When Adi Heyman was a teenager, she and her family converted to Judaism. After converting, they moved to Florida, where Heyman felt drawn to the tenets of “tzniut” — the Hebrew word for “secrecy” or “privacy,” and the word that describes the Orthodox Jewish tradition of dressing modestly.
That meant long skirts, long sleeves, and high necklines — even in the summer.
There was only one problem. Heyman, a freshman in high school, didn’t love the selection of clothing at the local Macy’s that fit that description. Much of those clothes were being marketed to women her mother’s — or even her grandmother’s — age.
“It was hard to know how I was supposed to dress,” Heyman remembers. “Am I supposed to buy a suit that a grown woman would wear? It seemed to be an impossible way of dressing for a teenager.”
Heyman subscribes to modern Orthodox Judaism. While she’s strict about following the Jewish mitzvot (commandments), the rules of modern Orthodox Judaism do not mandate that she cut herself off from the outside world — technology, pop culture, etc — as long as she can live within the guidelines of her religion, like going to temple, keeping a kosher diet, and dressing modestly.
Rather than settle for a boxy pant suit, Heyman decided to get creative. She sought out and repurposed vintage pieces with relaxed fits and longer lengths. A sleeveless dress could be fashionably paired with a turtleneck. Miniskirts were no longer so mini when she sewed on extra fabric or wore them with pants underneath.
Heyman, it turned out, had a major knack for style.
Photos of Heyman often pop up in the pages of the New York Times and Vogue, where she’s heralded for her chic looks.
Covered up in long dresses, ponchos, or voluminous skirts at New York Fashion Week, she fits in easily with the other fashionistas. Hayman, as a married Orthodox Jewish woman, never shows her hair, so she wears a blonde wig, complete with realistic roots.
Heyman is part of a growing community of Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox Jewish women who are using the internet to redefine what it means to dress modestly.
Thanks to social media, these women are able to connect through their mutual respect for religion and love for fashion, and inspire other women to do the same.
Yet at the same time, social media exposes them to the entire world — and all of the criticism that comes with being exposed. These women are well aware of those who question their lifestyle and who believe that religiously motivated codes of modesty unfairly oppress women.
“If you find modesty oppressive, it will be oppressive,” Heyman tells TI. “I was of the mindset, though, that said, ‘let’s embrace this, let’s make it beautiful, let’s cheer on designers that are showing long skirts in New York Fashion Week, and let’s shop at Zara to show that modest skirts are mainstream.'”
Modesty has a different meaning depending on religion.
Modest Muslim women cover everything but their faces, hands, and feet. Orthodox Jewish women cover their elbows, knees, collarbone, and if they’re married, their hair. Modest Christian bloggers largely focus on making sure their knees and shoulders are covered. All these women also make sure whatever they wear isn’t too form-fitting.
But their objective remains the same: Respecting their religions comes with rules, and they want to make sure they follow those rules.
Courtesy of Melanie Elturk
Melanie Elturk started her modest fashion company Haute Hijab in 2010.
Before she started her company Haute Hijab in 2010, Melanie Elturk remembers “two Muslim fashion blogs … they weren’t even bloggers, they would just [alert other Muslim women] when there were skirts at Express with no slits,” she recalls. “I think there was a thirst for something that catered specifically to the modest girl.”
The hijab is an important part of a Muslim woman’s identity, said Elturk. “When somebody sees us [wearing a hijab],” she tells TI, “they immediately recognise us as somebody spiritual, someone who adheres to their faith.”
Haute Hijab started out as a place where Muslim women could buy fashionable hijabs. Where traditional hijabs are mostly black, Elturk created a line of colourful, patterned, more expressive pieces.
Elturk grew up in Detroit, Michigan, with a Lebanese Muslim father and Filipino Catholic mother. After her parents divorced when she was young, she was raised Muslim by her father, but only became truly religious later on in high school. By college, she stopped her previous practice of taking her hijab off on weekends and when visiting her mum. Dressing modestly and wearing the hijab had become a part of who she was.
“For me, it became so personal and I could never imagine taking it off,” she tells TI. “I really felt naked without it, like going outside without a shirt on.”
Today, the Haute Hijab Facebook page has nearly 200,000 likes and her online fashion brand has expanded beyond hijabs to skirts, dresses, and shirts that follow Islam’s code of modesty. She also emphasises solidarity with other modest women.
