If you’re listening to this show, you’re getting to know me a little bit. Which is a scary thought, that I’m opening myself up to all of you. But because podcasts are a purely audio medium, probably many of you don’t really know what I look like or how I dress. On the one hand, who cares right? Why should my looks matter at all? My heart, my brain, my thoughts, my words, those are what’s important. But if we’re being honest, ignoring that there’s a visual aspect to us is just…off. Unnatural.
Maybe some of you listening are like, hmm, I’m kind of surprised, I would have expected something different from this guy. A button down, tucked in perhaps. Maybe khakis. And maybe others of you are like, yeah, that tracks. Exactly what I would have assumed. And maybe others are still confused by why we’re even talking about this, and asking yourself, Who. Cares??
Who does care?
Turns out, well, most or all of us.
I remember when I was in yeshiva 18 years ago, one of my rabbis pointed out that on Fridays in the law firm he used to work at prior to becoming a rabbi, they used to have dress down Fridays. Each of these Fridays, they produced much less than every other day of the week. His analysis, which he wanted all of us to learn from, was that how we dress matters. Look schlumpy, you’ll get schlumpy results. Wear a suit with a tie, you’ll get suit and tie results.
But does this feel true? When I wear something, am I signaling something to others? Am I signaling something to myself?
Does it matter? On the one hand, it kind of feels like it shouldn’t matter, right? Like, it’s just clothes – who I am on the inside is what matters! Think about the other episodes of this show we’ve released so far, about happiness, empathy, those are important! Fashion, clothing, come on.
But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that it’s almost human nature to think about fashion, about dress – our own, and others’, and what it says about ourselves, and others. Does it matter if I buy my clothing from Zara? (btw, I’m often a Zara guy…though after this episode, not so sure anymore).
To figure this out, I met with Chavie Lieber. Chavie is a really phenomenally interesting person. She’s a journalist, with a focus on fashion and business, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vox.com. But more important for our purposes, she’s a fashion writer who focuses on grappling with why it matters. I loved talking to Chavie and can’t wait to introduce her to you. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you, Chavie Lieber.
Noam: Chavie, welcome to The Power Of. So good to have you on the show.
Chavie: Hi, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Noam: I got to be honest with you, Chavie. We’ve done a number of episodes here and we speak a lot about how Judaism has a lot to say about all different topics. I’m most nervous about this topic, fashion and dress. I’m most nervous about this.
Chavie: That makes sense. I think for some people, they don’t even think about what they wear and what they shop and why they’re choosing the things that they choose to wear. But for a lot of people, there are so many motivators for the labels that they buy, the colors that they wear, how it makes them feel, what it reminds them of and so on. So I mean, maybe you’re nervous because you have zero feelings or maybe you’re nervous because you actually have a lot of feelings.
Noam: It’s probably both, and also, because I don’t think I have the best fashion sense one way or the other. If you look at me now, and we’ll get into this, I’m wearing a gray t-shirt, and like backwards hat, whatever, that’s how I’m presenting myself today, and I want to get into that. I want to get into what that means and why it matters. And also, because I think that Judaism does have a lot to say on this topic and the question of how we integrate Jewish thought into our behavior is fraught with controversy, with different perspectives on the topic, and certainly it’s really critical to our identities. This is a really important conversation, so Chavie, thank you so much for being here and for having this conversation with me.
Noam: I want you to hold onto that. Actually, my sister is in fashion. I should have mentioned that, my sister, shout out to Ma’ayan Weissman, she’s in fashion.And so I have some connection to this world, but I want to know where your passion for fashion came from.
Chavie: So if you talk to a lot of fashion editors and reporters, a lot of them have a similar background saying that they grew up collecting Vogue magazines and pinning Harper’s Bazaar editorials onto their walls. I came from a background that was completely the opposite. I grew up in an ultra Orthodox community where for much of my life the topic of clothing and dressing was actually really, really complicated. Without getting too much into it, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with women and clothes in the Jewish community, the community that I grew up in, but a lot of what I was told was this is off limits. Some items of clothing and some colors and some styles were so taboo for me that I was really interested in it. And like every good teenage girl, I would spend my Sundays at the mall. My mom would drop me off and I’d walk around with my friends and we would go to these taboo places that in our religion we could or couldn’t look in. And at these different stores, there were all these different …
Noam: Hollister. Was it Hollister?
