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My Dress

My Dress

The secret glory of the King’s daughter


It’s wedding season once again, and like people the world over, my calendar is filling up with wedding invitations. My mother invited me to go shopping with her. “It will be fun,” she promised. “You haven’t bought anything new in ages—let’s see what there is.”

She was right: it was fun. The department store we went to had an enormous formal-wear department, and we started looking through rack after rack.

A host of flaws that I’d never known I had suddenly needed correctingWhen I look for clothes, I have an eye out for more modest styles. There is a strong dictum in Judaism that we dress in a dignified manner, and for formal occasions I favor longer skirts and sleeves and higher necklines than might grace the cover of some of today’s fashion magazines.

There were some great outfits that conformed to the Jewish ethos by which I dress, and I started selecting some beautiful pieces to try.

Just then, my mom picked up a dress that I’d never in a million years try: the sort of thing that looked like it came straight off a fashion runway. “Just try it on,” she suggested, “I’m so curious how it will look.” I agreed, and we scooped up a bunch of dresses in all sorts of styles and headed into the dressing room.

It was fun trying everything on, like playing dress-up. I tried on the runway-looking dress, looked in the changing-room mirror, and couldn’t believe how much I looked like an actress on a red carpet. It was fun to wear, for about one second.

Suddenly, salesladies and customers started giving me advice about how to wear a dress like this at a wedding. The dress needed this sort of adjustment, that sort of alteration. A host of flaws that I’d never known I had suddenly needed correcting. Clearly, the dress I’d tried on revealed a lot: so much that I’d need to worry about how I would wear it successfully. This red-carpet dress was mercilessly exposing defects and imperfections I’d never even realized I had.

I was about to go back into my changing cubicle, when another woman emerged, wearing a similar dress (also, she told me, for some weddings this summer). She was beautiful, with gorgeous hair, beautiful skin, a perfect face and an hourglass figure. She stared intently at her reflection.

Soon the advice vultures descended. “Try holding your breath.” “Try standing up straighter.” “Maybe with a girdle.” “Maybe with a shawl.” I couldn’t believe it. Here was a gorgeous woman, and all anyone could see was what was wrong with her.

I was suddenly reminded of a wedding I once went to. It was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, and the vast majority of the guests were dressed modestly. I enjoyed speaking with the woman sitting next to me, but I was bemused by her husband, who seemed increasingly irritated by the conservative clothing at the wedding.

Every now and then he turned to her and said, “Take off your sweater” (she was wearing a sparkly cardigan over her dress), “show everyone what you’ve got!” That startled me: I wondered just what this husband thought his wife was hiding. By speaking with her—by enjoying a really deep, fascinating conversation—I thought we were all seeing very clearly what she “had”: a great personality, a ready wit and a formidable intelligence. Surely, I thought, that was much more noteworthy than anything else.

I thought we were all seeing very clearly what she “had”: a great personality, a ready wit and a formidable intelligenceKing David stated: “The glory of the King’s daughter is on the inside.” On one level, this aphorism reflects the culture of the ancient Middle East: the daughter of a king—who was a very important person—was kept safe indoors, instead of paraded through the streets for everyone to gawk at. But in the Jewish tradition, this saying is much deeper still. For the King is G‑d, and each one of us is the daughter: each one of us is meant to guard our dignity, to always remember that we are important, and to make sure our outer garments reflect our inner worth.

This is commonly called “modesty,” but the Jewish concept of modesty is very different from modesty in secular society. We can see this in the word itself: in English, “modest” can also mean “small and insignificant.” (Given those connotations, who then would choose it without reservation?) The Hebrew word for modesty, however, is tzanua, which is closely related to tzin’ah, meaning “private” or “secret.”

In this way of thinking, by being modest, we are simply recognizing that there are some parts of us that are not public: that we can choose what to reveal and to whom.

For my own part, I find that dressing according to this principle helps guarantee that I won’t obsess over every physical flaw. Like everyone else, I like to look stylish and in shape, but I choose not to display so much that my body defines me.

Being tzanua helps me to focus on the “real” me. I don’t want to impress the world through my physical form, so I try to work instead on my intellect, my character traits and the way I treat people.

In the end, I found an evening dress for myself that conforms to the Jewish ideal of modesty. It’s not dowdy, as some might imagine, but elegant and flattering. It also gives me the freedom to dance, move, eat and live without worrying so much how I look every second. When I wear it, I feel like a true bat melech, the daughter of the King. It’s what I wish for every other woman this wedding season—and beyond—too.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
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Deborah May 24, 2017

With a traditional African background, modest styles are also my choice too. Great to see some traditional and timeless Jewish wisdom underpinning this. Reply

Anonymous London February 9, 2012

if you've got it, flaunt it I say that G-d meant us to feel good about ourselves - and I don't see why that shouldn't mean getting a little admiration from others. Everyone has different ideas - maybe THAT is what G-d wants for us Reply

Johnie Kemp San Antonio, Texas/usa February 9, 2012

Temperance in all things Having spent many years in a restrictive religious environment that drew strict dress codes for men and women, I appreciate this article's emphasis on inner beauty and holiness. The way you dress and what you choose to reveal, where and to whom, speaks volumes about who you are and how you wish others to perceive you. Are you comfortable with what you wearing? Is your dress a reflection of who you are? Would your attire offend anyone in the place you are going or cause discomfort to others? You probably would dress differently going to a party as in attending synagogues services, for instance. And, do you feel comfortable dressing according to the dictates of someone else's convictions? Are you standing before HaShem clothed in the beauty of yourself? For holiness, like the clothes you choose to wear, is a deeply personal thing. To the Pure are all things pure but to the impure, nothing is holy. You cannot please everyone so strive to be comfortable with yourself and G-d. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma June 28, 2011

Lipstick Around the world, women do cover themselves, and often, fairly completely. As in burkas, as in black veils over heads and clothing that drapes them completely. And Orthodox women wear wigs, and also dress in ways that cover. So there must be something that impels all this. IF they believe, as they must, and IF there is no coercion involved, then I say Let It Be.

