Spirituality and Style

By Deborah Reichmann

Historical circumstances of Diaspora and legal landlessness in Europe resulted in many European Jews taking on the jobs of peddlers, bankers or tailors. Professions that could be uprooted at a moment’s notice and transplanted without too much trouble were the hallmark of a wandering people. To a great extent, these livelihoods carved out from oppression became traditional within Jewish culture and their influence can be seen in modern American life.

That said, having Jews in the clothing and apparel industry does not per se create a religious nexus within that industry. Nonetheless, the intersection of Judaism and fashion does bear examination.  The very forces that had created niche professions for Jews in Europe brought them to American shores at a time where those particular proficiencies were highly marketable.[1] The early 20th century resulted in a clothing industry highly influenced by Jewish immigrants; this influence is not merely seen in the preponderance of Jewish workers, but in their inherent world view made from generations of immigrants. A world view that stressed adaptation, innovation and persistence.[2]

Within two generations, the clothing and apparel industry became less Jewish as sons and daughters sought out different careers and opportunities than their parents, but clothing and fashion remain a window into understanding contemporary Jewish life.  Pierre Bourdieu mapped out a method for understanding the process and impact of cultural production a scheme that works well in parsing out the component parts of fashion in general, and in particular the subset that constitutes Jewish religious fashion. Once, the scheme and its ‘moving parts’ are identified, Roland Barthes’ “Fashion System” semiotics provide insights into the deeper meanings of Jewish fashion and the stories that it tells.

Judaism and Clothing

Judaism regulates dress, but in a far different and less explicit way than it does, say, food or other social behavior. Biblically, there are few explicit regulations on clothing. The verse that relates the most closely is Deuteronomy 22:5 “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God” (JPS translation), and the second one often referred to is in Numbers 5:18 that refers to the high priest removing a woman’s head covering (aka veil), ergo implying that a woman should have her head covered. The Deuteronomy passage has been interpreted by most rabbis to mean that women and men should not attempt to gain entrance into the other’s society via subterfuge, and not as an all out restriction on clothing. Today, only the most observant Jewish women will not wear pants so as to ensure that this stricture does not get inadvertently broken. 

These two biblical passages and a host of rabbinic lore and interpretation throughout the last two thousand years have resulted in a code of dress based on Tzniut, modesty. That code is itself predicated on three kinds of directives:

  • the law of Moses – those edicts mentioned in the bible,
  • the law of the Jews – those directives based on Jewish tradition, and
  • the custom of the place – those guidelines influenced by the local (aka secular) community.

The practical upshot of these rules is that men and women dress in clothing that is not sexually suggestive, they wear garments that cover their torsos to the clavicle, arms to the elbow and legs to the knee. Some more religious sects take the strictures even further, and extend the lengths, avoid bright colors and any body conforming clothing. At first glance, these fashions seem to bear little or no resemblance to mainstream fashion, but in essence they are no different.

 Image from Polyvore at tznius.com

Image from http://www.vogue.com/magazine/

Bourdieu – Cultural Production 

At the outset, it is clear that Bourdieu does not base his theory of cultural production on aesthetic values, instead his concern is with the underlying causation of cultural products. That is to say, cultural artifacts are measured by symbolic, attributed values, values assigned their place in a competitive social hierarchy.[3] Cultural products relate directly to social stratification, and each cultural production field has its own set of rules to differentiate itself and propagate its interests.[4] Further, Bourdieu links cultural production to economic stratification with an inverse relation to an artifact’s functionality, inasmuch as the higher the aesthetic value, the lower the functional value of the object.[5]

The relation of an object’s symbolic value, then, translates into social capital and therefore, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences.”[6] Bourdieu also introduces a factor of ‘disinterestedness, ’ as a mark of artistic autonomy and the mark of a cultural artifact’s ‘purity.’[7] The higher the autonomous value of an object, the higher it’s luxury value and therefore it’s social capital.

Cultural production and consumption, under Bourdieu’s scheme create, “patterns of perception in order to generate successful patterns of legitimation . . . In order to consume, we need to be able to classify.”[8] The process of legitimation can not exist outside of a given field since it is competition within the field that generates the hierarchical differences among cultural products. The judges for this competition are, themselves, competitors who have aggregated enough ‘capital’ to award esteem upon others. For our purposes, the essence of Bourdieu’s analysis is that identifiable culture is not based on abstract principles, but that it is valued by the ‘dominant players’ to promote their respective agendas. 