Chavie: Well, I was just about to say, we’d walk into Hot Topic, and in that store I understood this is where angry kids hung, and this is where colors like black and sort of like the goth movement, this is where these kids thrive. And I wondered why, and I would just sort of look around and look at the clothing and understand that the kids were expressing themselves in a very specific type of style. And then you would walk across the mall and you’d walk into a place like J. Crew, and you would think oh, this is prep style. This is how people express themselves in a different way, and try to, sort of, like, unpack and dissect what it means to be preppy or in “upper class.”
And then I would go down the corridor and look at Urban Outfitters and look at like counterculture t-shirts and sort of trendy hipster aesthetic, and all these different stores just really painted just different communities for me. And I always thought it was very, very interesting for how these different types of clothing allowed teenagers specifically to express themselves.
After high school, I took a gap year. I studied in Israel for a year and a half at a seminary, in a yeshiva. And in Israel actually is where I noticed that this is not just something that teenage kids and the corridors of the mall, where these ideas hold. Israel is actually such a colorful country and it has such different perspectives for community and identity and religion, and in those pockets, you actually see those expressions living out in people’s clothing.
I remember specifically going to some of these outward settlements and the women would wear these really flowy, flowery skirts and big colorful turbans, and I thought there’s something here, there’s a way in which these different communities are expressing themselves in clothing. And then I would actually say quite the opposite, you’d walk around certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem and everybody is wearing really baggier clothes, really muted minimalist colors, and they’re just meant to sort of not be seen. And that is also really, really expressive in the type of lifestyle that they’re living.
And I even saw it with some of my friends that were studying in Israel. They’re there for a month and all of a sudden they completely changed their clothing. They went from wearing baggy shirts and jeans to wearing button downs and socks, and I’m thinking you’ve been here a month, how different can you have possibly been? But I think that they were trying to make these statements about their clothing and what it means to them, and I always thought that this was really interesting.
And fast forward a couple of years, I went to school for journalism and I took a job as a news reporter at a startup, and I wrote a lot about news and culture and the theme that just kept coming up again and again was this topic of fashion. This just seemed like a topic that in many ways I was meant to cover. I’m interested in unpacking, no pun intended. I’m interested in uncovering why people buy certain labels over others and then from designers’ perspectives, how they make clothes and what that means for them, what are they trying to bring from their heritage? What do they want consumers to feel, and how it relates to the world at large.
Noam: Chavie, the way you just described fashion and clothing, it’s so different than the way many of us consciously, when we wake up in the morning and we put something on, that we’re necessarily thinking about. But you’re an Uber professional, you’re an expert in thinking about the clothing that we wear, the clothing that we choose to wear. There are two Jewish ideas that I want to share with you and kind of get your thoughts on. Idea number one is from a great 19th century German Neo-Orthodox, which is the precursor to Modern Orthodoxy, thinker, named Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and he said, “A person’s clothes are a sign of that person’s qualities.” So when you’re describing J. Crew, and when we’re talking about Hollister and we’re talking about Abercrombie, and whatever clothing that you choose to wear, that there is to a degree what Rabbi Hirsch is saying is that one’s qualities are seen in the clothing they choose to wear.
Okay, let’s hold onto that idea. And the other idea is this, I don’t know if it was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who came up with it, but he notes that the shoresh, the root of the word clothing, bet gimel dalet, which means clothing is the same shoresh, is the same root, as the word for someone who’s a traitor, a boged, bet gimel dalet. That we deceive others with the clothing that we wear, or maybe we deceive ourselves.
And when you mentioned this fascinating … I remember when I went to Israel for the year, I was incredibly conscientious about the clothing I chose to wear. And at the end of my first year in Yeshiva studying in Israel, I came back, I put on khaki pants like you describe, a button down shirt, tucked in, and that was what I chose to do.
And then I went back a second year to Israel and I made a decision. I said, “You know what? I want to do something a little bit different. I’m going to be learning Torah from the morning to the night, but I’m going to be doing it in jeans and a t-shirt.” I tried to kind of buck that trend but it became part of my identity. That became part of my identity. Right? How do you see that?