We are living in a diverse world of religious practice, and there are many, many women who rejoice in the choice of clothing, the array of ways to clothe and unclothe, the human body. I honestly do not think the Divine Maker of all this Array, says to any of us who delight in this variety, and fun, that it is wrong, or less respectful and loving.

So the let RAY in array be LOVE, and RESPECT.

What bothers me is the feeling that more, in covering, is the only Right Way to be in terms of what G_d desires of us. I think this becomes judgmental and so wrong.

Intent is what matters. And some keep themselves in tents. Let it Be. Reply

Janice Ramat Yishay, Israel June 26, 2011

tzniut People have different ideas of what qualifies as modest (tzanua). While I agree with the principles expressed in the article about beauty being from within and how it is *not* good to obsess over one's body's perceived flaws, what I see as a modest outfit might be considered scandalous in certain neighborhoods! For instance, as I walked down a street in Bet She'an today, I thought I was dressed modestly, but then I saw 2 women wearing warmish headscarves, covering-the-wrist-length sleeves and fairly opaque stockings - in the heat of the Jordan Valley! Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma June 23, 2011

flaunt vs joyful and jaunty I guess we need to agree to disagree. I could even make a case for the frum in frump as I do it with words.

Re JOY ce. Anyone who thinks they get cliser to what is Divine their way, as being the only High way, we I say that is what is wrong. We are gifted Divine Diversity.

Cheryl G Atlanta, Georgia June 23, 2011

Agree 100% with Yvette Thank you for the great article Yvette, and I agree 100% with you. I do not believe G_d wants us to show ourselves to others. That should be reserved for our husbands. I think a woman can be more than beautiful without showing too much skin. A flattering dress, jewelry, hair and make-up can stop a crowd more than something to get men oogling at you. Personally I think you have a problem if you feel you have to flaunt it in front of others. Jackie Kennedy or Lady Gaga....Just sayin. Reply

Joanna Day Selsdon, Surrey June 21, 2011

celebration Although I respect the writer's wish and personal dress code, sometimes it is apt to show off just for the joy of it. Of course modest, comfortable clothes most of the time, but for a special occasion give yourself a treat and the man in your life a reason to feel proud to flaunt his life mate and companion. After all G-d gave us the goods to display and the imagination to display them to best effect. There can surely be no harm in giving oneself a little clothing boost once in a while, for a special celebratory occasion Reply

Ruth housman Newton ctr, Ma June 18, 2011

What we wear I agree that it is what is inside a person that shines but I personally enjoy it that we are All provided by this same Creator a panoply of beautiful and varied fashions, brocades, cloth of all kinds, artistic and fabulous ways of clothing ourselves.

I disagree with G-d requires modesty. I respect diversity of dress but must so totally disagree. take me to the casbah. I so enjoy the beauty and flair of what is divine and that it is, after all, All Is G-d.

sure, do no harm But yes, Celebrate! The peacock got her feathers for a reason and so that bluebird of happiness.

We are gifted so much beauty and physical beauty too. why not enjoy it all and celebrate Life in all her diverse forms! Reply

goldiemae Omaha, NE - Nebraska June 17, 2011

Dressiing to one's comfort level Unless one feels carefree and dignified in what she wears, she will not be comfortable regardless of the popularity or price of the garment. What suits one person may make another feel conspicuous, and vice-versa. Good article! Reply

Linda Shapiro San Francisco, CA June 15, 2011

Beautiful from the inside out! Reply

Linda West Chester, OH June 15, 2011

Dress I wish you could show us a picture :-)
Anyway, great article. So true! Reply

Anonymous Northbrook, IL via June 14, 2011

My 5 year old daughter is already very conscious of what she wears. I would like to share with her your point how clothing can bring out her best, especially if she does not have to be SO concerned while wearing them. Reply

H. Aber North Miami Beach, FLORIDA June 13, 2011

kudos Your article expressed a sublime idea in practical terms. Enjoy your new dress, which lets your true beauty shine! Reply

Anonymous Chicago June 13, 2011

You write so beautifully about such an important topic. Jewish teenaged girls should all read this, as they are constantly under the influences of the secular world, magazines, movie stars, fashion models etc. To view our bodies as sacred, holy, and private is a challenge to teach our daughters in today's society. Your article is inspiring. I will share it with my daughters. Reply

Paula Davis Brooklyn, NY/USA June 13, 2011

You go girl! Very rich article, appropriately, for a bat melech. My 34 year old daughter has learned the value of self respect. She brings us all honor with her dignity, beauty and wisdom. I wish more women of her generation understood that they need not advertise their most superficial assets if they are seeking a life partner who shares deeper and more lasting values. Reply

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