Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Do Risque Fashions Save Tznius?

The laws of tznius, as they are applied to clothing and commonly understood by many in the "frummer" parts of the community, seem to be composed of two related rules:

1. A strict definition on what parts of the female body have to be covered. Collarbones, knees, elbows, etc.
2. An ideal that a woman should not draw attention to herself. The skintight evening gown that may cover her collarbones, elbows, knees, et al, is still no good if it leaves little of her figure to the imagination. The garment may be "kosher" from a covering point of view, but it still attracts attention to the wearer and is therefore forbidden.

However, it should be noted that whether or not an outfit is risque (and attractive) often depends on the surrounding culture. What was considered scandalous a hundred years ago might not even be shocking by today's standards. I don't think you would have seen anyone in Victorian England wearing a bikini at the beach -- and yet, today, it's considered normal beach attire* and is not shocking at all to most people.

I think that if you took all the fashions in contemporary America and graded them in terms of how much they reveal and how likely they are to find acceptence as "normal" within society, you'd find that they probably fall into a bell curve. The most attractive (and/or revealing) outfits would be at the right end of the scale. You'd probably find burquas at the left end. The curve would be the percentage of the population who felt that the particular outfit was in good taste. As you got closer to the average, the percentage of approvers would continue to rise. As you went further out to the sides, the number of approvers would fall.

Tznius, would, in essence, say that only outfits that fall within a certain middle region of the curve would qualify as tznius. Too far to the left and you're attacting attention for being too dowdy (think about the comments that the Beit Shemesh burqua lady was getting -- even before the more serious allegations came to light) and too far to the right and, well... you're just not tznius anymore. In the middle of all this is the average -- the golden mean which would be the norm. So, if you took all clothing in a given society and rated them on a scale of 1 to 100 for attractiveness (with 50 as the average -- the height of the curve), you'd find some outfits (like a burqua) rated at 1 or 2 and some (like a very revealing bikini) to be a 95 or 100. A reasonable rule might be that in order for an outfit to be considered compliant with the rules of tznius, it must fall into a certain range -- say 30 to 70. Anything over 70 is too attractive while anything under 30 is just so ugly/unusual that it draws attention.

Now, let's pretend, for a moment, that Orthodox Jews are the only people who exist on the planet -- or, barring that, that Orthodox Jews live in completely enclosed environments where they will never see a non-Orthodox Jew.

Since Orthodox Jews are the only ones in this society, the (assuming that no one will willfully violate tznius standards) only clothing that will exist is that which falls within that portion of the curve which is acceptable. In theory, the average (the top of the bell curve) will remain the same -- the only thing that will change is that the extreme portions of the curve (to the left and right) will disappear -- as those fashions will be outlawed. So, in our Torah compliant society, only outfits rated 30 to 70 would exist.

The problem here, however, is that attractiveness (as opposed to objective rules about body parts that must be covered) is relative to the society. Therefore, in a society where only clothing 30 to 70 exists (and you'd better believe that the "70" outfits will be more popular than the "30" outfits), the outfit rated 70 now becomes too attractive. Men will start to stare at the outfits rated 60 to 70 (human nature being what it is) and soon those outfits will come under fire as well as being too attractive. Eventually, those outfits, too, are banned -- pushing more and more people to some center where everyone dresses virtually alike.

However, we don't live in such a world. We live in a world where there are people who are not commanded to keep the mitzvah of tznius. We live in a world where bikinis, strapless gowns, showing cleavage, etc. are not uncommon. In other words, having such fashions in our society prevents the mitzvah of tznius from regressing into some nightmare where everyone has to dress identically all the time -- a condition that is so restrictive that, in a free society such as ours, would probably lead to more women dropping out of observance of the mitzvah than keeping it.

In short, I think you can make the case and say that risque fashions save tznius from falling into obsolescence.

The Wolf


* And it works the other way too. In ancient Greece, athletes used to compete in the nude. I think most people, even today, woudl find that shocking.

16 comments:

Mike S. said...

One would think that tzniut were an obligation only of women, and only with regard to sexual display. This is not true--men's clothing is also regulated, as are other kinds of ostentatious display. Ostentatitious display both of wealth and of surface piety are prohibited. The latter ought to include clothing that ostentatiously covers more than normal.

Limiting discussion of tzniut to women's clothing is a serious distortion that undermines the value. Men obsessing about women's clothing is both degrading to women and about as untzniusdik as you can get.

BrooklynWolf said...

Mike,

I agree with you completely -- but unfortunately, that seems to be the state of the "frum world" today.

The Wolf

G*3 said...

An interesting theory. I think that your hypothetical society where all women dress the same (presumably in duty-length black skirts, black or white shirts, rubber-soled flat shoes, and no makeup) is the ideal for some in chareidi society. Its already largely true that men all dress the same, why not the women too?

Ariella said...

I err on the dowdy side ;-) But I don't think you need a measure of contrast to count as tznius. I have daughters to whom I try to convey the value of tznius. I remember finding it very ironic years ago when a hot Chanie type teacher reprimanded by third grade daughter for having on socks that came a fraction of an inch short of her knee. In my own view, if knee socks are required, then sheer stocking just don't cover the requirement. So I do -- shockingly -- allow short socks, but no compromises on sleeves, skirts, and necklines.
But there is more to tznius than coverage. As I point out to my daughters, even certain styles of shoes can be not tznius, and the same goes for certain accessories and makeup styles.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think you have it exactly backward. The fact that there are fashion trends in secular society means that tznius is an ever-changing target that a girl can never truly hope to hit unless she herself makes sure that she is sensitive to fashion. If there were no such thing as fashion, then nobody today would be saying that a Biz skirt isn't tznius because it's too dowdy -- a Biz skirt would be just as acceptable as whatever flouncy black skirts girls are wearing today.

LazerA said...

Your point that our standards of tznius are heavily influenced by the outside standards is obviously true.

One issue I do have with your post is that your summation of the essence of tznius omits the issue of sexually provocative dress.

There are very unusual modes of dress (such as the burqua) which, while they certainly attract attention, and are therefore not "tzniusdik" in a certain sense, are certainly not sexually provocative.

There are other modes of dress which, while broadly accepted in our society (the bikini at the beach), remain sexually provocative by all standards.

Any summation of tznius that omits this factor is severely lacking. Thus, a more accurate summation would be:
1. A strict definition on what parts of the female body have to be covered.
2. A strong principle to avoid sexually provocative clothing (e.g. tight garments). This standard is influenced, but not determined by local standards.
3. A general, and loosely defined, ideal that a Jew - especially a woman - should dress in a manner expressive of humility and simplicity. (See Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 3:2)

This last item brings me to another point. You describe a society where everyone dresses basically the same as a "nightmare" that would drive women away from observance.

I don't really understand this comment.

First of all, my observation of the general population is that, by and large, people in the same social group already tend to all dress basically the same. To an insider the variation seems significant, but to an outsider the style of dress appears monolithic.

Secondly, I have not noticed that the common mode of dress of chareidi men has been a major factor in driving men away from observance. (If anything, it appears to have the opposite effect.) I'm not certain that this would be different for chareidi women.

Finally, I simply have a hard time relating to the idea that sharing a common mode of dress with the people around me is a "nightmare". Why should my mode of dress matter so much to me? Within reason, whatever is normal to wear is what I wear. Baruch Hashem, the normal mode of dress in the yeshiva world is not particularly uncomfortable nor expensive. (Yes, non-designer jeans and t-shirts are better in both regards.)

Anonymous said...

Your Bell curve theory is fascinating. Taken to a logical conclusion, though, if there was a closed community where the rules could be enforced, a la Kiryas Joel or New Square, the ends of the curve would be constantly moving inward as people complied, since there would be no outside influences to widen it.

As the curve narrows, acceptable dress becomes more and more restrictive, presumably eventually leading to everyone dressing exactly alike, probably in a drab brown baggy long outfit.

As a result, husbands with less-than-perfect control on their "yetzer harah" start to wander, presumably eventually creating a matching bell curve with light porn on one end and hookers or illicit affairs on the other.

Frightening thought!

Yossi Ginzberg

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Ah, relativism. I think to satisfy both ends of the spectrum, we should design a burqini.

Rabbi Dr. said...

Your assumption that there are people in the world who are not commanded to keep the laws of Tzniut is not neccessarily true. There are many meforshim/poskim who in discussing the seven Noahide commandments point out that in all probability non-Jews are fully obligated to keep all the "meta-laws" that govern morality, decency and modesty. Hence, they opine that all people everywhere are actually obligated to keep some form of the laws of modesty. That most non-Jews do not do so, is of course a different issue altogether.

Anonymous said...

would you welcome non-jews observing this "meta-law"? I highly doubt it. It would defeat the purpose of remaining separate, which is the original intention of most of the religious laws.

Honestly Frum said...

The problem we currently have is that many of the people making the tznius "rules" are doing it arbitrarily and asuring everything which, essentially, is not a burkah (or close to it). This weird obsession with women as original sin, denial of pleasure --this is not our religion.

Frum in Oz said...

@Nice Jewish Guy

The burqini already exists - in much evidence on the beaches of Sydney, Australia!

robert said...

Wolf said:
"In other words, having such fashions in our society prevents the mitzvah of tznius from regressing into some nightmare where everyone has to dress identically all the time -- a condition that is so restrictive that, in a free society such as ours, would probably lead to more women dropping out of observance of the mitzvah than keeping it."


I believe that you are displaying cognitive disonance.

I can not believe that you do not see that women who are adherants of the laws of tzniut do in fact all dress extremely similarly. To the point where, if you are knowlegable enough you can identify a woman not only as frum, but also as to what type of frum she is: chassidic (down to a particular sect) or chareidi, or modern orthodox, and even what seminary she attended post high school. (and please don't be cute and say that this proves that they are not all dressing identically b/c all of these minute differences are all merely within small standard deviations of your "30" range.)

The laws of tzniut are in and of themselves an objectification of that which is inherently a subjective concept.

And yes, some women see the restrictiveness of the laws of tzniut as a tremendous positive and beautiful thing which makes the b'not yisrael special and holy, while other women "drop out" b/c they see the laws of tzniut as being overly restrictive, and they see the laws of tzniut as objectifying women.

Fed-Up said...

LazerA writes:
>>First of all, my observation of the general population is that, by and large, people in the same social group already tend to all dress basically the same. To an insider the variation seems significant, but to an outsider the style of dress appears monolithic.

Secondly, I have not noticed that the common mode of dress of chareidi men has been a major factor in driving men away from observance. (If anything, it appears to have the opposite effect.) I'm not certain that this would be different for chareidi women.

Finally, I simply have a hard time relating to the idea that sharing a common mode of dress with the people around me is a "nightmare". Why should my mode of dress matter so much to me? Within reason, whatever is normal to wear is what I wear. Baruch Hashem, the normal mode of dress in the yeshiva world is not particularly uncomfortable nor expensive. (Yes, non-designer jeans and t-shirts are better in both regards.)<<

I guess it comes as news to you, but with each passing day I feel more and more distanced from the religion I loved very much all my life and a large cause of it is because of the mind-numbing conformity I see in how fellow men (have to) dress. When i counted, the other day, something like 23 of 26 men and teen boys all dressed identically, I felt like physically gagging and had to go 'get away'.

Tamar said...

Well said, Mike.

Tamar said...

Hey, hey Lazer A, or Fed Up whichever you are: About the guys wearing the same white shirt, dark trousers, etc.: it's the "uniform" of the Yeshiva guy. They don't dress that way when they're building a succah, or when they go bowling. A uniform identifies someone as part of a group. Most people like to belong, to hang out with other people who think like they do. Hence the police uniform, the soldier's uniform. It commands respect. A tank top says something different than a tee shirt. It's got to be more than the uniform that's turning you off.