The experience that you just shared about how you decided to change and dress, that is how so many people around the world get into “the zone.” And then from the …
Noam: What’s the zone?
Chavie: It could be whatever. It could be the way you want to feel, the way you want to communicate, the way you want to act. You’re almost putting on a costume. It could just be a button down shirt and slacks, but when you are wearing clothing that makes you feel a certain way, it could then move you to act a certain way, to speak a certain way, to think a certain way. It’s almost considered like armor.
I want to share something with you. A few years ago, I wrote a story about the charity called Dress for Success. It is an organization that helps disenfranchised women have job placement and get interviews and go out into the workforce. Some of these women are … They served time in prison, some of them are coming from shelters and so on. And I thought this was such an interesting charity because in addition to job training and helping with interview techniques, the first thing that it starts with is these women go to the Dress for Success headquarters, and they try on work clothes.
Chavie: And I shadowed a few women and talked to some of the social workers that work there, and I really wanted to know why does it matter if these women wear a suit or they wear something else in their closet. And the women that were sort of coming up from hard situations, as well as the social workers, all explained that the clothing that these women are wearing to try to get their lives together, to get back into the workforce, this is their strength for them. This makes them feel a certain way.
And it’s the inside and the outside, from the interviewer’s perspective, whether we like it or not, they’re being judged based on their appearance. It’s how they look. And from their perspective, if they feel good in their clothes, then they’re more likely to be comfortable in their own skin. And I mean, how many of us have felt uncomfortable in our own skin? So being able to wear clothes that make you feel good and act a certain way, this is really, really essential to the professional process, and I think that’s a really, really good example of how people take clothes and are able to sort of transform their experience. And it might seem so superficial, but I really, really think it works, I’ve followed along some of these women along their process from recovery to getting a job placement and so on, and the clothes really, really make a difference for them.
Noam: Right. It’s the idea that you dress for the job that you want, not for the job that you have. That’s where that comes from. Thinking so much as I was growing, teenage years were so impressionable. That’s when identity is formed. That time period, adolescence, is identity formation. And obviously, we change over time. but the teenage years and the early twenties, we’re really thinking about how we come across to others, how others perceive us. That matters a lot. It’s called egocentrism. It’s how people see us more than how we see the world, and so therefore, we want to project a certain exterior to the world.
I don’t want to negate the importance of that at all, what I’m interested in as you’re talking, and as I’m thinking, I’m interested in whether or not a focus on externalities can impact either negatively or positively our spiritual pursuits. What I mean by that is on the one hand, I want to make an argument right now, the argument for dressing a certain way, certainly from a religious perspective. And when I say religious, I mean, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and within Judaism, Orthodox, Conservative, however you want.
My one argument to dress a certain way is that you’re making two claims. Claim number one is I’m part of this community, and by dressing in this way I really take pride in this community. They’re saying that I really love my community and I want to be part of that, and I want to feel like I’m part of that.
And by the way, every single community does this in different ways. Like you said, the J. Crew folks hang out with the J. Crew folks. You want to feel a certain way when you’re wearing J. Crew clothing, you want to feel a certain way. You have friends who come from mega wealthy families and they wear these tattered clothing, and what they’re saying is I want to be part of that world. That’s my world.
The second aspect that I think is positive is that is there any line that in the world of how we dress mattering from a religious perspective? Is there a world in which I can walk around in a string bikini, meaning Noam Weissman, right? Walk around a string bikini. Why not? I’ll go to Shul in a string bikini, I’ll go to work in a string bikini. Or do we think that there is a line? And the debate is merely about what the line is?
Chavie: I want to say first and foremost, that I’m not a halachic authority whatsoever on the laws of modesty. If you have questions, if anyone in the audience has questions, definitely refer to your local Orthodox or non-denominational Rabbi. That is what I recommend. Personally, for how I feel in regards to what the line is, I think society is constantly evolving. You brought up the example wearing a string bikini to Shul. I mean, that would be ridiculous because that is just not the ultimate decorum.
But if you want to talk about wearing no socks to Shul, or wearing different types of clothes to Shul, and so on, I think it really just depends on the sense of decorum that you are trying to establish for that place, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with what body parts have to be covered up, or really, it’s also that kind of thing, it’s how you act, how you speak. I think those are just as important in modesty values.
