Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Tzniut Project 20: A Critical Approach to Fashion

After a brief hiatus, we have a few more in the series!

This is the twentieth in a multi-part series called The Tzniut Project. Women from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of observances have volunteered to anonymously answer questions that I have written about their practices, people's assumptions, and more. For more information on origins the project, click here. Please continue to check back with The Tzniut Project to read more stories and comment abundantly!

Note: This post is contributed by a reader.

1. How do you affiliate Jewishly? Feel free to elaborate on the words people use to describe you and the words you use to describe yourself. 
I consider myself a 'traditional egalitarian' Jew with a progressive bent and a universalist ethos.

2. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up? 
I did not grow up with a concept of modesty in a religious sense but was raised with a concept of propriety. My mother taught me that clothing is contextual. If I would visit a place of worship, I was expected to cover my shoulders because it was considered the decent thing to do. If I was engaging with elders or in a situation that required social decorum, I was taught to dress the part. But it was also considered perfectly fine for me (as a teenager) to wear a strappy top when going to the disco. Hence, a certain mild form of modesty was instilled but since we were secular, it was detached from any religious ideology. It was also gender-neutral: my mother expected the same conduct from boys as she did from girls.

3. Are you married? How does your spouse feel about your choices for modest dress? Is it a dialogue or does your partner leave the mitzvah to you? 
My spouse and I are both modest dressers. He is fully egalitarian so 'modesty' to him is not connected to gender but is connected to dignity, bodily integrity and a sense of sexual exclusivity -- and this applies to us both. He considers the more modest, classical fashions more pleasing so he tends to gravitate to those naturally. He does feel that modesty can help protect me (and perhaps other women) from the pressures of the beauty ideal. Yes, it is a dialogue between us. He respects my autonomy and would never legislate, boycott or disapprove of my choices.

4. What would you wear on a typical day? On Shabbos? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbos, why do you make this distinction and how? 
On a regular weekday, I wear knee-length skirts or pants and cap-sleeved shirts. My rule of thumb is that I want my knees and shoulders to be covered and I try to avoid plunging necklines. I am fine with collarbones and elbows showing and I do wear form-fitting but not skintight clothing. Modesty to me is not only about 'covering up' but also investing my dress with dignity and beauty. I try and 'dress up' even on weekdays. On Shabbos I consider it lichvod Shabbat (in honor of Shabbat) to do so and it gives me tremendous pleasure. It is also a way for me to assert the hevdel (the difference) between Shabbat and weekdays. So I wear skirts exclusively and either a kippah or a hat/scarf when I go to shul (depending on context). I love wearing a suit or a silk dress or skirt on Shabbos, paired with my pearls, make-up and French perfume. I guess I am a little old-fashioned!

5. What do you think other people infer from your clothing and hair covering choices? Has anyone ever said anything to you outright that expresses a judgment based on your appearance? (Ex: “You don’t cover your hair or wear skirts, so why do you keep kosher?”) 
I tend to be a bit more modest than my 'denominational surroundings' but I am fine with that. For me, it's a personal choice and as long as I adhere to a benchmark that feels authentic to me, I am happy. When I started practicing tzniut, people had to get used to it but now it's become part of me. Because I try to look 'stylish' and because I am 'lenient' about necklines and elbows (when seen from a traditional Orthodox vantage point), I don't think people really notice. I do get compliments on my personal style (which make me very happy!). 

My relationship with headcovering is a bit more complex: I used to cover my head continuously before marriage as an egalitarian practice of devotion (I would wear a scarf or a beanie as an alternative to a kippah) and continued this practice for a number of years after marriage. But I did get problematic responses to my headcovering from time to time and I also felt it didn't align with my need for a professional look. After much contemplation about where I stand on kisui rosh (headcovering), I discontinued it. Not covering my head has felt lonely in the beginning. But also strangely empowering because to me, 'modesty' is a total concept and not just contingent on headcovering. I feel I can still be modest with an uncovered head, and it's been an interesting journey.

6. Have you ever surprised someone by dressing more or less modestly and making them rethink their stereotypes about what it means to be an observant Jew? 
Yes. Especially when I still covered my head, people would assume I was an Orthodox Jew, which I am not. I am fully egalitarian in my practice (including the timebound mitzvot), so this would surprise people. People also assumed that I was somehow less humorous and less worldly because of my long skirts and modest dress. Engaging with them in conversation would soon change their minds :)

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them? 
I believe in human diversity so I embrace people's different choices. My only criterion is that they are actual choices. I support women's (and men's) right to claim their sexuality and bodily integrity so I have no judgement about that in general. I do worry, however, about the disproportionate sexualization of women's fashions and women's bodies and as a 'feminist', I would like to see (young) women challenge this objectification. It saddens me that many young women take an uncritical approach toward fashion, compromising their dignity and undermining their self-worth. But in the end, it is a very individual path and I adhere to tzniut for myself first and foremost. Part of the concept of tzniut is also refraining from immodestly imposing your will on others, I think!

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you? 
I say tzniut because 'modesty' conjures up a set of associations that don't really fit me. I am not demure or quiet, ultra-feminine or morally conservative although I respect people who are! I am an active, emancipated, egalitarian woman who wants to reclaim tzniut in a socially progressive and spiritually relevant way. Also, tzniut not just about dress but also about attitude. I am fully committed to my monogamous, marital relationship and so tzniut encompasses sexual restraint. It's about keeping private what is internal and sacred. As a gender-egalitarian, tzniut actually helps take gender out of the equation somewhat when it comes to my social interactions. I want to be judged on my soul, not on my body or gender.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more! 
I wish there was more of a consciousness in the Western world about how dress impacts our sense of self and our relationship with the world at large, including the beauty standard, self-image, ethical consumerism and garment workers' rights. Tzniut can be such an empowering and liberating practice. I have come to love and respect my body so much more through covering up. It allowed me to relax about my alleged physical imperfections and allowed me to extract myself from an industry that objectifies women (and men). I took back the power over my body and feel more dignified than ever. Try it -- you might like it!