There's an interesting item tucked away in this week's Machberes column in the Jewish Press.
Ultimate Coats by Modest Design announced, in chassidishe advertising weeklies, that it has two styles of coats for weddings or other occasions. The ad notes that the Rimanover Rebbe, in his city, had ordained that Jewish daughters should wear an oiber malbush, loosely translated as an upper [outer] garment or overcoat. Presumably, this is a light overcoat that covers dresses, etc. When women are elegantly dressed, on their way to or returning from smachos, the overcoat would cover their nice outfits and embrace them in modesty.
OK, seems nice. But why is it necessary?
Regarding Ultimate Coats, Rabbi Shraga Feivish Hager, Kosover Rebbe in Boro Park, writes that he has been troubled for years that when Jewish daughters go to smachos they are dressed in their finest Shabbos and Yom Tov outfits. Of course, they are going to a mitzvah in making their friend happy, especially kallos at their weddings. Nevertheless they are going through the streets or on the Boro Park/ Williamsburg bus, etc., where there are married men and bochurim. He has long been searching for a solution. Thank Heaven, the Kosover Rebbe writes, that righteous women have come up with an answer. A nice thin overcoat that will guard them well. Though it may be hot in warm weather, it is a good thing, he says. Rabbi Getzel Elyakim Berkowitz, Kiryas Yoel Dayan, in a letter written last year, also praises the new garment for street wear, especially when going to smachos.
What this says to me (and perhaps I'm reading it wrong) is that Shabbos and Yom Tov outfits are inherently immodest. After all, if they conform to the laws of modesty, then why the need for an additional cover? If they are inherently immodest, then why have women been walking in the streets in them until now?
Of course, we're all aware that there are women's outfits that may fit the technical definition of tznius but violate the spirit of the law. However, I'm inclined to believe (and again, please correct me if I'm wrong) that the followers fo the Kosover Rebbe already wear garments that are tznius according to both the letter and the spirit of the law. I don't think the Kosover Rebbe has too many "Hot Chanies" in his kehilla.
In addition, this leads to other questions as well. Once we've decided that a woman should not be seen by men in her Shabbos finery, then what does a hostess wear? Imagine if a couple wants to have his wife's sister and husband over for a Shabbos meal. What do they wear? Can they wear their Shabbos finery in front of their brothers-in-law? If so, then why not in the street? If not, then are they required to change into something less fine specifically for the meal? I'm sure that there are other perfectly legitimate social situations where similar questions could be asked.
Personally, I find this to be another symptom in our over obsession about tznius. Yes, modesty is important - but, as in all things, one has to find the happy medium.
UPDATE: I just saw that Josh, over at Parsha, has a much better and extensive take on this.