There is an inherent inconsistency with the model because it counters commonly held principles of economic decision making. A successful artist is one who does not create in order to sell (disiniterest), however, once recognized by the dominant players in the field, that artist’s work will demand a high price. Bourdieu tackles this inconsistency by structuring the field of cultural production along a spectrum of two opposite sets of values: autonomous and heteronomous.[9] The autonomous side of the field is fueled by ‘classic’ artistic ideals such as imagination, truth-telling, and creative expression, and the target audience are the dominant players, those who share in the field’s specialized knowledge and confer their regard upon that basis. The heteronomous section is produced for mass consumption, based on the rules and codes established by the dominant players, but whose symbolic capital is diluted by mass recognition.

Fashion follows the same rules as Art in Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural production, even though clothing is functional, it is generated by similar mechanisms and similar actors.[10] For example, at the autonomous extreme, designers of haute couture actually do make “one off” pieces that bear little to no resemblance to common street wear, but whose monetary and status value are very high.

Judaism and Fashion in Bourdieu’s model 

As Bourdieu notes in the introduction to Distinction:

There is no way out of the game of culture, and one’s only chance of objectifying the true nature of the game is to objectify as fully as possible the very operations which one is obliged to use in order to achieve that objectification.[11]

Adding Jewish cultural norms to the more generalized norms of American culture does not change the game, but adds a dimension of complexity. The players, those that recognize that fashion connotes status and generates social capital are faced with adapting the norms as set forth by the fashion industry/interpretive community alongside the norms set forth by their religious communities.


When a player within both of these systems has enough individual capital to be among the dominant players, then the hybrid fashion becomes an exercise in creativity.

(See, Tobi Rubenstein Schneier

New York Post Article

As we can see from this real life example, social capital and cultural production are not easily teased out to exist in only one field. Tobi Rubenstein Schneier, was already a member of the fashion interpretive community when she gained social capital by marrying a locally well-known individual. She combined her capital to where now she is in a position to elevate particulars of the fashion production field. Because her personal bent is also toward the religious, there too she wields influence.

For everyone else, the adaptation of maximizing fashion based social capital within a religious overlay comes from understanding how, where and when cultural production influences their social structure. To illuminate this arena, we turn to Roland Barthes.

Roland Barthes

According to Bourdieu, Fashion is a field for and of cultural production, with no value outside that which it assigns itself and is recognized by the society in which it sits. For Roland Barthes, fashion is also an abstract notion, but instead of conceiving it as field per se, it is a system of signs and signifiers that interrelate, but do not necessarily correlate to a specific thing, rather to the idea of a thing (how to look/be/act fashionably). 

Barthes examines fashion by looking at how it is conveyed and received. That is, by its language. A garment in and of itself carries, at best, its functional value, but “it is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells.”[12] Fashion language (differentiated from speaking about fashion) creates a system whereby by indicating what is acceptable, all else is implicitly not acceptable.[13] (See http://www.vogue.com/guides/)

In this write up of Fall fashion we are told it is a season of duality, of opposites attracting etc. etc. The text goes on and names various garments, but in truth they could each be swapped out for others, the decision to award social capital to certain stylistic elements was made by the interpretive society of fashion (the dominant players), and each signifier only indicates what is intended to be signified, at this time.

Fashion can be defined only by itself, for Fashion is merely a garment and the Fashion garment is never anything but what Fashion decides it is; thus, from signifiers to signified, a purely reflexive process is established, in the course of which the signified is emptied, as it were, of all content, without, however, losing anything of its power to designate: this process constitutes the garment as a signifier of something which is yet nothing other than this very constitution. [14] 

And yet, we are left wondering about a garment’s own determining factors. Instinctively, we may say that the language of fashion does refer to specific things (i.e., garments), and even if, “An article of clothing may seem to be ‘meaningless’ in itself; so we must then, more than ever, get at its social and global function, and above all its history; and because the manner in which vestimentary values are presented (forms, colours [sic], tailoring, etc.) can very well depend on an internal history of the system.”[15] Finally, Barthes acknowledges that garments have signifiers outside the Fashion System. 

