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November 19, 2018 by

The Modest Fashionista Who Became Cutting Edge

As a fashion maven, I’ve noticed that in New York, many Orthodox Jewish women  favor modest, well-made clothing that just falls short of—or maybe intentionally steps aside from—chic or cutting edge.

Enter Batsheva Hay, nee Rosenberg, a self-styled fashionista who cultivated her penchant for mixing vintage with contemporary pieces to create her own unique look. Recent profiles in the New Yorker and the New York Times reveal a fascinating story: When she was in her twenties, and working as a lawyer in New York City, she met a photographer named Alexi Hay, a well known fashion photographer. Hay had recently become an Orthodox Jew, and he nurtured a growing interest in Orthodox clothing. Batsheva shared his interest and he even began photographing her wearing the covered up styles favored by the frum. 

Fast forward a few years and the story she tells goes like this: Batsheva, now married to Alexi and leading an Orthodox life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, wanted to have a favorite Laura Ashley dress remade. The pattern alone was going to cost $250, so she decided she would have several versions of the dress sewn, using fabrics, some intended for upholstery, that she scored on eBay. And while she was at it, she decided to tweak the sleeves, adding a big pouf, and add a collar too.

Fashion followers like me know what happened next. The dresses she made began garnering notice from fashion-savvy New Yorkers who saw in them something unique and also authentic. With their hamish-looking cottons, girlish prints (florals are big in the Hay pantheon, but strawberries and teddy bears figure prominently too), they weren’t pretending to be naive or quaint—they embodied those qualities.

And the fickle fashion tribe quickly jumped on board. These days, Hay’s dresses, sometimes styled with pigtails and platform boots, are worn by the likes of Lena Dunham, Gillian Jacobs, Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman. 

So what does it tell us that a newly minted fashion darling  is also an observant Jewish woman, raising her children within the sheltering embrace of an ancient tradition? 

Well, for one thing, Hays came on the scene at a time of prairie-revival and Little House chic—there have been a lot of calicos, flounces and high, ruffled collars on the runway of late. So the timing was fortuitous.

But Hay’s contribution to this moment seems less like dress-up and instead engages with deeper questions of faith and observance. Because she was raised in a secular Jewish home, the rules of Orthodoxy did not always come naturally to her. Apparently, once she was baffled when she couldn’t reach Alexi for three days, unaware that in deference to a Jewish holiday she’d never even heard of, he had turned off his phone for three days. And after much discussion she says she decided not to cover her hair all the time, and only occasionally bows to convention by wearing a wig.

What strikes me as most interesting here as a follower of fashion trends, is how the whole point of modest religious dress, designed in its way to both identify its wearers as of-a-tribe and also keep them apart from the world at large, is upended by Hay’s clothing. It’s as if she’s demanding that Orthodox women—on the runway sidelines by tradition and by choice—step into the mainstream without compromising core values. What all this means for Orthodox ‘s fashion the future is anyone’s guess. But by fusing a variety of styles and traditions, Hay has done something quite remarkable on her own.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.