The Post-Tznius Purge

Some time ago, I was at a wedding in Israel. I ran into a woman I knew from years before, and we started talking about life and religion. She mentioned, “I hope this outfit is modest enough for this wedding. I had such a hard time finding something to wear to this wedding because I threw out all my tznius clothing after I stopped being Orthodox.” She was wearing a stylish black dress with thin straps at the top and that hit a little above her knees. She looked beautiful, but definitely was outside the norm for an Orthodox wedding, where most people wore sleeves that, if they didn’t hit the elbow, they almost did.

She wore a dress not unlike this one.

Orthodox women have a way to “tziusfy” just about every piece of non-tznius clothing. For example, on the dress above, one could easily throw on a cardigan over the sleeves and call it a day. (There are varying levels of tznius. Some women wouldn’t feel comfortable showing as much clavicle as this dress shows, they’d probably put a black or white shirt underneath the dress).

When she made the comment to me, I reassured her “You look great. No one here cares what you wear anyway.” It was true. The wedding was mostly liberal Modern Orthodox Jews who like to pride themselves on how open-minded they are, even if their own practices might be somewhat different. Still, I couldn’t help but think, “You didn’t keep one black cardigan?” That’s not one of those pieces that scream “ORTHODOX”. It’s a piece that most women, tznius or not, keep in their closets because it’s good to wear to work, good for when the weather gets chilly, and can dress up pretty much any outfit. It was a staple among my [mostly non-Jewish] female co-workers.

Sometimes, people who aren’t used to dressing according to tznius rules don’t think about putting pieces together in the way that tznius dressers have to do. They might see the dress above and never even consider wearing a cardigan with it, because cardigans only go with pencil skirts, silly. But this woman, my friend, was different. She grew up lubavitch, went through a litvish-chareidi phase in high school, a modern orthodox phase in college, and then stopped being religious all together sometime after college. She knows the drill. She knows all about shells and cardigans and various ways to turn a scarf into sleeves.

But here’s the thing. Just because she no longer dresses that way doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have the pieces in her closet to do so if she felt the need.

On facebook recently, a girl I know posted that she was getting rid of all her “super-frum clothing from high school”. (She’s about to graduate college now).

I don’t understand this trend. Maybe it’s because I’m a pack rat and have a hard time getting rid of anything, but I find that if it still fits and is in good condition, there’s usually a way to wear it.

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“Sleevies”, cotton sleeves to wear on your elbows under a short sleeve shirt to give the appearance of layering, are one of the few items I was willing to throw out after high school.

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These days, I definitely don’t dress the way I did ten years ago. Ten years ago, I made sure that every time I left my house, my elbows, knees, and collarbone were covered. I only wore skirts. I thought I was “modern” because I didn’t wear tights all the time. Today, I dress modestly, but I’m of the opinion that modesty is in comparison with the society in which one lives. I pretty much cover my knees, but I wear pants. When I exercise, I wear shorts. At the beach, I wear shorts and a tee shirt. In general, I don’t have a cut-off for how short I’ll allow my sleeves to be, but I’ve been known to wear cap-sleeves occasionally. I don’t care if my collarbone shows, but I don’t show any cleavage.

Still, I own my share of cardigans and longer-length skirts, because sometimes I go places where it is appropriate to wear such things. I don’t do the long-sleeve white tee shirt under a short sleeve tee shirt thing anymore, but I sometimes wear those white long sleeve tees with a pair of jeans and a funky necklace. Half of my closet consists of cardigans and other types of layering pieces, because layering is the greatest thing ever. If I had to, I could find a great outfit in my closet to wear to a secular cocktail party or to a chassidic wedding.

The point is, it’s not what you have, it’s how you wear it.

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2 comments on “The Post-Tznius Purge

  1. Finder of Stories says:

    Perhaps once they reached this decision (which usually takes time, some effort, and emotional energy), they saw it as either an act of rebellion or liberation and in the moment of the energy that comes with a big decision–they threw it all out, without considering the future possible, as yet undefined, events.

    I love your last line: “It’s not what you have, it’s how you wear it.”

    Kate’s genealogical newspaper stories, now from Scotland Neck, NC, in 1880s@Finding Their Stories
    and
    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

  2. tesyaa says:

    This is on my mind. I’ve relaxed my modesty standards in the last couple of years. I’m at the point where I don’t want to be covering my elbows and knees and collarbone all at the same time. Two out of 3 doesn’t bother me, but otherwise, I feel “too” modest.

    If I’m wearing cap sleeves in the house, I don’t always put on a sweatshirt when I go to take out the garbage. I wore snow pants, gasp, when I shoveled snow. In my Ortho neighborhood, this is not done.

    Anyway, I don’t see how your friend could live without a cardigan since the weather gets cool everywhere. I’m sure she was making a bit of a statement by wearing the strappy dress, but I don’t blame her. There’s a huge desire to show that one doesn’t fit in anymore and one doesn’t WANT to fit in anymore.

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