I remember being a self-styled feminist grappling with the whole issue of tznius, or modesty, when I was in high school in Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school. The dress code required us to wear tops that were not low-cut, with sleeves at least halfway to the elbow, and skirts to the knee. (For some mysterious reason, they allowed miniskirts in the 1960s, when I was in elementary school. I think during that period the emphasis was more on “modern,” less on “Orthodox.” But I digress. Sorta.)
When I wasn’t busy hating the dress code for keeping me out of jeans, I told myself that it was kind of cool, because it was more of an attack on the shallow vanity and materialism at the core of the Western feminine ideal than a means of oppressing women and making them culpable for male sexual appetites. We were not going to fall prey to the hypersexualized, Madison Avenue-promoted image of the perfect teenage girl. Nope. Our Jewish culture was above all that. We were too busy contemplating the nature of good and evil, or something. In fact, tznius was the most feminist thing ever.
Of course, in order to stick with that interpretation, I really had to close one eye and squint the other one. For one thing, tznius was only applied to girls. There was no equivalent concept for boys. The male dress code – button-down shirt and tie – had more to do with looking like other Upper East Side prep schools than with anything inherently Jewish, including tznius. Apparently, Judaism did not see fit to build in protections against fashion marketing for boys. And that extra eye-squint? That was to avoid noticing that plenty of Ramaz girls were serious clothes horses, which they managed quite comfortably without violating the dress code.
Which brings me to today, and this article from the desperate-to-be-relevant online Jewish publication, Tablet. It reminds me that, as one former Ramaz history teacher used to tell us, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The title really says it all: “This Fashion Week, Dress Modestly While Staying Stylish.” So much for resisting fashion hype. It turns out shallow vanity and materialism are actually okay, and we have the word of Hadar Magazine fashion editor Jessica Gugenheim on that.
But that’s not all. She also tells us: “I think modest dressing lends any woman an air of sophistication. I think modestly dressed women command more respect; they use their minds rather than sexuality to get things done.”
Yup. That’s your choice: cover up and be respected, or play the slut card.
If I hadn’t ditched the whole thing years ago, at this point I’d be shutting both eyes tight and sticking my fingers in my ears to make a go of it. That would make driving really hard.