Noam: Yeah. But the thing that’s interesting to me, Chavie, is I think that what you’re talking about is equally relevant to boys. And it’s a very difficult conversation, but there are many things that if I’m going to take the argument for how young women are dressing, I think that we should also be paying attention, one way or the other, to how young men are dressing as well.
Chavie: A hundred percent. I totally agree with you. I think boys are left out of this conversation a lot. I would just say that when it comes to modesty and dress code and so on, for whatever reason, we tend focus more on girls’ bodies. It’s just the way it is.
I want to play the other side and actually make a case for a dress code, but something very different. When we’re talking about dress code and rules and modesty, I actually think there is a lot of value to be placed with rules about what type of labels you can wear at school. Noam, you had mentioned before that in your youth, in your adolescence, you are choosing what type of labels to wear, and adolescence is when a lot of people begin to realize the limits of power in class. And a lot of that is expressed in clothing.
For schools, I think that it actually could be very, very beneficial to … Frankly, to ask students not to wear certain logos or certain labels to school, because if we’re talking about distractions, I think that that creates certain levels of status and is able to create spaces in school settings where students are trying to one up each other. When you are a kid, all you see are these labels and you don’t really have an understanding of money, but you see an alligator on a shirt or you see a moose on a shirt, and you understand that these type of labels, they tell you a story about the brand, but also about the type of shopper who is going to these stores and how much money do they have and how much money can they spend on a shirt or a sweatshirt and so on. And these are deeply rooted ideas in our society that we are able to reflect in our clothes.
I remember personally being in sleep away camp in fifth or sixth grade, there were a lot of different types of girls in my bunk and I remember there was this one girl from Long Island, I don’t remember her name. And the first week of camp, people were lining up for days to borrow this one sweatshirt from her, It was a black sweatshirt. And I remember one time telling a friend, “You can borrow my sweatshirt. I have a black zip up.” And she’s like, “No, but this one is from the brand Juicy.” The zipper had a J. And for anyone who was familiar with this very popular early aughts brand Juicy Couture, it was so simple, it was just a velour zip up, but it had so much meaning in power and class and money, and the type of messages that you want to send people when you wear it.
And again, there are certain ways you can argue that this is an element of self expression and people want to buy the clothes because you’re able to flash a certain level or status for friends. But I think when it comes to being able to show that type of power at school, I think it could be really distracting or really harmful for students. So if there is going to be an element of a dress code at school, I would just say for people who are concerned about the type of messages that clothing sends at a young age, you might want to remove the elements of money and status in the labels that you are and aren’t allowed to work to school, at least visibly. Does that make sense?
Noam: So I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you a ridiculous story about this, when I was 14 years old, ninth grade, had a high school girlfriend, who tried to do something really nice for me. She bought me an Abercrombie shirt for my birthday. I was this kid who was conscious of being anti labels as a 14 year old, and I didn’t want an Abercrombie shirt. I didn’t want any labels, no labels on any of my clothing. When she gave me the Abercrombie shirt, this is not a nice thing that I did, I crossed off the Abercrombie sign that was on the sleeve.
Chavie: Oh my God. That’s like $80 right there.
Noam: I would walk around the school with an Abercrombie shirt that had marker over the Abercrombie. It was a totally incredible gesture by her and I think what I was conscious of is exactly what you’re talking about, which is I didn’t want to come across as an Abercrombie guy, as someone that is represented by this or represents this.
Chavie: Yeah. Abercrombie is a case study for a brand that was rooted in toxic masculinity, right? I mean, inadvertently or not, a lot of the teenage boys that were shopping there were sold all these messages of what is a boy supposed to look like? What is he supposed to smell like?
Noam: By the way, talking about tzniut [modesty] … If we’re talking about that, I’m not having my daughter walk into an Abercrombie store, that’s for sure. Or son.
Chavie: I don’t know if you’ve been in an Abercrombie in the last five to seven years, but the brand has completely done a makeover because of the shifting ways in which our society talks about masculinity now. It’s now all about inclusivity and plus size and gender neutral because this is the way in which our society is moving when we talk about clothing and how we express ourselves. It’s not about exclusivity and looking a certain way, and the washboard abs and the size two. Society is moving more towards inclusivity, and that is a lot of the messages that brands are trying to send now to keep up with how we think about ourselves in clothing.
