I remember the moment distinctly, and it was almost a decade ago: a group of stylish women walked into the main sanctuary of my shul in Baltimore for a Torah class. They all had a similar panache about them, sporting long, curled sheitels (wigs) that reached mid-back, large designer handbags slung over the shoulders, and outfits that were trendy, expensive-looking and mainly black. I stood at the side of the room and observed something that was clearly a new “look.” I had never seen religious women look like this before (living outside of NY most certainly contributed). Sure, religious women always have worn expensive clothes and lots of black. But it was the sheitels — they now were the accessory that put it all together. And they were so long.
When I got married in the early 2000s, it was very uncommon for kallahs (brides) to have long sheitels. Maybe there was more sensitivity to tsnius (modesty) in the air, but one thing is for sure: long, curly, voluminous sheitels just wasn’t the “look.” Fast forward 15 years later, and even young brides from traditional, religiously right-wing, yeshivish homes are getting up from the sheitel macher’s (wig stylist) chair in wigs that transform them from aidel (gentle) Bais Yaakov graduates into looking like the next big thing in People magazine.
Sheitel machers know that what drives the look is Hollywood. In the early 2000s when I was in the sheitel macher’s chair for the first time, the shop had magazine clippings of celebrities taped to the mirrors. Now, women come in with pictures saved on their phones.
Today, women typically tend to either go after the Princess Kate look or the Desperate Housewives look, take your pick. And we see both clearly in the Orthodox world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the look was shoulder length, no curls, just layers, thank you, Jennifer Anniston. In the 1980s, the look was frizzy with hairsprayed big bangs, thank you, name any female ’80s celebrity. Princess Diana also had her influence in the ’80s with her iconic short haircut, and there were plenty of those sheitels on Orthodox women’s heads in that decade, too. Historically, each decade has a “look,” and religious women who have fashion sensibilities like to stay current and sport the most updated styles.
In my teens, I had the honor to visit the Hasidic community of Tosh in Montreal for a weekend, and my visit coincided with the tragic death of Lady Diana. We were sitting at the Shabbos table (the women-only one!) and many of the women were visibly upset. When I asked how they knew about the princess, they were shocked at my question. “Of course, we know about Lady Diana! We follow her in the magazines!” What an informative snippet on the crossroads between insularity and exposure. But there is another takeaway. When women admire another woman for who she is, they often also admire her for what she looks like — and that can influence their own particular choices in how they present themselves. Hence, this is why it is so crucial to have visible religious women role models for females of all ages. And while we won’t adopt modes of dress that we observe in the outside world which are countercultural to our values (but we will try to make them modest), we can try to get the same hair. Remember, it’s a sheitel!
By observing the appearance of religious women today, it is self-evident that even those on the end of the right-wing spectrum sport sheitel styles that they may not even realize originated at the hands of stylists belonging to the rich and famous. (The women of Tosh, unsurprisingly, kept to their Hasidic customs regarding hair covering, despite the affection they showed towards the late princess of Wales.)
Understanding that sheitel styles are a mirror of what is in fashion in any given era can help shed light on understanding why women wear the sheitels they do. For some, fashion and trendiness are the top priority, and as long as they are keeping the letter of the law, that is good enough (and maybe it is). For many, many women, it is very important to look good and look current. So, if long sheitels are current, so be it, and they will enjoy wearing them. It is amazing to observe women who are wives of kollel rabbis engaged in advanced Torah study, wearing sheitels today that would have been considered completely inappropriate 10 years ago. Fashion changes and with it, our eyesight.
It seems safe to say that more Jewish women than ever are taking on the mammoth task of covering their hair. Hair which makes them who they are, their external identity, their natural selves. Hair which represents their freedom and ultimate comfort when let loose. And how beautiful that these are some of the reasons why we uncover our hair for only our husbands. But it still doesn’t make it easy. While I, for one, am wearing a sheitel longer than I would have worn in 2002, I try to find the balance of what I think is appropriate for me. But I understand that just the fact a woman is covering her hair, even by a sheitel that needs a hanger instead of a wig head because it is too long, is a huge thing. It is hard for many women to cover their hair, and if it means that the beautiful, long, looks-better-than-her-own-hair wig is going to allow her to perform the mitzvah, then at least she is covering her hair. It is important that both women and men are sensitive to this struggle that only women can understand, and not even every woman.
Tragically, comparing a woman who wears long, voluminous sheitels to a prostitute who is slapping G-d in the face can only do harm. Such a technique was employed recently in a digital flyer sent to sheitel machers around the Orthodox community, which of course, quickly made it to social media for all to see. No, that isn’t inspiring. No, that isn’t going to motivate a woman to cut her sheitel. That is going to cause women to struggle even more keenly, more deeply. We all know that breaking people down doesn’t affect change.
Do some women wear sheitels that are downright provocative? Yes. Is it the “look” these days? Absolutely. Are there women who are trying to look provocative? Probably, and unfortunately. Should women try to be more modest in their choice of sheitels? Quite possibly. All I know for sure is that covering one’s hair is an extremely personal topic often fraught with emotion. Calling people out in an embarrassing, tasteless way is not going to do any good.
If people in the Orthodox community — both men and women — are unhappy with the recent trends in sheitel styles, then shaming women, comparing them to prostitutes and using violent and presumptuous language about slapping G-d in the face is not only ineffective, it is distasteful, hateful and highly inappropriate.
Modesty is a challenge for many women today. The influence of popular culture doesn’t help. Instead of paining these Jewish women who are wives and mothers through disgracing and coercive methods, maybe recognize the stark reality that the only way this trend is going to change is if Hollywood says so.
Alexandra Fleksher holds an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and a B.A. in English Communications from Stern College for Women. Her essays on contemporary Jewish issues have been published in various blogs and publications including Cross-Currents, Hevria, Klal Perspectives, Torah Musings, The Jewish Press and The Five Towns Jewish Times.