how orthodox jewish modest wear is going high fashion
Meet the women creating a 'quiet way of dressing' inspired by The Row and Céline.
Image courtesy Mimu Maxi
Coogee Beach, Australia is one of many perfect, sun-blessed suburbs that fan out from the center of Sydney. It's the kind of neighborhood where it's hard to find a restaurant in which flip-flops aren't actively encouraged. And it was a weird place to grow up as an Orthodox Jew.
Orthodox women usually dress conservatively, covering their collarbones, knees, and elbows according to the Torah's principle of tzniut, or modesty. For sisters Chaya Chanin and Simi Polonsky, whose father was an Orthodox rabbi in Coogee Beach, that meant they had to become resourceful dressers early on.
"Imagine the West Village by the beach," Polonsky says, of her hometown. "It was super chic and super casual. We stood out like sore thumbs. We became really good at fusing those two worlds, of modesty and beach culture."
Longtime scavengers of all the tzniut clothing at mainstream stores like Zara and H&M, the sisters decided to take modest fashion into their own hands when they moved to New York and launched The Frock, a line of sculptural below-the-knee skirts and dresses.
The sisters are part of a wave of young, runway-conscious, and mostly Brooklyn-based designers that are elevating modest, Orthodox fashion into high fashion.
In addition to The Frock, there's Mimu Maxi, an online store run by two Crown Heights sisters-in-law that sells minimalist dresses and skirts. Plus Junee's, a Borough Park boutique that sells modest separates, and Zelda, a chic wig brand for modern Orthodox women, who cover their hair once they're married. Their wares are a step above those of older Brooklyn shops like Elzee and Top Fashion, Orthodox standbys that sell somewhat joyless, middling-quality separates. And they're picking up notice from the fashion world at large.
Mimu Maxi's Instagram feed shows photos of women from around the world in their smock-like mid-calf-length dresses, which have earned comparisons to pieces by The Row. Beyond considerations of length, tzniut also frowns upon very tight clothing. "We don't tell people how to wear our clothes," said Mimi Hecht. "If people want to belt a dress, we're not here to preach." The Frock even sells its own ribbon-thin "saddle belts" for such purpose.
Besides, Mimu Maxi's original, and still most popular item, is the "skirt legging," a form fitting, ankle-length, spandex-blend skirt that comes in 11 colors. Although most women pair it with a blousy top, its thigh-skimming silhouette is not quite traditional.
The label's founders, Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, made their first batch of skirt-leggings in 2013, with a $1000 loan from Hecht's brother. With no previous design experience, they scouted a pattern maker in the Garment District to execute their idea — and fill a gap in their wardrobes. When they set up shop online, they found clientele from the Bible Belt to Germany.
The thing is about these clothes, there's nothing that makes an individual piece stand out as "modest" or conservative. Mimu Maxi's tastefully neutral, asymmetrical Cascade Dress is somewhere between Junya Watanabe and Madewell; a black ankle-length skirt from The Frock has a conceptual drape. These pieces just look good. This is partly because, in 2016's schizophrenic fashion landscape, a fair number of runway trends are modest almost by accident. Consider some of our current collective romances: ladylike mid-length dresses, plunging 70s necklines, bohemian floor-grazing skirts, tunics à la Céline. Three out of the four are incidentally "modest" styles.
"It's a quiet way of dressing," says Adi Heyman, an Orthodox blogger who runs the modest high fashion and lifestyle blog Fabologie. Heyman says the current prominence of modesty in the fashion world is a "total 360" from when she started blogging five years ago. She cites Alessandro Michele's maximalist tenure at Gucci, Demna Gvasalia's oversize layers at Balenciaga and Vetements, and arch-minimalist Calvin Klein's midi slip-dresses as evidence that modesty has never been bigger in high fashion.
But doesn't every movement in fashion engender an opposite reaction? "I don't think we need to prepare for a 'modesty backlash,'" says Heyman. "I've been asked this for at least three years, since Céline pushed the midi. I don't think modesty is going anywhere."
One point of tension in this seemingly smooth relationship between high fashion and orthodox fashion, can be found in a different kind of modest clothing: clothing designed for Muslim women. In recent months, designers from Dolce & Gabbana to H&M and Uniqlo, have released Muslim-specific lines that include hijabs and abayas. These are invariably met with an ugly and vocal, albeit small, Islamophobic backlash: "Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion," Yves Saint Laurent's co-founder Pierre Bergé told a French radio station. French government minister Laurence Rossignol compared veiled women to "American negroes."
There's a political dimension to Islamic modest dress that's largely absent from its Orthodox Jewish counterpart, in our current cultural climate.
Both Mimu Maxi and The Frock report that a significant number of their clients are Muslim women. "We think of our brand as a meeting point for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women, anyone who wants to dress modestly," says Hecht, of Mimu Maxi.
She also described how some customers had a "visceral reaction" to a photo of a hijabi-wearing Muslim blogger, Summer Albarcha, wearing one of the brand's skirts in July 2014, a heated time in Israeli-Palestinian relations. They kept the photo up to make a point.
Polonsky, of The Frock, says Muslim and Jewish modest dressers have common goals. "I wear a wig, she wears a headscarf. We're both getting hot and sweaty in the summer," she jokes.
Even though there's less overtly political discourse about Orthodox women's dress, there are, as with any instance of a woman wearing clothes in the world, plenty of judgmental opinions to ago around.
"When people say that modest women are oppressed, they're inherently saying that, to be free, you must show your skin," says Hecht, "which sounds oppressive to me." She says that she and her cofounder, Mushky Notik, choose to dress this way every day. "It's insulting for people to assume that we don't have a choice in this."
Paradoxically, the imminent warm weather is both the most trying time for covering up and high season for the modest fashion market. It's easy enough to dress modestly when it's a meteorological imperative, but staying cool in the summer — while keeping your collarbones, knees, and ankles covered — requires more forethought.
Mimu Maxi's business started during a summer when its founders couldn't find anything to wear, so they enjoy the challenge. Both they and The Frock are focusing on light, one-piece dresses in breathable fabrics. For Polonsky and her sister, the summer always brings back their teenage years in Sydney, when getting dressed was an endless trial. But now she embraces modest warm-weather style.
And she hopes her designs will encourage more young Orthodox girls to explore modest dressing. "I want them to know there are differences about us, but we can look just as good as anyone else on the street."
Text Krithika Varagur