A garment’s determinants include not only its supported and prescribed function as told by the cultural production side, but its status and provenance as interpreted by society. All garments “speak,” but what they say is entirely subjective to the “listener.” A person may see history in a garment, a particular fabric or pattern can have additional meanings (e.g., national colors, flag motifs). But, the decision as to whether or not a specific object is fashionable, that is has social capital, is made by the ‘dominant players’. In this scheme, then is it realistically possible for religion and fashion to blend? If the Fashion dominant players insist that hemlines must be above the knee, how can an observant Jewish woman engage in the Fashion game?

Jewish Fashion

The supposition that Fashion is uniform is flawed. Even among the dominant players, or rather especially among the dominant players, dissent can be found. How else can they promote one designer over another? While certain trends can be identified, the closer one gets to the autonomous end of the fashion spectrum the greater the variation from the mean, the heteronomous mass market. This is both definitional and logical. Equally important is the concept that social status varies among different social strata and communities. Thus, there is a separate hierarchy that only applies to observant Jewish communities, a fashion code that the members of that community are conversant in, and whose signifiers connote other than that of mainstream Fashion.

Key to Fashion/Religion Venn DIagram


  • Identity – emerges out of fashion choice along the autonomous/heteronomous spectrum
  • Status – social capital is measured by adherence to a specified fashion code


  • Identity – emerges out of family and social constraints in combination with adherence to religious code
  • Status – indicated by observance of specified social norms

Religious Fashion

  • Identity and Status combine across cultural systems. Depending on the variables unique to each, an individual’s social capital can either rise or fall, and it is not necessary that the social capital be  the same across both spheres.

In fact, Jewish fashion understands the language of fashion and uses Barthesian logic to highlight the aspects of current fashion that are allowed, and to play down the aspects that do not jibe with their world view. Jewish fashion stores and writers are allowing, “the source of meaning to be attached quite precisely to a small, finite element (represented by a single word), whose action is diffused through a complex structure.”[16]The Jewish Chronicle Online opened a 2011 article with these words: 

They may not often grace the pages of Vogue, but strictly Orthodox women regularly reinterpret celebrity and catwalk fashion – with a modest twist, according to research by the London College of Fashion.[17] 

Jewish fashion magazines exist, and sell their story. It isn’t the mainstream story


It isn’t the mainstream story, but it nonetheless conveys meaning and social status. The worlds of cultural production and religious cultural production ultimately follow the same rules and use the same semiotic symbols—in combination, we can find a hybrid sub-culture where, just as in the mainstream, “Fashion is stripped of content, but not of meaning.”[18]


[1]  Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008). 144

[2]  Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,” Jewish Social Studies (Indiana University Press) 5, no. 1/2 (1999): 52-79. 72.

[3]  David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 6

[4]  Simon Susen, “Bourdieu and Adorno on the Transformation of Culture in Modern Society: Towards a Critical Theory of Cultural Production,” in The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays, 438 (London: Anthem Press, 2011). 176

[5]  Jen Webb, Understanding Bourdieu (London: SAGE Publications, 2002). 148

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). 7.

[7] Bourdieu Distinction. 254.

[8]  Susen, 183.

[9] Webb, 159-160.

[10] “While objects may have another function or another identity as commodities, when they move into the world of Culture their economic value is applied differently from objects in the mainstream commodity world. They circulate under a different order of logic and exchange from that of ‘everyday’ goods, because they are no use principally as signs of distinction, social division and privilege.” Webb, 163.

[11] Bourdieu, 12.

[12]  Roland Barthes, The Fashion System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). xii.

[13] “In Fashion, we are dealing with classes of exclusions, whereas language always tends to propose classes of inclusions.” Barthes, The Fashion System 101.

[14] Id. 287

[15]  Roland Barthes, The Language of Fashion (Oxford: Berg, 2006). 14

[16] Barthes The Fashion System. 119.

[17]  Jessica Elgot, Vogue does strictly Orthodox fashion, June 23, 2011, http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/50696/vogue-does-strictly-orthodox-fashion (accessed May 2, 2013).

[18] Barthes, The Fashion System. 288.