Fashionably Modest

Mendel Davis, 23, has been a model since 2012. (Bruria Hammer Photography)

It’s not all black and white. That’s the reality of fashion in 2018, even — and especially — when it comes to Jews who adhere to stricter standards of modesty due to religious observance. Even non-Jewish communities have taken notice of the trends. In fall 2015, Vogue deemed Orthodox women’s fashion the season’s “sexiest trend.” That same season, fashion company Rag & Bone paired a slip dress with long-sleeve shirts and slim-fitting cigarette pants, highlighting modesty.

Modesty, of course, plays a significant role in traditional Jewish values. While the rules of fashion and dress are not monolithic, the Torah teaches the concept of tzniut, meaning modesty, humility and privacy. However, this doesn’t mean that one cannot dress stylishly.

Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel said that the way modesty is mentioned in the Torah can be interpreted in a number of ways when viewed through a modern lens.

“The first time and really only time you see this direct wording is in the prophet Micah where he said, ‘God has told you what is good for you and what God requires of you. And what is it? Doing justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God,’” Mintz said, quoting the Bible. “It’s really a whole way of living, a whole way of carrying oneself, both men and women. How do we walk with humility? How do we walk modestly? How do we carry ourselves in a way that is in a dignified, modest and humble way?”

The Jewish concept of modesty does not equate to making oneself unattractive. In fact, quite the opposite, the rabbi added.

“It’s rather to walk humbly and not try to act in a way that would attract too much attention,” Mintz said. “Dress is something very powerful to the tradition. If you look back in the Torah, it’s viewed as a form of expression. There is definitely room for interpretation about what it means to dress according to Orthodox standards. There is no one Orthodox way to dress.”

No Limits?

Some Jews who work in the fashion industry say that the religious limitations on dress rarely, if at all, affect their business or the manner in which they style themselves.

Custom suit designer Nick Elgamil and his father, Israel, strike a pose on a pier in Fells Point. (David Stuck)

Nick Elgamil is a custom suit designer who, at just 14 years old, runs his business out of his home in Rockville. The small business took shape last summer when Elgamil noticed that custom suits he ordered took a long time to be delivered. Elgamil’s business, which started from a small loan from his father (which was quickly paid back), now outfits everyone from bar mitzvah boys to soon-to-be grooms.

The young designer said his Judaism plays an integral, but not limiting, part in his business.

“I feel like that’s what it is and I enjoy it,” Elgamil said. “A big thing that a lot of people might think is that we won’t wear suits with patterns and that we’ll just wear only black. There’s so much more than that. I even have customers who will come to me that only go to places where people only wear black suits, but they want to add a little bit of style. I wear purple, blues and a bunch of patterns all the time.”

Nick’s father, Israel, said he wasn’t always fashion-conscious, but one look at his tailored suit would prove that currently, he very much is aware. His son is fundamental to his sartorial choices. In particular, a suit he owns with a floral print lining the inside.

“A lot of new linings that he’s come up with have been floral prints,” Israel said of his son’s work. “It happens to be one of the most popular ones. And floral prints are coming through all the stores now, including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s.”

Mendel Davis, a Jewish model who is half-Egyptian and half-black, noted that he already stood out before making statements with his dress.

“Already people are looking at me,” Davis, 23, said. “So if they’re looking at me, I might as well stand out a little bit further.”

Davis grew up in the haredi community, a world where there was little variation in clothes.

“You’re not going to see a lot of variations in the suit colors,” Davis said. “A lot of the time it’s going to be black and maybe you’ll see some navy. You’ll never see brown or seersucker. There are a lot of things you can do individually to stand out while looking good at the same time. Think about having pocket squares. Think about a double breasted or three-piece suit or maybe some alligator- looking shoes.”

Australia-born Baltimorean and fashion blogger Rebecca Brown, who owns the company The Modest Runway, said that upon moving to New York City to work in the fashion industry, she felt restricted by her beliefs at times, but knew she wasn’t going to relinquish them.

