10 Stylish, Orthodox Women Talk Balancing Modesty & Fashion

Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
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This story was originally published on November 24, 2014
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In our third episode of Style Out There, host Asha Leo delivered an atypical New York fashion story — one that doesn't involve Fashion Week at Lincoln Center or model-off-duty looks spotted in SoHo. Brooklyn designers Mimi Hecht and Mushky Notik, of Mimu Maxi, took us through their Crown Heights neighborhood to show that it is possible for practicing Hasidic women to embrace a fashion-forward lifestyle while still adhering to religious law.
To dive deeper into the world of this new generation that's taking modest style into their own hands, we caught up with 10 young, Jewish women who have learned to adapt and balance their religion with culture and sophistication. Ahead, they discuss the importance of what you wear and how it reflects who you are, and how choosing to don modest clothing can be empowering rather than repressive.
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Sally Mizrachi
Age: 21
Job: Student and Freelance Writer

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"My religion is extremely diverse, both in practice and in culture. My own family's particular tradition has always instructed me to be sophisticated and tasteful above all else. The biggest challenge I face is living up to the women in my family who, I must say, have lived their lives in elegance."

How do you balance the two?
"Tradition and modernity have always been balanced, in my mind, the former enhancing the latter. The sophistication of Sephardic Jewry lies in the ability to take all the joys of the modern world and pursue them with dignity. For me, this is what fashion is about."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"I would describe modesty as an issue of good sense. A truly fashion-forward person can tell when to wear what, and how to wear it in a way that gains instant admiration and respect. A modest dresser is someone who is not needlessly ostentatious, but still has felt the thrill that comes along with being noticeably beautiful."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"I see changes and transformation in almost every direction. I was taught to believe that the multifaceted nature of Judaism is what strengthens it, and what will, ultimately, help us respect each other. I am personally very proud of the direction taken by members of my own community who, as our community has done for generations, make it a priority to engage the world. This means being fashion-forward, appreciating the arts, and learning and living the Torah."

Who is your fashion icon?
"KATE MIDDLETON. In all caps. And, for very good reason. She is a fashion icon who manages to do everything tastefully. She gets two thumbs way up from me."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Talya Bendel
Age: 26
Job: Sales, Christian Siriano

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"The hardest thing for me is not choosing the easiest option. I challenge myself to never wear the same look twice. When you adhere to the laws of modesty, many garment options and styles are cut out of the equation. I have to work a lot harder to achieve a unique look that represents me and my culture without getting lost in the skirts-and-dresses-only zone."

How do you balance the two?
"I find garments that have structure and personality that fit mine while keeping within the bounds of modesty; for instance, bubble dresses, graphic tops, super-flared skirts, and anything overly designed or stylized. I try not to wear anything too basic, because I want to feel confident and powerful in everything I wear. For people who don't dress modestly, there are more basics to choose from. For someone who does dress modestly, a basic skirt and top can get old real quick."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"Modesty can represent the way a person dresses and/or how they act. You can be the most covered person in the world, but if you're yelling in the streets, that's not modesty. The basics of modesty, for me, in terms of dress, are covered knees, elbows, collarbones, and no pants. It may seem restrictive, but really, the options are infinite."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"I see my generation adapting with the times, growing as the world grows, and learning new things alongside everyone else. We may be Orthodox and have particular laws to adhere to, but it doesn't hold us back from being successful. Recently, I've noticed Orthodox women and men dressing more fashionable and trendy."

Who is your fashion icon?
"Sarah Jessica Parker. Hands down."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Leah Gottfried
Age: 23
Job: Film Director/Producer, Dignity Entertainment

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"Finding clothes that work. I’m on the taller side, so a lot of skirts that I like are too short on me."

How do you balance the two?
"I don’t see modesty as limiting to my self-expression. In fact, the choice I made to be modest and adhere to my religion is part of my self-expression. My religion is the most important thing to me, and it seems only natural to express that through the way I dress, as well. I’ve always loved wearing fun, bright colors (and there’s nothing prohibiting that), so I focus on that aspect of fashion. In terms of finding clothes, you just have to be creative. Layering (which I love anyway!) always helps."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"Modesty, to me, brings a sense of dignity. It's an empowering choice that I made because my body belongs to me. I get to choose who sees it, regardless of what society expects or wants. It's the idea of keeping certain things sacred and private."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"My generation is really taking things into their own hands. There are now so many modest clothing lines, and seem to be new ones all the time. I think we are seeing the things we want to change and changing them ourselves. Things that used to be seen as impossible or off-limits to us are now completely doable with a little creativity."

