Modesty as Machines for Communication

As a Modern Orthodox Jew, my relationships with both the secular and religious worlds are complicated to say the least. These complications apply to every aspect of my life, including my clothes.

Jewish law requires a certain level of tznius, or modesty. The specifics differ per community, but for women this usually entails covering the knees, elbows and collar bone. I attended private religious schools growing up and our unofficial uniform was a knee-length denim or black skirt and three-quarter sleeve boat neck tee or cardigan. Although I dressed differently when I was not in school or synagogue, it wasn’t practical to buy non-tznius clothing for the rare occurrences when I could actually wear them. Until the invention of the Kikki Rikki.

A Kikki Rikki is a shell to wear under your clothing. It is skin-tight and comes in a variety of colors (you can even dye one a specific color to match an outfit – people often do this for weddings). They come in three-quarter or long sleeves with necklines that extend slightly onto the neck. Kikki Rikki is only one brand of shells that exists but it is by far the most popular in the Jewish community. When a woman is wearing a Kikki Rikki, she can wear anything over it no matter how un-tznius the outfit may be. No longer are strapless dresses and low necklines off-limits; in a Kikki Rikki, a Jewish woman is free to make whatever fashion choices she desires.

My relationship with the Kikki Rikki is certainly complicated. While the ability to buy any dress I want is liberating, the Kikki Rikki is restricting as well. It is incredibly tight and I usually sweat a lot while wearing one (especially in the heat of summer). The neckline is higher than my usual length and I often feel suffocated by it, both physically and figuratively.

If I am wearing a Kikki Rikki, it usually means I am not in my element. I could be in a stricter synagogue or attending a very religious friend’s wedding or visiting my Hasidic cousins, etc. The Kikki Rikki allows me to fit in with all the other women who are assuredly wearing one like a second skin and reminds me that my usual behavior is off-limits. I cannot curse or make crude jokes. I cannot discuss how I often spend the weekend by my boyfriend or even hold his hand if he is with me (touching between two people of the opposite gender is prohibited until marriage). I often cannot talk about pop culture because the crowd abstains from secular music and movies and won’t understand the reference. I cannot dance or sing if men are in the room and often find myself speaking quieter than my usual volume.

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The author and her sister, both wearing Kikki Rikkis

As Eco writes, “the syntactic structures of fashions also influence our view of the world.” (p. 317) For the ultra-Orthodox, the Kikki Rikki is a way to uphold the traditions of tznius in a modern world. For me, the Kikki Rikki is a reminder that I do not belong. While many women feel a sense of community and solidarity, I feel like an imposter trying to fake my way through tznius behavior without getting caught. The Kikki Rikki communicates shared values and traditions outwardly, but somehow always makes me feel more alone.

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