Vogue does strictly Orthodox fashion

By Jessica Elgot, June 23, 2011
Follow Jessica on Twitter
Vera Wang: Should be less figure hugging

Vera Wang: Should be less figure hugging

They may not often grace the pages of Vogue, but strictly Orthodox women regularly reinterpret celebrity and catwalk fashion - with a modest twist, according to research by the London College of Fashion.

Chassidic women have interpreted mainstream fashion trends such as knitwear with embellished shoulder detail, ruffles, 60s-style pill box hats and evening dresses tempered with white shirts to cover a plunging neckline. Sheitls have trendy wispy fringes, or swinging ponytails with girly bows.

Speakers at last week's London College of Fashion symposium on 'Mediating Modesty' spoke of detailed research they had conducted into frum fashion.

One of them, Barbara Goldman Carrel, from New York's City University has conducted an in-depth study of Chassidic women's fashion. She said: "When I told people I was studying Chassidic fashion, they said 'Is there such a thing?' But more and more people are finding fashion is something to be embraced, not reviled.

Miu Miu: Needs lower hemline

Miu Miu: Needs lower hemline

"The Chassidic womenswear shops in Borough Park, Brooklyn, have displays from fashion magazines, with chic scarf covers for parts of the picture which are immodest, like bare shoulders. One woman I met while doing the research told me, 'we have to be modest, but no-one says we have to be backward.' Tzniut (modest) fashion is intangible, it's down to interpretation, apart from requirements about how high a neckline should be, and skirt and sleeve length.

"She said she was amazed to see photos from fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar on the walls of Chassidic dress shops and custom-made, modest versions of the latest designer dresses made in the shops. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein are particularly popular brands."

Even men's suits are made with a fashionable awareness, Ms Goldman Carrel said. "The fabrics are luxurious; there are individual twists on traditional styles that you can see if you look closely."

She admitted fashion was not a consideration for many Chassidic women. "There have been nasty incidents. We heard of a woman driven out of a community for wearing a denim skirt."

Goldsmith's University researcher Emma Tarlo examined how modest dressing was bringing Jewish and Muslim women in close contact as they shopped for fashionable, 'covered-up' clothes online.

She compared dialogue that Jewish and Muslim women had on forums of Jewish websites such as Chabad.org and imamother.com. "There's key themes that reoccur when these women discuss the values of modesty, maintaining a distance from the opposite sex, containing sexuality, showing membership of a particular community and a relationship with women in the scriptures."

She said there was an explosion of tzniut fashion blogs online, including Fashion-Isha and Frum Fashionista with Jewish women taking inspiration from modest styles seen in the pages of Vogue and other fashion magazines.

But she did point out that there were often disagreements online, with Muslim women worried about buying from Jewish modest fashion sites in case the money went to Israel.

The research on Modest Dressing was an initiative of the Religion and Society Programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences Research Council.

Professor Reina Lewis and her colleagues at the London College of Fashion have spent a year studying women who dress modestly for reasons of "faith, religion or personal preference" and have looked at Jewish, Muslim and Christian interpretations of modesty.

Professor Lewis said: "I'm not here to promote or condemn modest dressing, or define it. I'm documenting and analysing it. The only real discussion there has been before in the media is about how oppressive modesty is, particularly in relation to Muslim girls. But it's never been about fashion and creativity."

Last updated: 2:20pm, June 23 2011