Who is your fashion icon?
"Mindy Kaling."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Yoneat Green
Age: 21
Job: Curator, Fashion Film Network; Fashion Styling Student at FIT; Blogger at Miss Mellalina

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"I love watching the latest collections come out on the runway, but it can definitely be disheartening when I can't try a new trend because it doesn't fit into the guidelines of my religion. However, in all honesty, I believe that limitations inspire creativity. And, I have found that these so-called 'restrictions' have actually enabled me to think outside of the box and create more unique ensembles."

How do you balance the two?
"There is so much room for creativity and self-expression within my religion, and I feel that modesty doesn't hinder that. I can wear all kinds of fun prints, patterns, and styles while still retaining the sense of dignity and refinement that comes along with dressing modestly."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"The basic code of law is covering everywhere from elbows, knees, collarbone, and hair (for married women), as well as only wearing skirts and dresses that are not overtly formfitting. However, aside from these essentials, modesty is about presenting yourself with a sort of class and beauty that commands respect and allows others to see you for who you truly are on the inside."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"Our religion is unique in that it calls for a somewhat insular lifestyle in order to preserve our traditions and customs. Yet, it still encourages us to be involved in the world, with other people and cultures. I find that this generation of observant Jews is really blending the richness of our heritage with what the world has to offer."

Where do you find fashion inspiration?
"Designers such as Elie Saab, Dolce & Gabbana, and Valentino are coming out more and more with fashionable, modest clothing, and that definitely serves as an inspiration for me."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Raquel Mizrachi
Age: 24
Job: Photographer

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"The biggest conflict for me is, when I go shopping, I try to find non-risqué, refined pieces while still trying to be fashion-forward."

How do you balance the two?
"It's about expressing individuality while still staying elegant in the way that I dress. I try to be mindful of the setting I'm in. For example, in a house of worship, I wouldn't wear something too revealing. Moderation is how to balance the two."

Everyone has different definitions and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"Modesty is not only about how you dress, it's also about the way you act. I don't believe in conforming to one standard that applies to all people in all situations. I use my judgment to achieve a healthy balance."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"There are so many different sects in Judaism. I see many of them trying to be forward, while others are trying to rediscover more traditional roots. While fashion may be important to some, it isn't so important to others."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Orit Schmulevich
Age: 25
Job: Graduate Student

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"Style has definitely evolved. In my opinion, there used to be a great divide between non-modest and modest fashion. Modest clothes that look fashionable are more accessible these days, so I don't find that dressing modestly is a challenge."

How do you balance the two?
"I have been dressing modestly practically my entire life, from wearing private-school uniforms to my Sunday outfit. It's my way of life, so I don't feel as if I'm balancing two concepts."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"I've had this conversation with several non-Jewish people, and they all responded the same way — their interpretation of modesty is not exposing one's cleavage, midriff, or sporting an extremely short hemline. Although all of those factors are incorporated into dressing modestly, I believe it is also how a woman carries herself; it's about having an air of mystery. When a woman dresses in a risqué manner, everything is 'on display.' Unfortunately, many people believe that dressing modestly cannot be fashionable, but take a look at the well-to-do women on the Upper East Side, or the blue-blood families of England. They all dress elegantly and modestly. It is equivalent to royalty and sophistication."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"Observant Jews are definitely taking note from the celebrity and fashion worlds and incorporating style into their own. Social media, particularly Instagram, has illustrated fashion in a new and exciting way. There are new bloggers born day in and day out. Fashionable Jewish women are hopping on the bandwagon and exposing their world, taking modest pieces from different designers and making them their own."

Who are your fashion icons?
"Rachel Zoe, Gwen Stefani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Donatella Versace."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Elisheva Rishon
Age: 20s
Job: Website Designer, Fashion Blogger, and Secretary

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"I honestly don't face any real challenges. In fact, being born and raised an Orthodox Jew has allowed me to express my true, inner self artistically in the most amazing ways. I love wearing tights and shells. Layering is my favorite method of dressing; the more I wear, the more I can express myself!"

How do you balance the two?
"I balance the two quite easily. I [like] my colors loud and make my sleeve and skirt lengths long. The way I see it is, as long as I follow the basic rules — covering the collarbone, the elbows, the legs — I'm good!"

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"I describe modesty as embracing feminity while keeping most of yourself concealed tastefully (no frumpy clothing). Covering myself from head to toe in a spectacle of colors is modesty. And showing skin is really not my thing — I like leaving more to the imagination. Women should learn that they don't need to put it all out there to feel beautiful — and they also don't have to wear clothing that resembles garbage bags to feel modest and religious."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"I see modesty trending in the fashion world now. So, observant Jews of my generation and the ones after mine will feel more comfortable dressing that way and not feel like they don't belong in the secular world. At least, that is what I hope. But, then again, I honestly don't feel that I have the right to judge anyone's personal interpretation of modesty. I am only a human."

