A recent thought-provoking Jewish Press op-ed article (“Why Must Jewish Women Wear So Much Black and Gray?,” Nov. 26) compelled me to respond with a feminine counterpoint as to why Orthodox women tend to favor black over colorful clothing.
The answer is a complex one, factoring in economics, fashion trends, tznius, lifestyle, and geography.
In any woman’s closet there are various categories of clothing that serve different purposes. Core items include skirts that can be worn with a multitude of tops and, likewise, shoes that go with many outfits.
When I buy an emerald green skirt (which I did) I am limited to how many ways I can wear it and with how many other colors, never mind that I would be loath to be seen wearing said skirt twice in one week.
A black skirt on the other hand can be worn every day of the week and look different each time when paired with a blazer, a sweater, or a blouse, even if I kept every item black.
I love color, favoring shades of aquamarine and teal, but black is comfort food. I know when I put it on I will look chic and sophisticated.
In addition, all shades of black match each other while that emerald skirt I own does not play nicely with many of the other items in my wardrobe.
Budget-wise, it is cost effective to keep things in the same color family, adding color and texture with scarves and jewelry.
What is fashion? The term loosely includes popular trends in clothing and accessories that, if adhered to, are supposed to make you look cool and, well, fashionable. In the frum world, though, the definition of fashionable doesn’t always dovetail with Seventh Avenue’s (which is why we have a profusion of clothing stores that cater to Orthodox women).
So it was purely in the spirit of experimentation that I recently went shopping at a local strip mall (a ubiquitous entity in the suburbs of New Jersey). What I found might surprise those who decry the preference of many frum women for black and gray.
My first stop was a store we’ll call Apple Republic. I perused the racks determined to find something other than the standard black. The other options were gray, taupe, cream and something I can only describe as congealed oatmeal. The only pop of color was a rack of pants on clearance.
On to the next store – where I saw more black, ten shades of gray, and navy (which is really black in disguise).
I resolved to widen my search, going to the cocktail-dress section of an upscale department store. Three quarters of the dresses were dark; the other options were encrusted gold sequins (not a good option for that wedding in Williamsburg) and a shimmery mermaid number that not even a black KikiRiki shell could fix.
Leaving aside the evidence on display in a New Jersey strip mall, any visit to Manhattan will confirm that black is the uniform of the stylish New Yorker while the tourists stick out in their non-black garb. Going on the premise that Manhattan is the epicenter of all things fashionable, the closer you live to New York the more likely you are to see a black-based wardrobe.
Getting back to the question behind all this, can tznius and color coexist? Of course they can, but with the caveat of good taste, proper fit, and the realization that you will call more attention to yourself when wearing such items.
I can certainly understand that wearing color, especially something bright and unusual, would cause someone to feel she is not adhering to the spirit of tznius. It is not, however, my intent to debate that point here. I will note that a widely respected rebbetzin who was one of my principals in high school had a fondness for jewel-toned suits and in fact all my memories of her are in Technicolor, not black and white.
Choosing what clothing to buy and, consequently, what clothing to wear is a very personal endeavor. The decision has the power to reveal or conceal one’s inner self in one fell swoop. To some women, clothing is a chance to express individuality by wearing unique and special items. Others view clothing in the most functional manner, as nothing more than a necessary covering for the body.
At any rate, black as a staple in the frum woman’s closet won’t be going away anytime soon. Naturally our daughters, who want to look like mommy and/or their peers, will continue to embrace the dark side as well.
On a personal note, I like to dress well and always hope my appearance defines me as an Orthodox Jewish woman. To paraphrase a well-worn cliché: On a day I choose to wear an all-black ensemble, I would hope I am judged not by the color of my outfit but by the color of my soul.
About the Author: Chani Miller is an optometrist in Highland Park, New Jersey.
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