Noam: I want to talk about other elements of fashion and other elements of dress in the Jewish world. So Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has this other idea that he shares, that Judaism ultimately cares less about appearances, more about ethics, not power, more about character, not the formal dress of the office. And what he’s referring to in this context is that while other religions, you wear a certain thing and by wearing that thing, you are the Pope. By wearing this piece, by wearing this garment, you are this leader in Islam. In Judaism, he makes the argument that you don’t have to look so differently to be the religious leader or the religious authority. And on the other hand, I think that there’s a lot of focus on dress in Judaism and what we choose to wear.
So that’s another aspect of this conversation that you said earlier that Judaism does care. Judaism does have something to say about our fashion. What did you mean by that?
Chavie: Yeah, I think that our religion is one that is deeply intertwined with fashion. If you just look at the Torah, I mean, we just finished the Sefer Bereshit. There are many instances where the Torah goes out of its way. And in the Book of Genesis, there are multiple instances where the Torah goes out of its way to describe textiles, and there’s one instance where it talks about Joseph and his evolution in Egypt. Bigdei shesh, he is elevated in Egypt and he puts on special clothing and it sort of exemplifies his elevation and status.
And if you look at the … One of my favorite examples is in Megillat Esther, in the Book of Esther, when also it talks about the evolution of Mordechai, at the end, it describes the type of clothing that he’s wearing. Also, again, another example, biblically is the bigdei kehunah, the type of clothes that the kohanim wore, the Torah goes to excruciating detail to talk about …
Noam: The kohanim being the early … The priests.
Chavie: Exactly. Exactly. The Torah goes through great detail to talk about color and textiles and materials and so on, and I think what they’re trying to tell us is that the clothing is a different way to demonstrate self expression in how it makes us feel, but also communicating how others are supposed to feel about us. And actually, the flip side is one of the first things that Jews do when they are grieving, when they go through the process of Aveilus, is they rip their clothing. That is an outward expression of, I am in grief, I am suffering right now, and I’m going to show externally … I’m going to rip this piece of clothing. And I think that really just exemplifies how important we feel about clothing.
One of my favorite pieces of Jewish communal garb is what we call a bekishe. It’s a long robe.
Noam: You like bekishes. What do you like about bekishes?
Chavie: For those of your listeners who are not familiar, it’s a long robe that Hasidic Jews wear on Friday night, maybe they’re in some sects where people wear it all the time. And for the Hasidic community, the men get to wear these bekishes, these long robes, and for the leaders, for the rebbeim, they will wear these long robes with incredibly intricate fabrics, there’s flowers and there’s gold woven in, and it is so incredible. And I think most people would think like, “Oh, Hasidic Jews, they all wear black and white and they’re supposed to blend in.” But then you see the Rebbe sitting at the head of the table and he’s wearing this robe, it’s almost like just something out of a fairytale, something that a king would wear. It really demonstrates like the power and status that some of these great Hasidic Rebbes have over their community, but also over themselves. They put on the robe and then they assume this persona. I think it just goes to show you the type of power that some of our religious garments have.
Noam: It’s so interesting that … From having conversation with you, that intrigues me that you think that that’s an exciting thing. Because I think that … Meaning, like there’s something about it. it’s very different than the idea that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is saying, which is fine, that the inwardness matters a lot more and appearances and in Judaism, but with the Hasidic Rebbes, I think you’re right, that the Hasidic Rebbes, it really does matter what they choose to wear.
Whereas if you go to a conservative synagogue or Reform synagogue or an Orthodox synagogue, they’re going to just dress, the Rabbi, so to speak, it’s going to just dress the way everyone else is dressed, right? So there’s that distinction. I don’t know why. That’s interesting. Maybe more of our Rabbis could start wearing bekishes. Maybe we can see that and see what comes with that. I don’t know.