Where do you find fashion inspiration?
"I am very much in love with Mod — I love bold prints and bright colors. Modest style has hope, love, happiness — everything that the Mod period symbolized. I like people to see me and feel happy; spreading happiness can go a long way."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Grace Mizrachi
Age: 20
Job: Private Tutor, Nanny, and Student

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"The biggest challenge I face is trying to wear fashion that is current and in-style while not being vulgar. It's difficult to wear a style that is intended to be sexy or that shows a lot of skin while trying to maintain my own vision of modesty."

How do you balance the two?
"Generally, if a style is immodest, I'll only take certain elements from it for my own wardrobe and not wear the entire trend. For example, this summer, maxi skirts and crop tops were very popular. I'd wear a crop top with a maxi as long as the top met the skirt. Or, with leggings: I'll only wear leggings with a top that reaches my mid-thigh."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"My definition of modesty is this: Keep it classy. Modesty is all about the way you speak and treat others, not just how you dress. Treating other people with respect and being non-offensive in speech is the true mark of a modest woman. She keeps an aura of sophistication around her, and part of that is wearing clothing that doesn't betray anything."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"Well, I certainly can't speak for all of us, because there are so many different Jews from different parts of the world. But, I can say that Judaism itself is a transformative religion that allows room for individuality and growth in knowledge. I hope that my generation can work towards bettering ourselves and growing in knowledge, and not become stuck."

Where do you find fashion inspiration?
"Can I say a store? Club Monaco is my fashion inspiration. Its clothes are trendy and classic at the same time. I think the shapes of its clothing are universally flattering, and I love the sophistication of the store. In a perfect world, I would only shop there."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Malky Weichbrod
Age: 25
Job: Blogger at My Therapist Told Me To Write A Fashion Blog

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"I am such a '60s girl — I love Mod, minxy styling with a hint of Valley of the Dolls or Carnaby Street. So, for me, the hardest part is finding cute skirts that cover my knees; it's an ongoing challenge."

How do you balance the two?
"It's really all about the hunt for the perfect skirt. I'm constantly on the lookout for fun, playful pieces with a longer hemline at sample sales, vintage shops, and online. Fall 2014's '60s invasion was mind-blowing for me, yet it was also hard to navigate because of all the micro-minis calling my name. I was able, however, to find some A-line skirts that had that same Mary Quant vibe."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"I think a modest look is one that's elegant. Something a little more covered-up and refined."

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"I think we are embracing style, fashion, and self-expression on a level that I never saw growing up, and it makes me so happy."

Who is your fashion icon?
"Jackie O. and Catherine Deneuve."
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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Name: Lenore Cohen
Age: 25
Job: Painter and Graphic Designer

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to style yourself while still adhering to your religious beliefs?
"My personal modesty standards are usually not in sync with fashion, specifically for formalwear. This area has always presented the greatest style challenge. How do you keep things modest without ruining a beautifully made dress? Evening and formal outfits for young women are traditionally quite revealing. For everyday outfits, I find it's not really a challenge. If trends like an open back or low-cut clothing come into style one year, I just sit those out."

How do you balance the two?
"Almost all of my cocktail dresses have been 'doctored' in some way. I've had to get pretty creative over the years to make a style work for me; adding sleeves or extra length and coverage around the neckline without ruining the integrity of a dress's design isn't always easy. I visit seamstresses and fabric shops quite often. Sometimes, if the price of a dress is reasonable, I'll buy two and use the second just for the matching fabric."

Everyone has different definitions of and assumptions about modesty. How would you describe it?
"I think modesty is the sum of a few parts. It's partly how you dress, but it's also how you act. I think it means dressing appropriately for a situation while not drawing undue attention to oneself or specifically one's body. My personal list of 'nos' would include overly tight outfits; low-cut or low-back tops; spaghetti straps or strapless shirts; and skirts and shorts that don't hit at least mid-thigh. When I'm on the fence about something, I think, Would I be comfortable wearing this in front of anyone? When you step out in something, you're essentially displaying yourself to the world. Are you comfortable with the impression you're giving off through your clothing?"

How do you see your generation of observant Jews changing?
"The Jewish world is so vast and varied, with so many moving parts. I personally haven't changed my attitude towards this much since I was raised. As for my peers, some have started dressing more restrictively, and some less. I look at this as a person's choice, not necessarily a religiously mandated one."

Who is your fashion icon?
"My grandmother, who I'm named after. Her look is well put-together, and she has a good eye when it comes to fashion. Her taste is sophisticated, trendy, and luxurious. I've been known to shop her closet, because her clothes always turn heads."
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