Does this dress make me look Orthodox? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on a Jewish fashion dilemma

The writer Mattie Kahn broke the Jewish internet with her Vogue article about “Torah-teacher aesthetic,” which she describes as follows:

“Its component parts include, but are not limited to: knee-covering skirts, elbow-covering tops, leggings under dresses, neutral colors, minimal accessorizing, sneakers with tights. It is related to art-teacher dressing but with no fuschia and fewer beaded necklaces. It shares hemlines and certain watchwords with cottagecore, but its vibe is cooler—no tiered skirts, no smocked bodices.”

This look is, evidently, all over the runways, and what celebrities are wearing. This trendlet, per Kahn, stirs up a complex set of emotions in the grown women who grew up wearing long skirts and so forth because they had to (at school, at any rate), but no longer wear. It’s confusing, funny, exhilarating, and more for them to see a look they’d been fleeing become the hot new thing. With long denim skirts newly chic, she writes, “We wonder whether those dark-wash 7 for All Mankind skirts are still in our childhood bedrooms or if we did in fact burn them all after graduation.”

This is really two topics, one fashion, the other (sorry, sorry) Jewish identity, so bear with me.

As a fashion development, dressing like a no-nonsense Orthodox woman—even if you’re not Orthodox, not Jewish, and full of nonsense—adds up. Whatever people outside the fashion world see as the absolute least cool way to dress is what ahead-of-the-curve fashion types pick up on and, in doing so, eventually bring to the masses. Remember when it was, then wasn’t, dorky to wear pleated high-waist khakis? There’s no reason denim midi skirts wouldn’t go through the same evolution.

I have said this before about how fashion cycles… cycle, though my prediction was circa-1993 bat mitzvah dresses, not frum chic. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe I’m so good at predicting these things that those dresses are actually what’s up next. We shall see.

In any case, where high fashion’s concerned, there’s long been something upscale about modest dressing, something doubtless rooted in classism and slut-shaming, but something, all the same. If you’re a bit more covered-up, you signal that you don’t need to seek attention, because you already have everything you need, not just a gratuitous shawl but a fleet of yachts. That, and androgynous clothes are more posh than “ultrafeminine” ones. It is all, as Kahn writes, a little bit Prada, this “Torah-teacher aesthetic.”

But there’s a difference, Kahn emphasizes, between styles inspired by Orthodox women (or that evoke Orthodox women to the subset of the population familiar with what Orthodox women look like) and dressing as an Orthodox woman. If you’re doing it as a trend thing, not a religious one, you want to avoid the latter.

In one sense, this points to a fashion principle that spans different trends and eras: one never wants to look costume-y. This means that if you’re going for a 1970s look, you want a few details making it clear you’re dressed in your normal clothes, and not an extra in Saturday Night Fever.

This is what Kahn means when she writes:

“Roughing it up is required. To tap into the charms of Jewish-education-inspired fashion, enthusiasts have to be vigilant, lest an outfit lose its sophistication and veer too close to its source material.” 

But with “Torah-teacher aesthetic,” it’s about more than not wanting to wear a costume. To properly unpack why that’s the case, one would need a team of rabbis, historians, and psychoanalysts. (And unpack with a rabbi I did, on the latest Bonjour Chai!)

Because it isn’t exactly a cultural appropriation story. No one’s dressing up as an Orthodox woman, and the only women squirming about what it all means are ones from the culture in question. This is not an instance of anyone’s culture being anyone else’s costume, as the saying goes.

No, the concern lies in the other direction. Women who’d have every cultural and ethnic right to dress this way—if they lived the corresponding lifestyle—avoid the look because they (we) know all too well that they (we) absolutely… pass.

A Jewish-looking woman is one who, if she wears a long skirt, if her hair looks a bit wig-like, reads as Hasidic. This is the best working definition of “Jewish-looking woman” I can come up with. I have, over the years, worn looks inspired by Japanese fashion Instagrammers, only to realize that on decidedly not-Japanese moi, the look is less Muji, more Borough Park.

The ambivalence I’m talking about, among secular Jewish women who did not go to Jewish day schools, seems maybe a bit different from what Kahn describes, Is it self-hatred for a secular Jewish woman to be like, nope, not wearing that dress, it makes me look Orthodox? Or is it just about not wanting to signal belonging to a group whose rules you don’t follow? Is it a fear of looking too Jewish or of looking religious?

As I said, this would require a team of experts to analyse. But it is ultimately my sense that if a woman who isn’t Orthodox doesn’t want to look like she is, it cannot exactly be self-hatred, unless you believe that inside of every secular Jew is a secretly religious one.

(Avi Finegold and I talked more about this topic with Bagel Emoji pundit Jesse Martin-Miller on the latest episode of the Bonjour Chai podcast—give it a listen and let us know what you think.)

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz