Hermione Granger and the Patriarchal Dress Code

I had planned a post on egalitarianism for this week, but Christina’s poignant essay on Monday gave me pause.    This is less a response than a musing along similar/related themes.

As some of you know, I worked as a semi-professional costumer/designer for several years.  After a heart-wrenching amount of internal debate I have decided not to make it my career choice, although gifs like this  make me regret the decision.   As a costume designer, as an aspiring “obscenely polished” corporette (:-P), and as a pseudo-Orthodox Jewess (I call myself shomeret mitzvoth or observant), I think about clothing and appearance roughly 870,053 times a day.   More if I’m at a theatrical performance or at synagogue on the High Holidays…

The HP headline is not that relevant here.  Like every female bookworm with bushy hair in the past decade, I always assumed Hermione Granger was written about me.  During freshman year of college, the girls on my hall who Sorted everyone in my dorm decided I was Molly Weasley, which is much more accurate.  (Don’t. Mess.)   But Hermione is a fashion-awkward brown-nosing do-gooder, just like my teenage self.

DRESS CODE SHENANIGANS

One of the reasons I am so interested in costume design and personal style is precisely because of tzniut* (modesty), the halakhic concept that is much broader than sartorial choice but propagates a heavier double standard than almost anything else in Orthodox Jewish culture.   My family was very strict about this when I was growing up, for various reasons.   My little sister routinely heads to high school in outfits in which I would have been forbidden to walk down the block.  (Everyone in my family has acknowledged this, thankyouverymuch.)

*Tzniut [tz-nee-OOT] is the pronunciation in Modern Hebrew.   Tznius [tz-NEE-yus] is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is more commonly used when the Orthodox discuss the subject.

Here is a partial list of feminine clothing restrictions I have experienced, both from my family and from religious authorities (educators, rabbis, and elder laypeople):

  • Skirts must fall at the very least an inch past the knees (WHEN SITTING) and preferably to the ankles
  • Pants are never worn except for exercise (when no males are present); baggy sweatpants or “Aladdin pants” (harem/palazzo pants) are preferable.  One of my gym classes allowed girls to exercise in long skirts, as long as they weren’t denim.
  • Shirtsleeves should be at least halfway between your shoulder and your elbow in a Modern Orthodox environment; at least halfway between your elbow and your wrist in a central Orthodox or haredi environment.   I got cited by the dress code police at least three times in day school for cap sleeves.  This meant I had to put on a sweater.
  • The shirt neckline should NEVER go lower than the collar bone.   If for some reason you must wear a dress with a plunging neckline, then: A) chances are you’re Modern Orthodox and trying to look trendy at a wedding and B) you’re going to put a long-sleeved white t-shirt under it.   (I haaaaaate this look.)
  • Bare feet are not acceptable.  No peep-toe anything.   Wear tights/stockings with everything.  Many religious high school girls wear striped knee highs with knee-length denim skirts as a daily uniform for YEARS.  If you’re in a Modern Orthodox community in California or on a religious kibbutz, TEVAs might be acceptable.  (I hope you all know that that’s an Israeli company.  “Teva” means nature in Hebrew.)
  • No brand names or printed designs on t-shirts.  I was 13 before I owned a shirt with a cutesy slogan on it, which I was only allowed to wear to drama camp.   I was 15 before I owned more than one, and I bought them myself.   The obvious exception here would be synagogue/youth-group apparel.
  • Long hair should not be loose, as that’s immodest.  Married women wear wigs/hats/snoods or other head coverings.  Unmarried women keep their hair braided, ponytailed, messy bun-ed, or otherwise pulled back.  Short hair is really Not Done.
  • No more than one piercing per ear, and that one should be in the lobe only.  (Males are never allowed any.)
  • Obviously unnatural hair dye is not expressly forbidden (usually), but there is no way it would be socially acceptable.   I have only known one person to flout this rule in my lifetime, and he was a 6’1″ attractive student from a well-regarded family, attending a secular university at the time.  His hair was bright orange, which made it easy to find him during Shabbat services.   Within months he had shaved it all off.  A girl in his position wouldn’t dare.
  • No raised-Orthodox person would EVER seriously consider getting a tattoo.  Ever.   It’s not about being buried in a Jewish cemetery (an urban legend), it’s about respecting the sanctity of your body and commemorating the Holocaust.   An unnamed relative of mine has a tattoo on her body.   It’s so tame that most of you wouldn’t blink if you saw it, but my 85-year-old grandfather would go apoplectic.   If I got one, my father would probably stop speaking to me for weeks.   I. Would. Never.  (Yes, there are many compelling reasons to get one.  I simply cannot stomach the idea of permanently altering my body OR of facing my father afterwards, even if it were hidden.)

I could go on, but this gives you a cursory understanding of the sartorial pressure and anxiety I was under for many, many years.   Arguably it wasn’t until I got to college that I had true freedom of dress, because then there was no way my mother or rabbi could find out what I was wearing.

I hated dress codes, and I was a goody-two-shoes straight through college.  Still am, most of the time.   It’s not that I had a desperate need to wear pants or plunging necklines. I simply hated the constant pressure and public examination that comes with tznius culture.   One or two day schools I have known actually had uniforms, but mostly they just had lists of do’s and don’ts.  The do’s for women usually read something like this: white or light blue long-sleeved button-down shirt, blue/black ankle-length skirt, closed-toe shoes with socks, hair pulled back.   Naturally the don’ts list was much, much longer.   I would take a uniform over a dress code any day.  Absolutely.

Of course, there always is a male dress code as well.  Young, unmarried men are supposed to be clean-cut and shaven, except for their peyos, their forelocks.  (Witness the subcultural success of The Maccabeats, the Yeshiva University all-male a cappella group.  I will blog more about them in the near future, I promise.)  The yeshiva uniform of white button down, black pants, and visible tzizit, is not that far off from the Modern Orthodox uniform, particularly on the Sabbath.  Collared shirts are not always required but frequently expected.   Shorts never go above the knee, but what straight male would wear short shorts anyway?  :-p

One day I will write at length about the double standard enforcement issues in tznius culture, but today is not that day.  Suffice it to say that since the unstated Standard Operating Procedure in Orthodoxish culture is that “women don’t have sex drives”, male tzniut is considered less important.   (BTW, the Talmud contradicts itself several times on this issue.  As the Talmud does on pretty much every issue.)

ON MAKEUP

My father set the tone for this one in our house.  My parents both grew up as relative leftists, although they’re getting more socially conservative as they age.  To summarize, NOT verbatim:  Why on earth would you wear makeup?  Pretty girls certainly don’t need it and non-gorgeous girls should highlight other attributes, if it matters at all, which I highly doubt.  What is the point of shaving your legs?  It just grows back.  Bright red nail polish is “trampy.” <– the only time he ever used the word, and he’s come around on this particular issue after many years.   My mother doesn’t like things that might harm the environment or animals.

I first wore makeup to prom (senior year, at a public high school), after getting coached by a lovely cosmetics lady at Nordstrom’s.   Freshman year of college I wore it maybe five or six times total.   In Fall 2011, I have a face that I literally put on for work most days. It appears natural to the untrained eye.  It has nothing to do with being natural.

All of her work is fantastic

I think stage makeup is fascinating and eyeliner/lipstick are fun.   I don’t wear mascara because my eyelashes are dark and it intimidates me.  I don’t feel like learning how — a personal feminist-halakhic fence, if you will.

ON HALLOWEEN

Oh, you mean Goyishe Purim?   :-p

This was the first year of my life that I dressed up for it, and only because I was attending a costume party.    I was Avril Lavigne, circa 2002.

YM Photoshoot, 2002

I already owned half the items for this look (still rocking the same pair of Doc Martens since middle school), and a quick trip to my local army/navy surplus store supplied the rest.   Note that my stomach was not visible.  I categorically refused to flat-iron my hair — it would take upwards of two hours without help — and since my hair is not blonde, a shockingly large number of people didn’t get it.

What The Hell?  It wasn’t that Complicated.  Clearly I needed a Sk8er Boi on my arm.   My costume was so Hot, and it was clearly the Best Damn Thing at the party.   Don’t Tell Me none of them or their Girlfriend[s] had a pop/punk phase in middle school.    (Do you think maybe I should Let [it] Go? :-p )

The two most important aspects of this costume for me were the eyeliner and the spike bracelets.

EYELINER

I’ve already mentioned my family’s historical attitude toward makeup, and being raised in a tznius culture means that I am always wary of drawing potentially sexual attention to myself.   I never had a raccoon eyes experimental phase — I went from zero eyeliner to subtle eyeliner in 60 seconds.  It was INCREDIBLY cathartic for me to simply, literally, paint my eyelids with black.  There was no pressure to make it look “understated” or “sexy” or “not-too-sexy”, since the whole point was to look silly.   I totally succeeded, and one of my weekend victories was walking in an urban neighborhood Saturday night, passing by tons of adult strangers, and not giving a shit about how I looked.

SPIKE BRACELETS

They’re not spikes, exactly.  Eyelet bracelets would be more accurate but sound waaaay less cool.

the best stock image I could find

They cost $8 each, and I’m positive I could have gotten a better deal somewhere else, but I’m fine with that.  They were new, real leather (sorry Mom), and surprisingly comfortable.  I still haven’t replaced my broken watch, so suddenly wearing something heavy on my wrist was familiar yet distracting.   (For the party, I also accessorized with red and grey plastic bangles and black hair ties.)

I thought the bracelets were goofy when I bought them, but I have fallen in love with them since Friday.   I wore them on Sunday as a laugh, and I wore them to work on Monday in an attempt to recreate a portion of my costume for visiting friends.

These bracelets have nothing to do with my current personal style and are exactly the kind of things to make my parents shudder, my rabbi raise an eyebrow, and my high school teachers scold/punish.   They remind me of several of my high school friends who I miss dearly.

These bracelets scream “look at me” just like an adolescent girl who is REBELLING AGAINST TEH WORLD!!!11!!1    I’m still sad I’ll probably never dye all of my hair bright blue (wrong for my coloring anyway), and at my current job I can’t put the fire-engine-red tips from last January back in.

I unabashedly adore the Disney Channel, and I love problematizing adolescence in pop culture, perhaps to a fault.    On the other hand, I often feel like I went from “good tween” to “mature adult” without the standard snotty, unfocused rebellion in the middle.

I have decided to call these my power bracelets.   I’m going to wear them all week.

Look for a post on Jessi J’s song “Do It Like A Dude” to appear next Wednesday, in sha’allah.

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8 thoughts on “Hermione Granger and the Patriarchal Dress Code

  1. chortlevork says:

    This was incredibly good. Sorry I don’t have a more interesting response to offer.

  2. Emmy says:

    “Tznius [tz-NEE-yus] is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is more commonly used when the Orthodox discuss the subject.”

    *grumbles and ahems emerge from the Sephardic section*

    This is a (kind of) minor protest, but this is only true if you quantify this normative claim by saying that it is particular to the the Orthodox in America, and more specifically, only a large percentage of Ashkenazi Orthodox in America at that. In Israel, the Sephardic pronunciation is far more commonly used, by Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim, and others. Furthermore, the Sephardic pronunciation is gaining steam in the States, to the point at which even a significant proportion of Orthodox Ashkenazim use it, especially in academic and official documents.

    As someone who is Sephardic and thinks Ashkenormativity is a huge problem in our community,I just don’t think this was an important or necessary tidbit to bring up without further qualifiers or a footnote explaining situation, since it unnecessarily suggests that frumspeak = Ashkenazische, which is just not true.

    • LadyG says:

      Sure, Ashkenormativity is a huge problem. In the part of Orthodox culture in which I grew up in, nobody ever says “tzniut” except my family, what with our Modern Hebrew/Sephardic schoolin’. We get weird looks.

      The initial line was just meant to clarify because I often interchange the two in my speech and writing, and didn’t want people to think I was trying to pull a fast one over them.

    • Chatulim says:

      Ashkenormativity is a huge problem in the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements too (I go by a blend of the two movements) , and a lot of it seems to come from this idea that “Yiddish = real Jewish” that seems to be prevalent in much of American Jewry. I think some of it also simply comes from the fact that the majority of Jews in the US are Ashkenazi – most American Jews know very few Sephardi Jews, and religious education in the Conservative and Reconstructionist movement tends to be VERY Ashkenazi-centric. There were a lot of grumbles when a visiting rabbi used a very traditional Mizrahi pronounciation for a tune…even though she herself had Yemenite heritage.

      I first encountered it when I got weird looks for saying “shabbat shalom” instead of “gut shabbos.”

      (Of course, the strongest proponents of Ashkenormativity at Conservative synagogues tend to have the poorest knowledge of Yiddish idioms. )

  3. chortlevork says:

    Could someone describe in more detail what the “huge problem” with Ashkenormativity is? My own experience suggests that if anything, even American Jews of Ashkenazi heritage are moving toward modern Hebrew pronunciations. This often includes modern Hebrew/Israeli cultural preferences more generally, not just re: language. Giving people dirty looks is never very nice, but short of that, I wouldn’t blame the old-line Yiddish contingent for wanting to preserve their provincialisms against the advance of other traditions that they believe (not without some good reason) pose a threat to the survival of their cultural forms. Nor would I blame American Sephardim for doing the same vis-a-vis the largely Ashkenazi Jewry of the United States. Can’t we just agree that homogenization is the culprit?

  4. Cookie Monster says:

    (Sorry, given the massive workload I have, I’ve been saving up your blog posts for literally months. Expect some manner of comments on various old posts throughout the month.)

    I had similar feelings in high school. For non-religious reasons, I went straight from dressing “don’t give a damn” to “relatively polished” with very little in between. It’s one of the things I’ve always sort of wished I’d let myself (and had the funds) to do in high school or college – actually let myself experiment with clothes.

    Also, much love for the Avril allusion paragraph and the makeup illustration.

  5. honi says:

    i dont understand this post. do you consider makeup to be anti-feminist? what is your ideal mode of physical self-expression if you didn’t feel bound to social pressures.

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