On Tuesday, I wrote a piece about how Orthodox women should stop wearing shells.
It did not go over well with many Orthodox readers. But I stand by what I wrote. It needed to be said.
You don’t have to listen to me or care about my opinion. And you have every right to continue wearing shells like a badge of pride. If you truly enjoy wearing them, then more power to you. But my point was this: If an Orthodox Jew who dresses modestly does care about fashion and style, then she shouldn’t have to sacrifice her fashion sense just to abide by Halacha (Jewish law).
I once wore shells too. Not because I liked them — but as an Orthodox woman adhering to modesty, I felt I had no other choice.
But then I realized that there was another option, an option that allows frum women to have their cake and eat it too. And that’s unconventional layering.
It’s important to point out that unconventional layering is not the same as wearing a shell. A shell is a very specific kind of garment — a spandex-filled bodysuit noted for its sub-standard fabric quality. Unconventional layering requires a bit more thought, but involves items you already have in your closet: Button-down tops, ribbed knits, blouson-sleeve blouses. Wearing unconventional layers has also recently been declared stylish by fashion’s elite; major designers like Tome, Oscar de la Renta, Altuzarra and Prabal Gurung sent sleeveless dresses layered over long sleeved tops down the runway for the fall 2016 season.
And unconventional layering doesn’t have to be expensive to look expensive: As bad as fast fashion is for the environment and human rights (that’s a topic for another day), it has allowed for high-quality, cheap clothes to proliferate. H&M and Zara in particular are great resources to find that sweet spot between affordability and quality. When it comes to layering tops, cut and fabric is key.
Here’s some unconventional layering ideas that are infinitely better than a too-tight shell:
The Button Down Tee
You most likely already have this secret weapon of a layering piece in your closet. It’s an item that nearly every store stocks, regardless of price range. The key to making this work is using it for layering under simple sleeveless dresses. This isn’t the kind of piece to pair with something daring, like that dress with cutouts. However there is an exception to this: I have found that a stiff collared button down is the perfect thing to pair with “cold shoulder” (aka off-the-shoulder) tops.
Silk button downs (real or polyester), with their natural luminescence, are great under structured, monochrome jumpers for fancier affairs, like a wedding or an engagement party. For everyday layering, look for cotton or lyocell fabrics. Avoid spandex, lycra and elastane like the plague: Fitted is not necessarily a virtue here. To get a smooth silhouette, cut is key: Look for “slim cut” in the garment description.
The Tissue Tee
You like shells? Fine. But don’t wear a Kiki Riki, wear a tissue tee — a t-shirt that’s made of a knit fabric. Knits are lightweight and breathable so they’re perfect for the summer. They have a natural stretch to them so it’s fitted without being skin tight. The natural texture makes it look expensive. And because there’s no spandex, they don’t ride up. When you see fitted shirts paired with a sleeveless dress on the runway, I can guarantee you that it is made with knit fabrics.
Tissue tees also come in a variety of prints, which make them ideal paired with a printed dress to create a unique “look.” Try pairing a checkered-print tissue tee with a sleeveless tartan shift dress.
The Billowy, Prairie-like Top
These romantic tops are great on their own, and it’s actually pretty easy to find high neck long sleeve versions. Look for fabric descriptions like “chiffon,” “gauze” and “georgette.” However, be aware that billowy tops tend to be semi-sheer. In general though, colored versions are often more opaque.
The billowy shirt pairs best with structured dresses and tops for contrast, like full-bodied, duchesse satin party frocks, wool-crepe shift dresses and boxy cotton canvas tops. Avoid fitted dresses and shirts with spandex when wearing billowy tops — they tend to bunch up, creating unsightly lumps when layered under anything too tight.
Fitted, Ribbed Sweaters
With fall coming, ribbed sweaters are great for keeping warm. But you know what else they’re great at? Elevating immodest dresses and tops. And because sweaters are knits, they give that desirable clean line.
Again, the contrast is what makes this work. The ribbed texture works with nearly everything: from structured dresses in a smooth-faced fabric to lightweight chiffon summer dresses for transitioning into fall.
Oversized, Cozy Knits
The oversized knit is ideal for making two disparate fabrics work: leather and silk georgette. An oversized, cream cable-knit looks great under a black leather dress, and it also works under silky slip dresses (this was actually a trend that was written about by Liana Satenstein on Vogue.com).
Bonus: Pleated Skirts
(for when a skirt or dress is too short)
In a world where long sleeve clothing has become commonplace in the mass-market, it’s often hard to find the unicorn of modest fashion: a dress that also covers the knees.
A full skirt adds too much bulk; a fitted skirt looks like you’re wearing two separate outfits at the same time (doubly so when the fitted skirt is paired with a shell). Instead of running to the tailor to take out the hem or add fabric, try this trick: a pleated skirt.
A pleated skirt works for two reasons: the structure is made for movement and the pleats give dimension and depth — an important component to dressing with intention. It looks less like a skirt and more like a contrasting hem, especially if it’s in a color on the opposite side of the color wheel as the color of the dress, like a purple skirt with a yellow dress (or a color adjacent to it, like a blue skirt with a purple dress).