Ethnicities About Town
I observed the two young ladies interacting playfully during a long wait on a subway platform on 63rd and Lexington Avenue. They wore dark coats and long dark skirts but their head coverings were more aligned to their lighthearted demeanor. I was captivated.
They politely welcomed my questions about their headscarfs, one a light magenta floral pattern framing the young woman’s face; the other cream colored and with tiny beads that captured the light, a glittery cord banded on top. The latter layered over a niqab. Over the black covering of the niqab on the young woman’s forehead I noticed a patterned strip. I asked about this unique accent and she told me it was a headband from Forever 21.
I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, surrounded by people with different religious beliefs, customs, and habit. Unlike the young women I met on the train platform, the Muslim women I see in Kensington wear bright colored garments and hijab. Their attire is a stark contrast to the somber tones worn by our Hasidic neighbors, the group that I will focus on for this project.
Searching online for information about shopping districts catering to Hasidic dress, I came across an article in the New York Times from earlier this year, Outfitting Hasidic Women With Stylish, Yet Modest, Fashions. Contrary to what I observed, the dress guidelines for women are significantly less rigid than those for men. Women can shop for contemporary Western styles and adapt them within the confines of the primary dress rule of modesty.
I went to nearby Borough Park on a Sunday, the day that Sabbath observing store owners attract the most customers. In a busy dress shop, I approached a friendly woman and asked a few questions about dress guidelines. She told me some of the basics, namely that arms,elbows and above, and collarbone must be covered. A lacy embroidered black blouse would work over a long sleeve dark top.
In the back of the store, shelves hold dickies of different colors and sizes. These can be worn with a top that does not cover the collarbone.
I wandered into a fabric store that I had to ring a bell to enter. Bolts of solid color fabric lined this store, with a few bright colors and patterns sprinkled in. There was a fair amount of specialty fabrics like tulle and brocade. The merchant, observing my otherness, handed me her card in case I wanted to contact her when the store was not as busy.
Hasidic women cannot wear pants, but their legs must be covered. I went into a “hose” store with a selection of tights unmatched by any store of its type that I patronize. This shop meets the demand for leg coverings from those outside the Hasidic community, too, as evidenced by the many brands of sheer hose available for sale. The Hasidic women I observed on the busy streets that day wore either black or nude color opaque tights.
A popular shop in Borough Park and Williamsburg, Tip Top, specializes in trimmings that are used to adapt contemporary fashion. For example, trim can be added to lengthen a skirt or sleeves. Hasidic women have learned to customize styles to meet the modesty guideline and I imagine that many know how to sew.
The author of the article in the New York Times mentioned that this shop has trim in 500 shades of black. I did see an unbelievably large selection of trim in different fabrics, widths, colors and, yes, a wide range of shades of black.
It is fascinating to observe the expression of fashion in women who adhere to dress codes of their ethnicitiy. The young woman I met on the subway platform cleverly wore a contemporary headband over a niqab. While Hasidic men continue to follow the dress code of the days the culture began, women understand that the rules of dress can be interpreted broadly, ensuring that the principle of modesty is followed without conceding contemporary fashion.