So I’m personally interested in this question, Chavie, to be self focused for a minute here. Do you think I’m trying to signal anything to you or to the people around me when I’m out picking up pizza, picking up my kids from school, whatever it is, and I’m wearing a t-shirt and I look like this? Am I signaling anything, or no? And a second question on that, if I was wearing a button down shirt right now and you saw me with a … Because we’re on a screen right now, button down shirt with my tzitzit hanging out on the side, would you view me differently? Would the nature of our conversation be different?
Chavie: Okay, well, when you are bringing religious symbols into the picture, I think the nature of the conversation would be different. I think for people who are not familiar with those garments, it could be really intimidating, right? There’s definitely a stance and it’s a look, it’s a vibe, when somebody wears their tzitzit out versus in, right? You are definitely signaling to the world, you are sending a message making this religious garment visible. So definitely you were sending … You were letting people know.
In terms of wearing a t-shirt versus wearing a button down, I think that if you and I had had this conversation in 2019, I probably would’ve said, “Oh, somebody is wearing a t-shirt instead of a button down. That means he wants to dress more casual. Maybe he didn’t really put so much thought into his clothes. He got up this morning and he thought I’m chilling it down a bit.” But we are living in such a different time, in COVID, post COVID, I’m still recovering from COVID so I’d say we’re still in COVID.
The rules and the parameters for which we dress and how we dress have changed so much because people are at home and there’s been a mass demonstration of the casualization of work, Even have like Goldman Sachs guys wearing jeans and they’ll never wear suits ever again. Which is crazy because that is the quintessential suit bro!
So the fact … There’s overall casualization so I would say today when I see you in a t-shirt, I don’t really think anything. Now, if you had showed up to a job interview in a t-shirt … You are probably signaling something.
Noam: That’s a great distinction. And if I’m wearing a t-shirt in a context, and if I’m going to synagogue, I’m signaling something, right? Or to a wedding. If I’m wearing a grey t-shirt to a wedding, what’s going on there? So there are contexts that how we show up and the clothing we wear matters. And we should pay attention to that.
Chavie: I also think, this is really interesting, a whole other discussion, but I think a lot of this is generational. One of my husband and partner, one of his stories was when he came back from studying abroad in Israel, he was wearing sandals and he went to Minyan, he went to Prayeta shul, and an older man came over to him and was just beside himself that my husband, Yoni, was wearing sandals inside a synagogue. And my husband just looked at him and was like, “That’s why you’re upset? I’m here. I made it. I was on my way to class and I had somewhere else to be, but I made it here for Minyan, and you are so focused on my shoes.”
But I think maybe for an older generation where the synagogue and the ritual house was something that was so sacred and so formal, and you had to dress a certain way and act a certain way, and even think a certain way about it, that uniform is very, very specific and it is very formal. But I think today, at least just from what I’ve seen and experienced, it’s become a lot more casual, and I think that says something about the way in which we practice and also in the way in which our Judaism has evolved. And if you talk to someone based on age, they probably will have feelings pro or con.
Noam: I agree. And I also think the state of Israel contributed to that, how Israelis come to pray and when Americans, Australians, South Africans visit Israel and they see the casualness in certain communities, that that’s like you said earlier, society is relevant to how we dress, and so that’s part of the conversation as well. When you spend time with Israelis, you dress a certain way. When you spend time in different communities, you dress a different way. And so that’s a fascinating insight.
There’s something else that I think interests you that I know very little about, and that is the world of fashion consumption. Can you talk to us about the 2021 fashion consumption cycle, and why it matters to you and what we should be aware of?
Chavie: Yeah. Thank you for asking. This is a topic that I’m really passionate about. As a fashion reporter, I think a lot of people would be surprised that my response when they ask me what to buy is, “Don’t buy anything.” And obviously, I’m joking a little bit, but not really.
Chavie: I’m sure you know that there’s an environmental crisis that’s happening right now, and textile waste is a major contributor. People are just buying more things than ever before, and if you look at … If you want to talk about economics for a second.
Noam: I do. I do.
Chavie: The cost of everything over the last two, three decades has gone up, right? The cost of food. The cost of goods, the cost of lumber, and so on. But the only thing that has gotten cheaper over the years is clothing, and that is because of the rise of a segment called ‘fast fashion.’ If you go into the mall, Noam, I don’t know how much shopping you do, but there are these huge mega brands in fast fashion, specifically Zara, H&M, Forever 21.
