Jessi Melcer, 22, invited her mother and grandmother to a unique fashion show she modeled in last month. Organized by the Chabad House for Students of the Arts, the all-women’s event drew a crowd of 100 to a Philadelphia auditorium and showcased a section of the market that typically receives short-shrift in today’s fashion-conscious world. Each of the 21 outfits modeled – and those worn by much of the audience – adhered to traditional Jewish modesty laws, covering collarbones, elbows and knees.

“My bubbe loved it! She would really love for me to dress modestly all the time, so that was a treat for her,” said Melcer, a photography major who graduated in May from University of the Arts. “And my mom was just happy to see me looking pretty.”

Reuvena Leah Grodnitzky, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who co-directs the Jewish center, said the “Inner Expressions” show connected students from different institutions – Philadelphia’s Center City District is home to a cluster of art schools – in a way that a regular Sabbath meal does not. With its focus on Jewish womanhood, from student jewelers selling hand-made items and an original dance inspired by female heroes, the event also served as a way to celebrate modest femininity.

Audience members weren’t the only ones who walked away enlightened.

“It was really amazing” how student designers learned how to make different garments work within the parameters of Jewish law, noted Grodnitzky. “It’s not as hard as they thought it would be to make things work in the Jewish framework.”

Melcer said that she’s used to being asked by different groups to help test lighting or try on different costumes, but she’s never modeled clothes like that before.

“It really shows that just, even while being modest, you can have fun with it and still look good and kind of also experiment with fashion,” explained Melcer.

While she expected the style of dress would present challenges for women trying to have fun with their wardrobe, she said she was impressed that the focus was really on the outfits: “It’s nice that people didn’t immediately go, ‘These are [modest] clothes.’ They just thought, ‘These are cute clothes. I could wear them.’ ”

Morag Gilad, an Art Institute of Philadelphia senior, took an idea from a dress she’d made before and tried it again to create a piece that would work for the Thursday evening program. She has two jobs and little extra time, but said she found time after work to take on what she considered an exciting project. She hopes what she designed allowed women to be “conservative and demure about it,” meaning it could be worn by a cross-section of women as they went out at night.

Gilad added that she came away with a lot of respect for women who stick to traditional style. As for the highlight of the evening, she said she loved seeing the model walk through the crowd in the dress she’d designed, and hearing the crowd’s response: “It was very cool.”

Each of the ensembles adhered to Judaism’s laws of modesty.
Each of the ensembles adhered to Judaism’s laws of modesty.

When she sent pictures to her friends at school, their responses confirmed her theory that her outfit could work for anyone.

“I think it’s a good feeling,” she said. “When you design, you definitely think about as many people as possible being able to wear this, and I think the more, the merrier.”

By the end of the event, people were going up to meet the designers. Some even asked to buy their work.

“This was the first time we did this,” said Grodnitzky, “but we’re hoping that it can become a yearly thing and really grow.”

Ora Nusbaum, a Drexel University senior who designed five pieces, said she feels Grodnitzky gave her a chance to see her perspective in terms of the connection between respect and way of dress.

“I noticed that when I started to dress more modestly, people respected me more in general,” she said. “It makes sense, because people are not just looking at the surface. It’s beyond the surface.”