No one ever told me how to dress. I never had a school uniform. My parents never commented on my outfits, even when I went through a thrift-store chic (or not so chic) phase. I just went with the flow, wearing what was comfortable or in style. Even when I startedIf clothing is a language, then what do I really want to say? becoming more religious, every morning I had a choice to put on pants or a skirt. As I started becoming observant in my senior year of college, my routine had become to wear my old dresses, of any length, with a pair of jeans under them. People thought I was making a fashion statement, but really I was just a bit conflicted. I felt caught in the middle of a conversation that is even more pressing today. At its core is the following question: What is the role of a woman’s clothing in how society relates to her and how she relates to society?

Eventually, I learned that Jewish thought has a clear answer to this question. There is a common notion that you have to “dress for success” or “dress the part.” A surgeon wears scrubs, a football player wears a helmet and pads, and a Jewish woman wears clothing fit for a princess. It might sound funny, but Jewish women are considered daughters of G‑d. If G‑d is the “King” of the world, then we are princesses. This doesn’t mean we can act spoiled or haughty; it means we must carry ourselves with dignity and purpose. Our role in the world is to draw holiness down into dark places. In a world that is so focused on physicality, including the objectification of women’s bodies, it is a powerful statement to dress in a way that combats that. Dressing modestly not only reflects our mission, it is a crucial part of it. Through our clothing choices, we show the world that a woman’s worth comes from within—not solely from her appearance, and especially not her sexuality.

I always felt like my outfits were a way to express myself. If clothing is a language, then what do I want to say? When I was in college, sorority girls often wore shirts or sweatshirts with the Greek letters of their organization. They were proud to belong to something and wanted to show it off. When I began dressing modestly, I felt proud of the statement I was making. I am part of something. I represent something bigger than myself. A long-sleeve shirt, especially in the summer, is a statement that says, “I value my connection with G‑d over fitting in with the times, even if it is not always comfortable.” I still wear trendy clothing and enjoy shopping, but using the guidelines of modesty frames my sartorial choices through a Jewish lens.

Two aspects of modest dress have an impact. One is easily adaptable by anyone: to simply dress more modestly. Revealing less skin means you are requesting others to consider your body as secondary to your inner characteristics. Judaism values external beauty; in fact, we are encouraged to “beautify a mitzvah” by having a pure silver menorah or an embellished Torah-scroll cover. However, that beauty comes from honoring that which is precious, not exposing it.

The second aspect is more specific. Jewish law has guidelines for modest dress—for both men and women—that are unique to our religion. Some of them developed over thousands of years of living in many different cultures.

Jewish dress for menA woman’s worth comes from within involves external religious garments, such as a yarmulke and tzitzit. Jewish dress for women involves wearing clothing that covers their collarbone, elbows and knees. For married Jewish women, we cover our hair with a wig, scarf or hat. This is our uniform and our statement. Depending on what community people belong to, there is more or less flexibility in how they adhere to these frameworks, yet it’s almost always clear that they are Jewish. In this way, your dress reveals your values and paves the way to easily connect to others who share your beliefs.

Clothing choices are a crucial part of a woman’s self-image and public image. Are you conscious of the statement you are making? From a Jewish perspective, clothing is much more than the fabric you use to cover your body. Clothing is a language and, even more deeply, it is a revelation of your inner self.