“When I started [wearing my] hijab at the age of 13, what made it so easy was that I had a best friend in high school with me [also wearing hers],” she tells TI, explaining why she’s so passionate about supporting young Muslims who also wear the hijab. “If I didn’t have her, it would have been so much more difficult.”
Brooklyn-based sisters-in-law Mushky Notik and Mimi Hecht launched their Chassidic fashion label in 2012 after becoming dissatisfied with the fashion options available to them — especially in the summer when dressing modestly can become “particularly frustrating.”
Their line — Mimu Maxi — wasn’t just popular with Orthodox Jews, but customers of all faiths.
“We just want to make amazing pieces,” Mimi Hecht tells Tech Insider. “Yeah, they cover … but anyone could love it and wear it and look fabulous in it.”
Notik adds that some of Mimu Maxi’s customers don’t even realise the pair run a modest fashion company aligning with the rules of their faith until they find the website. “They just discover us on Instagram!”
But again, their work comes with a different set of controversies and considerations maybe not always present in other fashion companies.
In 2014, the women sent a lime green maxi skirt to Summer Albarcha, a Muslim fashion blogger at the site Hipster Hijabis, and then posted an image of Albarcha wearing the skirt on the Mimu Maxi Instagram account. (See the photo above.)
Some of Hecht and Notik’s fans were critical of their collaboration with a Muslim woman, but the Mimu Maxi co-founders stood by their decision to support and highlight women of all faiths who are active in the modest blogger community.
Of course, on the internet, there will always be detractors.
When modest Christian blogger Elizabeth Roy of Downtown Demure created a blog post called “Modesty Test: Ask the Dudes” that requested Christian men’s opinions on what types of clothing would be considered immodest, she didn’t expect it to receive backlash.
But some people said Roy was putting too much emphasis on male approval.
“[They] completely ripped it to shreds and really bashed my blog,” Roy says. “That was surprising. I didn’t really realise how many people were against modesty and against the call for modesty.”
Women’s rights and feminism have become very front-and-center topics over the last several years.
Every day there’s a new story calling attention to the gender pay gap, or a company’s need for more females at its highest levels of management
We speak out about men harassing women as they walk down the street. And we talk about our longtime widespread acceptance of many public school dress codes, wherein young women are told they must wear shorts, dresses, or tank tops of a specific length as to not distract “other pupils.” (Read: young men.)
While we may have accepted those rules in the past, the world is changing.
Now these young women — using the same social platforms Heyman, Elturk, Hecht, Notik, and Roy all use to celebrate their modesty — are asking why they need to feel shamed into covering up.
It’s not surprising that these religious yet fashionable bloggers are often looked at as part of the “problem” — that they’re feeding into a set of rules enforced by the patriarchy, and that they could liberate themselves more by ditching modest dressing all together.
But others would argue that by being able to express creativity within the guidelines of conservative religion is still revolutionary for Heyman, Elturk, Hecht, Notik, Roy, and dozens of women just like them; that they’re practicing their own form of feminism, while still practicing their faith.
Then there are those who don’t think these women are modest enough.
“Every once in a while we’ll get some crazy comments on social media like, ‘you shouldn’t even be showing photos of women,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be wearing pants,” Elturk tells TI. She says those commenters are mostly people from overseas who believe in “hardcore right-wing Islam[ic]” rules that Elturk says she doesn’t adhere to.
These comment section controversies often remind these women that they aren’t blogging in a bubble; that there will always be someone more religiously observant who takes issue with what they’re doing online.
“When you grow up [in a country] where everyone is Muslim, you cannot compare that to growing up Muslim in America,” Elturk says of those who criticise her. “It’s so different … and so I don’t even respond. I could explain to them until they’re blue in the face, but they just don’t get it. They don’t understand what it’s like to be an American Muslim.”
Despite the criticism, it’s undeniable — these women are inspiring their readers and customers to express themselves and their religion through fashion. Every woman we spoke with said the feedback they get is overwhelmingly positive. Women around the world thank them not only for daily style inspiration, but for removing the burden of figuring out how to honour God — whatever and whoever that word means to them — while being themselves.
“Fashion — as much as I am a champion of it and I focus on it — really is a superficial thing,” Roy explained to TI. “It’s just clothing at the end of the day. But it’s amazing how a common passion, this interest in modest fashion, can help bring together women of different beliefs.”
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