On any afternoon in Crown Heights on Kingston Avenue, there are sliver sightings of forearms, the sounds of heels clacking, the humming of stroller wheels, and tribes of young mothers wearing long, tressed wigs. The Brooklyn enclave is home to the Hasidic Jewish sect, Chabad-Lubavitch. Women follow the Torah’s strict laws of modesty or “tznius”–their elbows and collarbones must be covered, they have to wear skirts (not pants) that go past the knee, as well as stockings. Once they are married, women must cover their hair by wearing a wig (a “sheitel”) or a scarf.
Tznius is not looked upon as what the women is covering, but what she is exposing. In Jewish law, the body is perceived as something private and should be separate from public view. Tznius is ensured to preserve a privacy that is shared between a husband and wife, as well as a means for a woman to be perceived for her internal beauty without physical distraction.
“I use the analogy of a Tiffany lamp–you are muting the light because you are putting a stained glass shade on it and the light is being transmitted in many different colors,” says Sarah Alevsky of the Upper West Side Chabad. “The same thing happens when you are tznius–you are ‘covering your light’ and there is not a naked glare of what’s there, like your sexuality. What happens when you are tznius is there are other parts of you that get to express themselves as well.” In Judaism, modesty is a tradition that is meant to protect what is holy and not unnecessarily expose something that is sacred to the public.
While photographing street style in Crown Heights, subjects included a mother of five children who wholesales jewelry to retailers like Forever 21, a special education aid who moonlights as a freelance photographer, and a teacher who is collaborating with a friend in Israel to launch a gown line. As Orthodox Jewish women, they pride themselves on being tznius and fashionable.
“The public perception isn’t always positive about tznius. It’s sometimes about the woman not being allowed to have the choice to dress the way that she wants but that’s not always true,” says Sharon Langert, the creator of Fashion-isha, the popular blog geared towards Orthodox women’s fashion. “The way we look at it, if you show too much skin and you are showing different body parts, that’s what people are going to look at. But a woman’s essence, her beauty is what you should see. When you look at a woman, it is a reflection of the inside looking out.”
Finding acceptable, fashionable clothing is not an easy task for the women of Crown Heights, so it’s no surprise that over the past couple of years, there has been an increase in blogs (like Fashion-isha), designers, and boutiques that cater to them.
“We realized that girls in Crown Heights want to dress fashionably but some of them either don’t know how to do it or they get overwhelmed by going to stores,” says Simi Polonsky, the co-owner of the Crown Heights-based traveling consignment pop-up shop, The Frock Swap. “Meanwhile there is no shortage of clothing in New York City, but some women are like, ‘I can’t find any clothes to wear!’ I’m like, ‘You live in New York and you can’t find one thing to buy?’”
The Frock Swap, opened a year ago by Australian sisters, Polonsky and Chaya Chanin (née Gestetner), is based on the mantra that women can be fashionable and Tznius at the same time. In a back closet in their apartment–or the temporary Frock Swap showroom–racks are filled with colorful pieces from Marni, Valentino, Chanel, Chloe, independent Australian designers, as well as unique vintage finds. These curated consignment collections include items that originally range from $400 to $1000, now sold for $100 to $400.
“Our lives were always focused around fashion and shopping and how to figure out ways to dress, look good and involve our style while not compromising on modesty,” says Polonsky. “We are appealing to the everyday Orthodox girl that loves fashion, to the girl that loves waiting for the next Vogue edition.”
At brunch a few blocks away from The Frock Swap, I met sisters-in-law Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, the creators of MIMU MAXI, a skirt line for Orthodox women. Wearing their own designs (Mimi dons an ombre highlighted sheitel), the electric designers would fit into any street style blog. With children and time on their hands, Hecht and Notik, always together, started the MIMU MAXI line after realizing the need for affordable, modest clothing.
“First of all it was hard to find skirts that were modest. When you did find them, they were expensive.” says Notik. “So we thought about something that we could put our energy into, to express ourselves and get some cool skirts out of it.”
Shortly after, Hecht and Notik began to choose fabrics, found a tailor, and launched a Facebook page. Within days, MIMU Maxi had a solid fan base that began voting on skirt designs for the sister-in-laws to create. Their collections consist of skirts that are color-blocked, in solid colors such as blue and coral, a green “Coin” pattern, and leopard prints–priced affordably at $40 to $58 dollars. Already, many of their skirts have sold out with clients ranging from those in the Crown Heights community, to Germany and even to Malaysia.
Overall the new creative surge in Crown Heights has been met with little opposition from the community. “We aren’t trying to offend anybody, especially because we aren’t coming as authorities, or rabbis. We aren’t even here to represent Chabad-Lubavitch necessarily, we are here to service the people around us,” says Chanin of The Frock Swap. “We aren’t representing a certain Jewish type although we are who we are.”
MIMU MAXI has also faced little criticism. “There was this one time someone came up to us–we were at a convention selling skirts and someone was like, ‘I don’t understand, you call them skirt-leggings, Jewish girls aren’t supposed to wear leggings, what’s the idea?’” says Hecht. “But that’s definitely not the majority–most people get it. Being creative is so much a part of being Orthodox: all of the foods, all of the festivals we have–you might as well get dressed up for them. There is nothing wrong with being creative, and for us, fashion is a creative outlet.”
Rather than immediately notice how modestly an Orthodox woman is dressed, Polansky says, “We would want for someone to look at her and say, ‘Wow, she looks great, she looks really stylish.’” And hopefully that woman will no longer have to venture into the city to scour racks for knee-hitting skirts or long-sleeve tops–fashionable finds are only an arms length away, and the elbows are covered.
Photos: Liana Satenstein