Noam: Oh my gosh. The only two places that I shop from are Zara and H&M.
Chavie: I mean, you’re not alone. These stores make tens of billions of dollars a year, and these brands pioneered by Zara and moving into brands like H&M and digital companies like Boohoo and ASOS, and newcomers like Shein based in China, they have basically fueled the consumption of fashion on speed, and then brands like Zara and H&M are putting out … Speeded up the process thanks to cheap labor and materials made out of plastics and microfibers, and basically went from putting out 6,000 new items a year to 6,000 new items a month. And now you have brands like Shein, they’re putting out 6,000 new styles a day.
And the reason why they’re able to do that is because they’re producing in countries that don’t really have such transparent labor laws, and they’re, like I said, they’re using materials that are really, really cheap. And you might think who cares if I buy cheap clothing? I can throw it out after one or two wears and be done with it. But between the plastics that going into our waters when you wash them in the washing machine, or you give your clothing away and it goes to Goodwill, and then it goes to this place and this place, and then it ends up in the landfill in the Chilean deserts or in Africa, in Ghana, and it just creates this mountains and mountains of textile waste that is contributing to the crisis.
So I think it’s really uncomfortable to have this conversation because people love to shop, and if you’re in my field, you’re in fashion, you love clothing, you love design, and you want to buy what you want to buy, you want to be in on the trends, but I think as Jews and frankly, as religious people, we have a moral obligation to stop and ask ourselves why do we need things? Why am I buying this thing? How am I contributing to the environmental crisis, to potentially hazardous labor laws that are coming from some of these factories?
I mean, there’s a lot that’s been written about labor laws, but I will say that I think that there is a Jewish response to this. There’s the concept of bal tashchit and not throwing things away, and I understand that it is very, very tricky for our community specifically because we are one that is rooted in family and children, And I know growing up, we would always get new clothing for the chagim, for the holidays and we would get new clothing.
Noam: Well, that’s a big thing. That’s actually a Jewish law. There’s a Jewish law that you should get new, beautiful clothing, for holidays in order to honor the holidays.
Chavie: Exactly. And people want to shop and buy new items for family occasions, and I’m not saying that people need to stop buying things, but I definitely want to advocate for people to change the way they think about fashion and consumption, and also maybe change the way that we shop. There’s the rise of all these tech companies that are selling secondhand clothes, and it’s so easy to buy used clothing. It’s so much better for the environment. Hand me downs is an incredible tradition that I love to have passing along clothes from family members, and also just being more mindful…
Noam: I’m not sure I had a new piece of clothing until I was like 13, 14 years old because I had an older brother. two years older than me, So I’m with you on that. I have a different angle on some of the challenges that you’re talking about with the world of fashion consumption from a Jewish lens as well, which is, I don’t want to make a claim that Judaism has anything specific to say on capitalism or socialism. What I do think is interesting, and I want to make this claim, is that Judaism has something to say about consumerism and this hyper focus on materialism. And I’m not saying the word materialism in a way that’s saying that everyone should be aesthetic and some monk on a mountain. That’s not what I’m making an argument for.
But something that I do think about is that even in the most religious observant communities, there is a strong tendency to buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, which I think goes against this value of, the way I see it is there’s a pasuk, there’s a verse in Micah, that says, mah Hashem doresh mimcha, what does God ask of you? Ki im asot mishpat, to do justice, v’ahavta chesed, you should love kindness, v’hatzneah lechet im elokecha, you should, I don’t know how to translate that perfectly, but you should either walk sensitively or walk humbly or walk in a modest way, however you wanted to define the word v’hatzneach, with your God. And being so hyper focused on buying new articles of clothing, I think that that can distract. Again, I’ll use that word. That’s the way I think of this often, it could distract from our personal goals of spiritual nourishment and connecting to something beyond the most recent purchase or the most recent exciting article of clothing. Now I want to be clear, I get interested in what I wear also. I got these cool new Nikes and I’m excited about them. I actually designed them. I had fun with them but I want to be more conscious of it, but it’s hard. It’s really hard.
Chavie: I think they can coexist together. I think that you can care about what you wear and care about what you buy, but also not let it consume you. Get to the point where, like I was mentioning before, being wasteful. And not thinking about the consequences of what it is that you are buying and where it is going to end up after you are done wearing it once or twice.
