Religiously observant Muslims and Jews convened in Manhattan last week to discuss an item of vital interest to both:
Also long skirts, high collars and how much arm one can expose. Whatever tension may or may not exist between the faiths on a political level vanished at a symposium on dressing modestly yet fashionably, organized by Daniel Cole of New York University's costume studies department and opened by Nancy Deihl, the director of the department's master's program.
To give you an idea of how this topic cuts across religious lines, try to guess which of these statements was made by a Jewish woman and which by a Muslim:
"I dress modestly because God commanded me to, as a way to focus on my value as a person."
"Why do women cover? Sexuality is something that belongs in the home."
Answer: Jew, Muslim. But they were both nodding along with each other.
The Jewish woman here is Michelle Honig, a fashion journalist who often writes about the intersection of fashion and modesty. She was wearing a green striped sweater and a slim dark skirt and had long blond hair — a wig that mostly, but not totally (she admitted), covered her hair. Her shoes looked straight out of Vogue.
Undoubtedly, she said, the idea of a religiously observant Muslim, Jewish or even Christian woman "doesn't bring to mind very fashionable women." But just because they are covering more of themselves than their secular sisters doesn't mean they have to be dowdy. Honig goes shopping at popular stores, "browsing through the racks, each piece going through some mental calculation of how to modest-ify it."
To do that, she usually adds layers, or maybe she'll sew up the slit of a slinky skirt. Voila — a fashionable young woman in "normal" clothes that just happen to cover the knees and elbows.
Dian Pelangi, head designer of the Indonesian fashion company that bears her name, took the lectern next, looking regal in a stunning floor-length green cape with a black hood. "Hijab means 'to cover,'" she explained to the half of the audience that wasn't already wearing one of these Muslim head coverings.
"There was a time when the hijab was considered weird, backwards and old-fashioned," Pelangi said. But now it is a "huge trend." Witness the fact that a Jakarta designer showed the first "modest" fashion line at New York Fashion Week this year and the fact that both Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY brought out a Ramadan collection — or even the fact that Pelangi herself has 479,000 Twitter followers, who presumably look to her for advice on modest styles.
Why is it catching on?
"The fashion world as it exists today is about very public sexuality," said Ann Shafer, an art historian and architect specializing in Islamic culture. "So I'm trying to provide another world view" — the view that "sexuality is not a sort of public phenomenon." Shafer herself converted to Islam and was covered except for her face.
In countries like America, where women have the choice to dress any way they please, "if women still choose to cover their bodies," said Honig, they are not "victims" who need to be saved; they're making a statement. "They take pride in their modesty because it's part of who they are."
The other speakers concurred. They don't want to be thought of as sexless, just maybe excess-less. "Modest dress should not be the 'other' choice, just an equal choice," said Malky Weichbrod, the observant Jew behind the website My Therapist Told Me to Write a Fashion Blog.
And if ladies kick it up a notch by making it look great, they've got the best of both worlds.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, "World's Worst Mom," airs on Discovery Life. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.