Shell Game: Women Can Wear What They Like

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Last week, The Forward featured an article by Michelle Honig entitled “Why This Orthodox Layering Trend Has To Stop.” In it, the author opines that shells – the snug, long-sleeved shirts worn by women under otherwise immodest tops – “are the absolute worst.” The problem is that shells “generally look cheap, and make everything you put on top of it look cheap.” Finally, a shell “commits a cardinal style sin: It makes everyone’s arms (including fit women) look like ten-pounds of sausage meat stuffed into a five-pound casing.”

In this rather informative article, Ms. Honig details the origins and ascendancy of the shell, noting that it evolved from a means to rectify an immodest outfit to a garment worn in its own right, as “Orthodox women began buying patterned or colored sleeveless tops to wear over their shells.” As readers have likely noticed, shells are now even worn under gowns at weddings. Honig concludes that it’s “impossible to look good in a shell. It’s not stylish, it’s not flattering and it cheapens every look.” In short, “(i)t’s a lazy approach to dressing.”

For a fairly innocuous piece about fashion, there has been a surprising amount of pushback, largely in The Forward itself:

(Reading these four articles has increased my lifetime average for fashion-based journalism by a factor of 5,000%. I don’t have to read another fashion article until 2034.)

One of my books is on tzniyus. It’s called The Tzniyus Book (no joke) and you can find it on Amazon. In the introduction, I make it clear that my intention is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, I explain the practices, I don’t tell people what to do. I don’t say, “Women have to wear skirts and those skirts must extend past the knee, even when seated.” Rather, I say, “Orthodox women typically only wear skirts: here’s the source…. Those skirts are meant to extend past the knee based on the following source….” I’m quite clear in my introduction that I’m not telling anyone how to dress. I’m more than happy to tell people the sources for the tzniyus laws but it’s up to them to decide what they want to wear.

The same is true for Shabbos, kashrus and everything else. I’ll be happy to explain the halachos as I understand them but that does not obligate others to abide by my standards, nor does it obligate me to abide by theirs. We are all individuals with free will. With that comes the right and the responsibility to make our own decisions in these matters. Hakol b’yidei Shamayim chutz miyiras Shamayim – everything is preordained except for our religious observance (Talmud Brachos 33b). That’s literally the one area where a person can exercise a significant degree of control! Who am I to take that away from them?

I’m against both tzniyus police and fashion police because policing what others wear is a dangerous game. Once you accept the principle of policing, whose will gets imposed? There are Middle Eastern countries that require women to wear a chador, hijab and/or burqa. For example, Jewish girls in Iran must wear hijab! Do you think that’s right? But conversely, France does not permit Muslim girls to wear their headscarves in public schools! Just last summer, French police forced a woman to remove her modest swimsuit (“burqini”) because it did not “respect… good morals and secularism.” And let’s face it, there are Jewish communities whose standards of dress are too extreme even for most Orthodox Jews.

I don’t claim to love every fashion. Being a person of a certain age, I must suppress the urge to pull up the pants of some young men I see on the street and, unless you’re the catcher, I don’t get why anyone would wear a baseball cap with the visor anyplace but in front. But it’s not my business because others can dress how they like.

If you run a school or a business, you can make a dress code. If you’re a parent, you can tell your kids how to dress (at least until a certain age; after that, good luck!). If you like, you can buy a bunch of Barbies and dress them up all day long! But other people? Leave them be. Does halacha have an opinion on how we – both men and women – should dress? Absolutely. But as with every other mitzvah, it’s up to others to make up their own minds what to accept and how to proceed. If others are open to it, we should try to be a source of information. We should never take it upon ourselves to be a source of compulsion.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.