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Standards of dress (at least for women) aren't nearly as consistent within Orthodoxy as we might wish. Wearing exactly the same halachically-correct clothing I have been under-dressed in some places and over-dressed in others, because I didn't necessarily know how minhag Young Israel is different from minhag Modern Orthodox or minhag Chabad or the others. For any particular community I can take a cue from others -- if in fact other women are present, not always a safe bet -- so I can get it right the second time, but is there some set of clues I can use to get it right the first time? And how do the expectations change for Shabbat services versus Shabbat-afternoon shiur versus weeknight shiur?

If I am going there in response to an invitation of some sort (e.g. a bar mitzvah) then clearly I can ask the people who invited me for guidance. I'm trying to navigate the challenges of wanting to go to an interesting-sounding shiur or to daven at a place I've never been before where I don't necessarily know anybody, without feeling uncomfortable (or making anybody else uncomfortable) the whole time I'm there because I guessed wrong.

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So long that you are dressed modestly, have self confidence and do not worry or care what others think. –  Gershon Gold May 22 '11 at 23:39
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@GershonGold, "Dressed modestly" is a vague term, and it sounds like this question is built on the assumption that different communities and social groups have different opinions and customs as to what particularly is considered modest dress. Perhaps you meant to say that so long as you are dressed modestly by your own standards, you should not worry about others' perceptions. –  jake May 23 '11 at 0:01
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I have two views about this: 1. Perhaps the dress code is there, and unwritten so that it is easy to spot guests. (for good or bad). But, why would you want to switch to somebody else's "dress code"? Be proud of who you are, and what your mesorah is. 2. There is no way to correctly document a dress code unless you are going to specify Community by geography. How 'Young Israel" dresses in NY, is different than Los Angeles, is different from Florida, is different from Israel. –  avi May 23 '11 at 9:04
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I bet this question would be well-served by an experience-based answer from a female and I strongly suspect that all of the suggestions so far (even the experience-based ones) have not been. @Females - Perhaps you can weigh in? –  WAF May 24 '11 at 17:11
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A case in point: the recent difficulties in Beit Shemesh began with attacks on a modestly-dressed Orthodox schoolgirl, not some outsider wearing clothing everybody would agree is immodest. I don't mean to equate any congregations with that; I'm just using it to point out that one group's modest is another group's "so immodest that it must be attacked". –  Monica Cellio Jan 7 '12 at 23:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The answer given by @Barry was very good general advice. I'll add some specifics (as ideas for implementation).

Wear a solid or tiny patterned black, navy or dark plum blouse & skirt as a starting point. Then do any or all of the following:

  • bring a scarf. Many scarves are solid color on one side, brightly patterned on the other. You can choose which side to wear, and how to wear the scarf, depending on the ambiance. That way you can be less or more festive.
  • bring a light weight sweater. It can be buttoned like a jacket if it seems like formality is better. If you want to be more casual, just drape it over your shoulders with the sleeves tied loosely in front.
  • There are even ladies hats that are reversible, and can be worn traditionally or stylishly.

Wear dark-colored opaque cotton, silk or woolen hosiery, always.

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Thank you! These specifics are very helpful. –  Monica Cellio Jan 7 '12 at 23:43
    
@MonicaCellio Great! I know how challenging these things can be. Generally it is better to err on the side of formality. I once got raked over the coals for dressing inappropriately in the Second Life (virtual) synagogue. It was sort of silly, but I didn't think so at the time! –  Feral Oink Jan 8 '12 at 4:40

Many synagogues have websites with photos from social events, speaker events, and the like. Often you can get a sense of their dress standards from those pictures. (Make sure they're not Purim costumes, though!)

It works sometimes ...

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The first time, dress so that you can add a sweater or remove a scarf and blend in. Some women have an outfit that is just for this sort of occasion.

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This was a good idea. I decided to make my earlier comment into an answer. –  Feral Oink Jan 7 '12 at 13:51

I have a few general rules I follow. The first is that I try to lean towards the conservative side in terms of dress (dark or neutral colors, indisputably appropriate hemlines, opaque tights in a dark color) and jewelry (plain silver or gold, or a single strand of pearls, that kind of thing). I think of it a lot like "going to a job interview" in terms of dressing up a bit. Even if I am more relaxed the next time, it gives me an opportunity to make a good first impression and avoid treading on anyone's toes!

That said, if I can look at pictures on a website or somesuch first, I will try to do so and gauge what is appropriate from that!

(And when in doubt, I figure a good scarf and nice coat go pretty far.)

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