Orthodox Jewish women follow three core rules of modesty, or tznius: a garment’s neckline should extend to the collarbone; shirt sleeves should cover the elbows; and skirts must cover the knees. Pants are strictly forbidden, and married women must also cover their heads with a wig, scarf or hat.
While many Orthodox women shop in specialty stores that cater specifically to these guidelines, over the past couple of seasons, they’ve found it much easier to shop for appropriately conservative looks in mainstream chains like Zara and H&M. That’s because tznius is now hip — and Orthodox Jewish women are becoming more fashionable than ever.
"It's amazing how much fashion is shifting,” says Adi Heyman, an Orthodox stylist living in Manhattan, who is starting a blog about conservative fashion. "These days it's easy to dress modestly and be on-trend." Button-up blouses, long-sleeved denim shirts, flowy vintage dresses and pleated maxi skirts are among the items you’ll find in any Zara or Forever 21 right now that Orthodox women are stocking up on this season, she says.
Also popular are airy pastels and vibrant prints, along with bold accessories. “Things like belts and necklaces can change an outfit from being 'blah' to being something really special," notes Sharon Langert, who writes for Orthodox style blog Fashion Isha (isha means woman in Hebrew), which compiles Orthodox-appropriate looks as seen on the runways, in magazines, and on non-Orthodox fashion blogs. “Jewish Orthodox women are fashion savvy — they want to look up-to-date."
Although not all Orthodox women allow fashion magazines in their homes, many do follow runway trends and hunt for style tips on the growing number of Orthodox fashion blogs like Fashion Isha. “If they can afford it, Orthodox women like to get Burberry accessories,” says Langert. “They like that style a lot. In fact, this season of Burberry — almost every single look is modest and it's all so chic.”
Orthodox-appropriate looks are also proliferating on red carpets. Socialite and star of MTV’s The City Olivia Palermo has become one of the most influential red-carpet celebrities for Orthodox Jewish women right now. "She really knows how to put herself together," says Langert. While “not everything Olivia Palermo wears is modest", says Heyman, "she does wear a lot of long, flowy skirts and blouses. It's very classy how she dresses." Heyman also praises celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, who “wears a lot of vintage and layers” and is “covered up in [a way] that works for the Orthodox girls."
But the hottest style icon among the Orthodox right now might be the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, who both Heyman and Langert praised for her “ladylike” clothes. Wardrobe aside, Kate’s royal status makes her an especially worthy icon for the Orthodox community. "The Torah says that every Jewish woman is a Bat Melech, a daughter of a king, of God, and that she should present herself as such," explains Reuvena Leah Grodnitzky, who organized the Inner Expressions fashion show in Philadelphia last year that featured clothes designed by fashion students in compliance with Jewish modesty rules.
Some even argue that looking good is a part of the Jewish faith — dressing modestly is not necessarily about dressing down. "Philosophically speaking, you could say it goes against the Torah for a woman to walk around in [clothes] that are not so dignified," says Grodnitzky. "Of course you can be comfortable but if you're not looking your best then you're not actually following the rules of modesty."
Marina Rahlin, who is launching a line of dresses for Orthodox women, says she tries to steer clear of frumpy’s cousin, frummy (frum is Yiddish for devout or pious). Among Haredim or Ultra-Orthodox, clothes serve a purely practical function, but those who define themselves as Orthodox or Modern-Orthodox are more free with their wardrobes — while they don't want to attract undue attention, they also don't want to be perceived as dowdy, either.
Rahlin specializes in bright colors and bold patterns. “It's hard to find colorful clothes in stores that sell clothes for religious women,” Rahlin says. “Everything is dark."
Rahlin insists that young Orthodox women find layering — a common styling trick employed by Orthodox women to make outfits conservative enough — uncomfortable and unstylish. "It's still very challenging to go shopping because even if they see something nice they have to wear another skirt underneath or a sweater on top and it can ruin the design,” she explains. “It doesn't look as high-end as they may want it to."
Many Orthodox women buy shells — undershirts and slips worn for extra coverage — at specialty Orthodox clothing stores. The brand Kikiriki produces a line of shells that Orthodox women "go crazy for,” Langert says. Yet Ilya Verzub, the business manager of Shell Sheli, the main retailer of Kikiriki shells, says he doesn’t worry that the fashion world’s embrace of conservative styles will hurt business, and insists that Orthodox women will always need shells for layering. "Even if it's easier now for Orthodox women to find appropriate clothes, most things in the general market still do not conform to the modesty code," he says. "Dresses might be longer this season, but many of them still have low-cut fronts or short sleeves. Unless the item is specifically designed for the Orthodox user, it's hard for someone in the mainstream fashion industry to get it exactly right in a way that conforms to all of the standards."
Verzub also believes that modest fashion is just a fad. Shell Sheli won't change its collections to match mainstream styles. "We do keep an eye on trends,” he says, “but we focus on staple items that shield us from the passing tides of fashion." Like all other trends in fashion, modesty, too, is sure to pass.