Jewish Fashion Week: A Modest Proposal

February is the season of Fashion Weeks – New York, London, Milan, Paris – cities around the world have a full programme showcasing fashion trends that unleash incisive commentaries on the this season’s colours, hemlines and the attempts to diversify the models appearing on the catwalk. Why just the other week, at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, eight young women who have been trafficked as sex workers or are the daughters of sex workers, had the chance to strut the catwalk representing Mandeep Nagi from Shades of India. It was, according to a news report, the ‘perfect way to boost their confidence.’

The Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana showed a different sort of confidence last year when it launched a line of hijabs and abayas targeting the Muslim fashion market which, according to Fortune magazine will reach $484 billion in sales by 2019. While religious dictates may have shaped the nature of ritual fashion, religion now offers a business model for catering to a more covered-up demographic. Christian Fashion Week is leading the way, and according to its website, is promoting a ‘movement fueled by a passion for modest clothing and for building an industry around its consumers.’

What would a Jewish Fashion Week look like? While the halacha – Jewish law – offers guidelines for dressing modestly, Jewish fashionistas have the chance to articulate an ethical framework that sanctions suitable clothing for morality as well as modesty.  Drawing on C.A.R.E, the schema of Christian Fashion Week, I am proposing four elements to Jewish Fashion Week.

Contextual Modesty: This is the simple idea that clothes are defined, not just by halacha, but also by the Jewish context in which they are worn. Modesty is beyond hemlines – rather men and women should be bound by a modesty which emphasises self-respect, self-worth and dignity. To what extent has the advertising of a particular brand contributed to the hyper-sexualisation of young women?  Have men been objectified to sell clothes? Contextual modesty makes a bold statement to respect the place, and at times, this may mean suppressing individual desire. Such an approach will make it natural for men and women to dress formally or casually according to what’s appropriate for that place, reflecting respect for oneself and each other.

Affordable Sustainable Fashion:  Israeli tourists land at Heathrow and head straight for Primark, the mecca of cheap clothes on Oxford Street. Affordable? Yes. Sustainable? No. Clothing expenses can be a burden in the Orthodox community where large families and limited income places additional stress on parents, especially when it comes to school uniforms and clothes for young women starting out on their matchmaking journey towards marriage. One effective mechanism is the intra-community Gemach system of handing down clothes, passing on baby equipment and even interest-free loans which are socially responsible activities that attempt to address the problems created by our disposable society.  One of my favourite sites is Tznius Gown Swap, a Facebook group with 9.500 members and a model non-judgemental disclaimer:  “We take no responsibility for those choosing to post or wear nontzniut gowns and assume that our group members understand that not everyone in this group is a rebbetzin and just because someone posts a dress saying that it is “Fully Tzniut” does NOT mean that it actually is.  Your choices- your olam haba- happy gownings”

Responsible Use of Natural Resources:  The demand for throwaway fashion is draining the world’s resources. Biblical texts are replete with instructions so that humanity and the earth can live together. Shmittah, leaving the land fallow for seven years and Peah, leaving a section for the poor so they can collect food, are just two examples. A slew of ritual garments are needed for Jewish life –  prayer shawls, Torah covers, tzitzit, Shabbat Challah covers – are they made in  factories that are environmentally responsible?  Are your clothes packaged using recycling materials?  There are ways to find out. For example, the Higg Index,supported by Sustainable Apparel Coalition,  measures the environmental and social and labor impacts of the apparel, footwear and home textile industry. What would be the components of a Jewish Index? If land was destroyed to make clothes, and particularly those needed for Jewish rites, is the holiness of those garments  compromised?  Generally, fur and other dead animals are verboten which makes things slightly tricky when it comes to shtreimels, the hats worn generally by married Hassidic men on Shabbat.

Ethical Hiring and  Labor Practices: The clothes on your body should not have harmed another body.  The exploitation of young people in sweatshops has been well documented and many prominent fashion brands have put ethical codes of in place in their factories.  Isn’t it time for manufacturers of both modest clothing and religious garments to commit themselves to an appropriate code?  Were the strings of tzitzit crafted by young children squatting on mud floors in India, were the shrouds that bury the dead made by underpaid workers on a factory floor?  Were the Eastern European women paid a fair sum for their hair to craft custom made shaytels?  Did you pay cash for your clothes to someone who is clearly not paying all the taxes due  – is that your problem?  Sadeh Farm, a new initiative in the UK  include to encourage Jewish farming promotes ethical purchasing to try to buy something when at least one of the following is achieved: Recycled, Made Locally, Naturally, Sustainably and no Sweat Shops.

A Modest Proposal: Kashrut laws determine that dairy and meat products are separated. A few years ago, a complementary set of guidelines was developed by the  Magen Tzedek Commission ‘to ensure that kosher products conform to the Jewish commitment to ethical and social justice in the areas of labor practices, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact.’  The time is ready for a parallel accreditation in the Jewish modesty and clothing business.

I’ve even got a working title: Middah: meaning both a measurement of cloth, and also an attribute, and in this context, Middat ha-Hessed, God’s attribute of kindness. For clothes to be really modest, they must be fairly measured and made with kindness and thoughtfulness at every stage of production. A holistic approach that considers issues such as women’s portrayal in brand advertising, decent health and safety conditions in the workplace, environmental damage and the inflated costs to the consumer would all be reflected in an accreditation from Middah.

Is the Tel Aviv catwalk ready to sign up?

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity. First published in 1997, it is being reissued in the summer of 2019, with an extensive update reflecting on the changes in Orthodox women's lives over the last 20 years.
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