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Mediating Modesty: Barbara Goldman Carrel

15 June 11

Barbara Goldman Carrel: Hasidic Women’s Fashion Aesthetic and Practice: The Long and Short of Tzniuth

London College of Fashion, 15th June 2011

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Profile: Barbara Goldman Carrel is an anthropologist and is Adjunct Associate Professor at the City University of New York. Her recent research has focused on how women of the Hasidic community negotiate between fashion and modesty.

Abstract: Hasidic women's fashion displays abound in the dress of the women walking the streets of Brooklyn’s Borough Park and in the storefronts of the neighbourhood’s main commercial thoroughfare. These fashion proclamations are echoed online by websites selling religious Jewish women’s modest apparel.

“Hasidic girls are taught at a very young age the importance of dressing in a manner which reflects the inner soul rather than emphasising any external manifestations of feminine physicality, sexual or otherwise, or drawing attention to themselves.”

Hasidic women’s dress has been dismissed in the scholarly literature as being cultural significant and/or distinctive and by the general public as being “fashionable.” However, and although it is true that Hasidic women do consume and promote mass-produced ready-to-wear fashion, their clothing practice does in fact produce, reinforce, and signify a distinctive female Hasidic aesthetic. Hasidic women’s stylistic displays and culturally specific modes of clothing consumption assert their refusal of dominant American culture and pronounce their Hasidic religious and cultural identity.

“Hasidic dress is … complicated in that many Hasidic women voice a desire to present themselves as attractive, fashionable, and somewhat modern in an Hasidic fashion, for themselves, their husbands, their community, and the eyes of the larger New York city population.”

Fashion is alternately celebrated and reviled by the women of the Hasidic community. For the Hasidic woman, the tension between wanting to be fashionably dressed yet appropriately modest and markedly Hasidic is precisely what engenders their distinctive mode of fashion and clothing practice. This tension guides Hasidic women’s aesthetic choices and serves as a constantly fluctuating symbolic solution in the face of the American fashion system’s indecent merchandise. I will explore not only which mass-produced elements of dominant American-style fashion are preferred by Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jewish women, but also the ways in which these fashion elements are appropriated, both physically and ideologically, towards the construction of their own female Hasidic aesthetic distinction in opposition to the fashion displays of dominant American culture. A discourse of royalty is shown to promote the Hasidic woman’s style distinction both on the streets and online.

At the end of each session the speakers responded to comments and questions from the audience. Follow this link to listen to the discussion following this presentation.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of the symposium sessions are substantially complete, but may have been edited in small ways for technical and other reasons.

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