Sifting through the crop tops and sheer blouses for sale at Junee, a boutique in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is an unexpected clientele: some of New York City’s most modest women.
Filled with bright colors and the latest fashions, the store specializes in outfitting Hasidic women, who follow a deeply conservative sartorial doctrine that, among other things, requires their elbows, collarbones and knees to always be covered, and if married, their hair to be hidden under a scarf or wig.
Junee and other stores like it have seen their sales rise in recent years because of a flood of new products designed to make modesty and fashion compatible. There are items like tape to tighten up a collar that sags toward impropriety, felt dots that muffle the provocative clack of pumps and cloth tubes that can extend a short sleeve into something more acceptable.
Women’s undershirts are so popular among those wanting to cover their collarbones that entire shops have opened selling nothing but undershirts, also known as shells. Even dickeys, shirtless collars once the purview of only the nerdiest of nerds, are getting a second look. In Borough Park, one of the most heavily Hasidic neighborhoods in New York, dickeys are a hot item: Fitted into a sweater, they can make even a cowl neck look demure.
Tznius, or modesty, has taken on a renewed focus in recent years, Hasidic Jews and religious experts say, as the wider world encroaches on their insular community. In response, some Jews have ratcheted up their observance of tznius as a way to draw a brighter line and to spread their beliefs. The move parallels similar ones in Israel and London, where issues concerning modesty have come to the forefront.
There are inspirational hotlines offering testimonials from women who stuck close to modest ideals and were bestowed with miracles, like becoming fertile or seeing a daughter engaged. And there are songs written to teach little girls to play carefully so as not to expose a knee.
But alongside the religious goals comes a far more terrestrial desire: Stay godly, yes, but fashionable, too.
“The general stress on tznius is an equal and opposite reaction to the crudeness of society,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national organization of Orthodox Jews who adhere to a strict interpretation of religious law. “Despite the ostensible feminist arc of our society, women’s bodies are still being used to sell beer and attract people to television shows and movies.”
Modesty is an effort by the community, he added, “to not just allow that to seep into our lives, but see it as a sign that we should almost be more careful, and more circumspect when it comes to the way we dress. “
Tip Top, on 13th Avenue in Borough Park, sells trim for extending hemlines and cuffs, including 500 different shades of black. Nechy Gottsman, a clerk, says her work is about more than selling fabric — it is about doing a good deed, or mitzvah, by making modesty accessible.
“More and more people are coming and following the rules because our store is here,” Ms. Gottsman said.
Before the advent of one-stop shops like Tip Top, which opened the 13th Avenue store, its newest location, last year, the inconvenience of a trip to Manhattan’s garment district for the right shade of trim might have induced a woman to bend the rules.
“Till now, they just went: ‘Let it be what it is. So it’s short for a little while?’” Ms. Gottsman said. “Now they really consider and they would just do everything to make the tznius happen.”
Stores that specialize in so-called kosher clothing, where the right lengths and figure-obscuring shapes can be bought off the rack, have been around for decades in Hasidic neighborhoods. But bargain hunting is limited, and the risk of wearing the same thing as a friend — feared by fashion-conscious women the world over — is high.
The proliferation of new goods aimed at maintaining modesty, in particular shells, which are sold in a rainbow of colors at Hasidic specialty shops like Shell Station, allow women to find better prices and wider selections.
“It’s just easier to go into Macy’s and go into the rack and see this is cap sleeve and this is a three-quarter sleeve and this is no sleeve, and it’s not a problem,” Susan Youngewirth, 36, said. “Whereas before it would have been a whole hassle to go to the seamstress, buy fabric, add the fabric — it was way harder. We did it anyway, but it was just more complicated.”
At Treasures Forever, a basement-level shop on 47th Street in Borough Park that specializes in tznius accessories, sells long-sleeved and loosefitting nightgowns so that modesty can be ensured even in the privacy of the home. One rack holds heel sound-dampeners, sheer sleeves (too skintight to be appropriately worn as sleeve extenders, an accompanying label says, they are to be used as only a second layer of sleeves, under other sleeves) and a headband that a woman can attach to a cellphone, preventing a wig from shifting and exposing hair while on the phone. The store’s business card doubles as a portable, skirt-measuring ruler.
Tznius, which is interpreted from biblical texts, extends beyond clothing to behavior, and also applies to men, who must remain covered as well, though the male Hasidic style of dress does not appear to be affected by the vagaries of modern fashion. Different sects also interpret rules differently.
Unlike other strictly religious communities, like the Amish or the Mennonites, integrating secular style is largely permissible for Hasidic women, said Ann D. Braude, the director of the women’s studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School.
“It’s an accommodation that allows you to participate in some ways in mainstream fashion, while still maintaining the requirements of modesty,” she said.
Businesses that have capitalized on this idea have hit a sort of commercial and religious sweet spot, Professor Braude said.
“You’re promoting fashion and religion at the same time; you’ve got everything.” she said. “You’re promoting internal virtue and external appearance and profit. It’s really a kind of a business for all seasons.“