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.