“For this reason, I have always been open and honest with my employers about the non-negotiable aspects of my personal and religious life that, whether I liked it or not, did have an effect on my professional life,” Brown said via email. “As a result, my appearance and my adherence to the laws of modesty were not only respected by my colleagues, they were revered by them. I work in an industry that isn’t particularly well known for its modest values, and yet, I am never going to compromise my character just to fit in.”

Fashion designer Tamar Daniel started the Philadelphia-based company Tuxe in 2015, which focuses on bodysuits. It took some “un-programming” Daniel said, to look at the fashion world through secular eyes.

“I really worked pretty hard to not see design through those filters, because I think it’s a hindrance if you’re objectively trying to come up with the purest form of a design,” Daniel said. “I succeeded in removing those filters at this point, but I think it was a setback as a designer. You really want to look at the purest form of a design and then if you feel the purest form of that design has a sleeve or a longer skirt, that’s when there’s a happy coincidence.”

Fashion Forecast

The future appears to be opening even wider for fashion-conscious Jews who are also cognizant of standards for modesty.

Rebecca Brown says, “Being stylish and being modest aren’t mutually exclusive. The two can and do coexist.” (David Stuck)

Brown said that for some Orthodox women, the world of fashion is growing more “adventurous.”

“Gone are the days when wearing black from head-to-toe was the only way to dress modestly,” the fashion blogger said. “Fashion is about expression and experimenting with trends, and there’s no reason a woman has to compromise her style in order to dress modestly.”

Brown cited spring 2018 runway shows that were “full of modest attire.” This included fully covered striped dresses from Peter Pilotto, oversized printed florals at Erdem, “mad for plaid looks” from Victoria Beckham and lavender head-to-toe sets seen at Michael Kors and The Row.

“All of these designers featured modest looks that are trending for spring,” Brown said. “Being modest and being stylish aren’t mutually exclusive. The two can and do coexist.”

Brown believes that dressing modestly is becoming more pertinent for both the religious and non-religious than before due to there being more choices in the market.

“One only needs to search by skirt, sleeve or dress length on various fast fashion websites to see that ‘midi’, ‘maxi’ and ‘long-sleeve’ are now synonymous with style,” she wrote.

Daniel said that while fashion and modesty will mean various things to different women, there are more options than ever before.

“Now, if you want to shop at a store like Nordstrom or do a Google shopping search, you can break things down by sleeve length and skirt length, so it makes getting products much more pleasant and streamlined than it has been in the past,” the Tuxe founder said. “I think that is an innovation that is impacting everyone.”

In the world of men’s fashion, Davis sees more Jewish men buying designer brands and Elgamil sees two new trends taking shape.

“Two lapel button holes and also a lot of color on the sleeve button holes” are coming into style, Elgamil said. “Also, sometimes, I see pick stitching which goes around the lapel and the body of the suit in different colors.”

‘It should make us feel fabulous’

Brown addressed the misconception that modesty means boring.

“Dressing modestly is not about hiding or concealing our bodies in clothing that makes us look like we’re drowning in dresses two sizes too big,” she wrote. “It can and should be fun and it should make us feel fabulous. Dressing modestly means taking pride in our bodies and preserving our inner beauty, and we can do all of this and more while presenting ourselves in a fashion-forward way.”

Daniel reiterated that the definition of modesty shifts from person to person.

“The lines of what you will and won’t show are going to mean something different,” she said. “The only misconceptions might be that whatever group someone has been exposed to, they think that their dress codes apply for the whole Orthodox community. Usually, it’s way more nuanced than that.”

Israel Elgamil said that over time people have realized fashion and Judaism doesn’t always have to be so clear-cut.

“There’s always that grey area where you can change or improve something that’s still in the realm of being accepted,” Elgamil said. “When people start wanting more and more of it, that breaks the rules.”

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