One of the most complicated issues facing Orthodoxy these days is modesty in the way we dress. Mostly the issue revolves around what is appropriate dress for women. This was recently highlighted by an article in the Forward.
I have always found this topic difficult to write about. Many women have correctly noted that there is something not quite right about men discussing women’s clothing. Nonetheless the Torah does not treat the subject of sex lightly. The way we dress is directly related to that. The subject requires discussion if we are going to get it right.
In a world obsessed with sex, dressing modestly has never been more important. Ever since the advent the oral contraceptives in western culture – sex has been exploited by the entertainment and advertising media to unprecedented levels. Promiscuity has become a virtually acceptable mode of behavior in many circles. Western culture seems to be all about sex. Whether in the bedroom or the boardroom, women are encouraged to dress as provocatively as they can. Flirtation between the sexes is more common than ever – in far too many cases even between married people not married to each other. I see it all the time.
I have said this before. Men are visual beings. We respond to visual stimuli far more than women do. This makes what women wear far more significant than what men wear. I think this is corroborated societally. In secular culture the formal dress for men is to be covered up head to toe in a tuxedo. Women on the other hand have never been more exposed in their formal wear. There is more skin showing today in women’s formal wear than ever before. This phenomenon suggests that women are more attracted to the fully covered male than the partially dressed one. Vice versa for men. I believe this is the nature of the male female dynamic.
How does an Orthodox Jew respond to this? For one thing it is important to note that it is the man’s obligation to avoid coming in contact with women who dress provocatively. In theory this might suggest that women can dress any way they want and that men should stay away from them. But this cannot be realistically maintained. Men and women in western culture work together; they shop together; they are out and about in equal numbers and see each other all the time in public and in private. Women today are as much in the public eye as men are. As such it is only right that women do whatever they can to minimize sexual provocation.
Halacha mandates that women cover up certain parts of the body. Exposing those parts is considered Erva - nakedness. In brief Halacha requires that a woman’s legs be covered up to and including the knees. It also requires that the arms be covered up to and including the elbow. It also requires that the neckline of any dress, blouse, or shirt not go below the collar bone. No part of the skin below that should be exposed. No slacks of any kind may be worn and married women must over their hair.
Although there are some lenient interpretations of these parameters (and many Orthodox women will push the envelope that way -sometimes even crossing a line slightly) this is how an Orthodox woman will dress.
The problem however is that one can dress quite provocatively even as these parameters are observed. There is nothing in Halacha that says how tight a dress may be. And wigs are now made so well that it is sometimes impossible to even know if it is a wig or not. Hair (or wig) styles can be very provocative.
The same thing with shoes. There are no Tznius rules about shoes. So 5 inch stilettos are technically with the letter of the law. There are many woman especially young married ones who are technically dressed according to the letter of the law and yet are still quite… well… sexy (for lack of a better word)!
That has been severely criticized by women I have spoken to who care about dressing modestly and feel that the spirit of the law is being violated in the extreme! If one considers the reasons for these laws - this is a reasonable criticism.
Some communities go too far in the other direction. Women are being urged to dress in what can only be called an unattractive fashion. Loose fitting shapeless clothing that cover far more of the body than is required by Halacha, covering up the lower leg and forearm completely. Covering hair with wigs that intentionally look like wigs – or in some cases covering the wig with a hat ala Satmar is seen as the base standard of Tznius for women.
I completely disagree with that. Jewish women are not commanded to be ugly or dowdy. They are not commanded to not look like a woman. They are only required to not to dress in a way that provokes erotic thoughts in men.
That is not an easy goal to define. A lot depends on the society in which one lives. In Muslim cultures where women cover up every inch of the skin – including their faces a man might get an erotic thought just be seeing a woman’s exposed face… or even an exposed toe. But in western culture where a lot of exposed female skin is the norm the requirements of dress are basically the minimum requirements of Halacha as noted above. The goal being that they not dress in a manner that would provoke eroticism in men.
So why do so many Orthodox – even Charedi - women do whatever they can to look so sexy ? I believe that the truth lies in the fact that their husbands want them to look that way. Men want their wives to be attractive. In many cases - not just to them but to the whole world. They want to show off their wives... their ‘trophy wives’. The idea that men want their women to look good is not lost in single women looking to get married. Especially when one of the most frequent questions asked by Shadchanim is what dress size does she wear. Young women realize the need to be attractive to the opposite sex.
But they also want to look Frum. So they will dress as provocatively as they can within the letter of the law and maybe even cheat a little bit. That’s has produced the ‘Hot Chani’ phenomenon. This is a young single or married woman who dresses very provocatively and yet is technically following the letter of the law.
I recall not along ago seeing the young married daughter of a prominent Charedi Rosh Yeshiva wearing a skin tight dress at a wedding. And I’m pretty sure her Charedi husband didn’t mind standing next to his beautiful wife. I have heard it said more than once that some women would indeed be happy to dress more within the spirit of Halacha but that their husbands (even among Charedim) want them to look like that.
Is this wrong for a married woman to please her husband in that way? Is it wrong for a single girl that wants to get married to look as attractive as possible? In a society such as ours it is virtually impossible to look beautiful if one does not follow fashion to at least to some degree. Are we asking too much of our women who technically follow the letter of the law to go beyond that and honor the spirit of the law too? Especially in a society where the average woman’s skin is so overexposed that by societal standards they are quite modest?
One thing I am sure of. Jewish women should never be seen as ugly, or dowdy. There is no question in my mind that - same as men - a Jewish woman should look her best in public . That means looking like a woman. I would even go so far as to say that purposely looking ugly or dowdy in the eyes of the world might even be a Chilul Hashem! And yet dressing in ways that turn men on – even if they are technically within the letter of the law is not a good idea either.
I am the last one to tell anyone how to dress. However there has to be a happy medium in our culture, where a woman can look attractive and yet not provocative. I am not the one to define that parameter. But as in most things common sense ought to come into play.