Noam: Chavie, I love that idea of not being wasteful. That is something that for me, this is a huge takeaway. I’ll tell you why I love the idea and sorry for interrupting you, but I just keep on thinking about it. It’s because we should also not just from the value, all the other values that you spoke about, environmentalism, et cetera, et cetera. Yes. Also, it teaches us the value of appreciation and teaches us the value of moving past instant gratification. Oh, I want that. As opposed to appreciating the things that we have and enjoying them. And like really enjoying them.
Chavie: Exactly. And also, I just want to reiterate that, I don’t want to … I’m not here to shame people. And like you said before, Judaism isn’t so invested in materialism, but as we’ve been discussing up until now, it really is, and what we wear matters and it matters because of how it makes us feel. It matters because of the way in which other people perceive us. So I think that it is important, but again, not to let it consume you, and also to understand that there are Jewish values that you can practice every single day in how you shop and how you dress and what it means for other people as well.
Noam: Let’s end on that, Chavie. I really appreciate you coming and sharing your thoughts. You are someone that understands the world of fashion, that understands the world of Judaism, better than most people out there, and so you sharing your wisdom really matters, and we really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Chavie: Thank you so much for having me. This was really a journey. I really enjoyed it.
I want to end this episode by coming back to Torah. The book of Bereishit, of Genesis, is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people – from Eden, to Egypt. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ob”m, noted that so many episodes in Genesis turn on the subject of clothes. There’s Esav’s bigdei chamudot, “best clothes,” that his twin Jacob takes and wears, to receive Isaac’s blessing. There is the ketonet pasim, the “richly embroidered cloak” or “coat of many colors” that Jacob gifts to his favorite son, Joseph. There are the clothes of a prostitute that Tamar puts on when she removes her “widow’s garments” in order to attract Judah. There is the beged, the cloak, that Joseph leaves in the hand of Potiphar’s wife when he flees from her attempt to seduce him. And there are the special clothes and insignia of office that Joseph wears as second-in-command to Pharaoh.
And here is the kicker. Garments are used to deceive. Jacob wears Esau’s clothes to trick his blind father Isaac when he puts out his hand to feel him. The brothers stain Joseph’s cloak with goat’s blood to persuade their father Jacob that he has been killed by a wild animal. Tamar changes her clothes and puts on a veil to hide her identity from Judah. Potiphar’s wife uses the robe Joseph has abandoned to bolster her claim that he tried to rape her. And Joseph uses his new-found appearance as a senior Egyptian ruler to hide his identity from his brothers. All over Genesis, clothes are part and parcel of betrayal.
But this is my final thought, and with this I’ll leave you. I had a realization during this Chavie conversation, and it’s stuck with me since. The reason my kippah means something to me, or the reason a bekishe means something to Chavie, is because it’s tied so strongly to the person. When I am wearing Tzitzit, they are usually tucked in, but sometimes these little strings are flying out. Is that me trying to signal something to the outside world? To my inner world?
When I’m running late, and my kippah falls off and I pause, just for a moment to pick it up, I’m reminding myself, this is what matters. And I hope I am constantly making that choice. Look, does fashion matter? Does clothing matter? I don’t know that it does, objectively. But subjectively, when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t want to care what kind of watch I’m wearing (not a big watch wearer), or shoes (though seriously, these Nikes I had made are fly) – I want to make sure my outside matches my inside, Rabbi Gamliel’s famous tannaitic plea for all of us to be Tocho kiboro. My clothes are honest about who I am, in my core. I don’t want to be lying to myself, about myself.
At the end of the day, I want to leave you with a thought from the great Hasidic luminary, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He says, “Protect your own soul and another person’s body, but not your own body, and another person’s soul.”
The way I understand that is this. Yes, focus on how you dress. Make sure that it’s reflecting both who you are, and who you aspire to be. But don’t focus on other people’s dress. Let’s judge ourselves, and not judge others. That’s the lesson I’m walking away with here.
The Power Of is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And most of all, write to us – maybe send a pic of your OOTD, outfit of the day, I kid, I kid – at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Rivky Stern, and audio magic, that’s Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening!