When I was 17, a matchmaker introduced me to my future husband. My family and I knew it was an auspicious match from the get-go: The boy and I were both Satmar Hasidism; we came from the same town, Kiryas Joel; we were socialized in similar circles, and we observed the same religious rules. But what clinched the deal was the fact that our mothers wore the same head coverings. They both shaved their heads and wore short wigs, or sheitels, with pillbox or beret hats on top. This indicated, essentially, that our families were cut from the same cloth.
Six months later, the morning after my wedding, I donned a sheitel and hat just like my mother, mother-in-law and four sisters.
You can tell a lot about an Orthodox woman by the type of wig or other head covering she wears. Like the length of her skirt or the texture of her stockings, a woman’s headgear announces to the world her family’s tradition and her community’s standards. In Hasidic communities especially, the head coverings of the mothers of the bride and groom are often the first consideration in arranging a shidduch, a match. Except for the occasional girl who bucks matrilineal tradition and covers her hair with a less, or sometimes more, stringent head covering, a woman’s headgear indicates her family level of piety and, more importantly, her mother’s ways.
Pious Jewish women have been covering their hair for hundreds of years. “Hair on a woman is ervah [nakedness, impropriety],” the Talmud declares, and therefore it needs to be covered. Jewish women in Italy were donning wigs as early as the 16th century. As wig-wearing became popular in Europe in the 18th century — think Marie Antoinette — Jewish women followed suit, with rabbis both condemning and condoning the practice on modesty grounds. Long after wigs fell out of fashion with European elites, Jewish women kept wearing them. Today, more Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs than ever before.
The style, length, texture, color and quality of a wig — and above all, what the wig says about the woman wearing it — are a lot more nuanced than they appear to outsiders. In an effort to demystify the sheitel, what follows is a list (a taxonomy, if you will) of the various wigs American Orthodox women wear, and what each head covering signifies about the woman’s family and community affiliations.