-esque pill box hats? Everywhere you look in any spectrum of Frummie Land you will see the lingering effects of the 1950s echoing a time long, long ago . Some communities will never fully abandon these dress codes because eventually their way of dressing became the reverse of it’s original purpose. People used to dress to fit into America, now dressing in the ways of the past defines your “religiousness” as a Jew.
It’s ironic, isn’t it?
To sum it all up, the Orthodox Jewish fashion world is currently experiencing a new wave of modernism unlike one that is has ever seen before since the 1950s.
New fashion trends come into the community and last longer than it does in the non-Jewish world but at least the trends are making it! I see styles being slowly incorporated into the community and young girls dubbing themselves “fashionistas” and writing “Tzniut Fashion-Forward Blogs” in a quest to reunite the current frum fashion world with this current decade.
It excites me a great deal I must say.
This connection to the current times hasn’t been seen since the 1950s. I also see an interest in non-western cultures and traditions in the Orthodox Jewish communities peaking. This means that perhaps one day, the cultural & ethnic identities of various Jews will be fully embraced and reflected in the clothing in a modernized Orthodox Jewish world.
Here I go again! So until next time, remember to get some sugar and spice in your life!
Elisheva is a Brooklyn born, Brooklyn bred Modern Orthodox J.A.A.P. (Jewish African American Princess). Her greatest passions are fashion and dance. She hopes that one day dance and fashion can truly heal the world.