Dressing modestly was probably pretty far down on my list of things to do, when I became frum. It’s not that I dressed particularly immodestly – I wore baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirts all through university; and I never went for tight skirts or plunging tops.
But the concept of wearing only skirts just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed way to ‘old’; and to be a statement that I would never ride a bike or jog in public again.
That’s when I was in my early twenties. I got married at 23, and then another element of ‘tznius’ came into play: should I, or shouldn’t I, cover my hair?
I decided I shouldn’t. Not because I thought G-d didn’t want me too – on the contrary, I knew I should be doing it. But it was just so hard. I have thick, black, curly hair that over the years has become almost my calling card. If I covered it up, I’d have to chop it off or risk passing out from heat exhaustion.
If I covered it up, in the UK workplace, I’d have to wear a wig or risk really standing out from the crowd, which I didn’t have the self-confidence to do. And wearing a wig just wasn’t ‘me’.
And so, every few years the question of dressing more modestly would crop up, and I would gently pat it away, to be dealt with at some point in the future, when I would need to be more consistent in my frumkeit.
That time came when my first child was born, and started to attend an orthodox school where the dress code for parents picking up stated that any woman on school premises had to be wearing a skirt.
A lot of my fellow parents complained about it; but I thought it was a fair request. The school was orthodox, it was teaching an orthodox way of life, and wearing skirts – for girls and women – is an halachic requirement.
At first, I thought I’d wear a skirt to drop my daughter off, and pick her up, and then change into jeans in between. But 3 changes a day wasn’t practical, so what happened instead is that I went out and bought a few more skirts, and started wearing them every day except on Sundays, when it was the weekend.
I have to say I did notice a difference. I did feel less ‘young-looking’ in some ways; but I also felt more feminine and less ‘hard’. Difficult to explain, but I started getting a lot more compliments from my husand. I also realised that shopping was SO much easier, when you were limited to buying longish skirts. I hate shopping, so having my choices curtailed by tznius factors was like a blessed relief.
Then we moved to Israel, and I started to only wear my jeans on the plane trips back to the UK. But something about Israel persuaded me that even that was a stretch to far, and last year, I donated my jeans to the local clothing charity.
But hair covering was still a big no-no. It was even hotter in Israel; it was even harder to do it, in some ways. It was even more of a statement of religious belief. It’s a long story, but to cut it short, I finally realised that it’s what G-d wants; and at least in Israel, I could cover it exactly how I wanted, without standing out from the crowd too much.
But it was still a shock to the system. For the first few weeks, I felt that my (chiloni) neighbours were looking at my new bandana quite suspiciously; it was like wearing a t-shirt with ‘I am properly frum’ emblazoned on the front.
But after a few weeks, both they and I got used to it. That was almost a year ago. Today, I’m only wearing skirts, and covering my hair – although not all of it, but that’s a topic for another conversation entirely.
A few months’ ago, I was talking to my friend, another BT, who had also struggled with maintaining a sense of her own style, when she became frum. As we talked, we realised this must be an issue for a whole bunch of BTs – and so, we decided to do something about it.
We have put together a website, www.nutmegshop.com, which sells affordable, fashionable clothes that are modest, but still stylish. We’re starting it on a shoestring, but as it develops, we’d like the site to become a forum for frum ladies to discuss clothes and fashion, and to share tips and experiences. As you’ll see if you visit, we’ve tried to kick things off by discussing what can happen when you cover your hair and you want to go down a water flume…
But it’s a work in progress, and we’d love to get more feedback from the Beyond BT community on it. My friend and I know from our experiences that ‘dressing frum’ is often one of the hardest parts of ‘living frum’. By launching nutmegshop.com, we’re hoping to make dressing modestly easier and more enjoyable, and also to make the point that dressing tzniusly doesn’t always have to mark such a radical departure from what came before.