"In the last six months customers want a wig like Kate Middleton's hair," says Esti Bergman, the owner of a business that creates and sells high-end wigs to the ultra-Orthodox sector. “Last year there was a Farrah Fawcett trend, long and flowing. Middleton’s style is relatively modest in terms of length and also jauntier.”
The wigs Bergman creates are expensive: their price tag starts at 7,000 shekels ($1,800) and can reach 20,000 ($5,200), depending on color and length.
What's surprising here is not only the concern with appearance on the part of women of the ultra-Orthodox sector, which upholds modesty — and obligates them, among other things, to cover their own hair after marriage — but also their objects of admiration: a young British duchess and a famous late American actress. Neither belongs to the cultural world of the ultra-Orthodox, a community that is typically closed and conservative, even antiquated.
These wigs, in addition to fashion design for ultra-Orthodox women and "daring" lingerie shops for the sector, are somewhat confusing to secular Jews who see ultra-Orthodox style from the sidelines. It seems that concern with appearances should run contrary to the values of this conservative society, in whose most extreme branches the women cover their whole bodies from head to toe.
Within the ultra-Orthodox sector some rabbis oppose the use of all wigs, not just beautiful ones, for reasons of modesty. The "modesty" of wigs is a burning issue for the ultra-Orthodox sector, as attested by a question posed by a woman on the Kipa website’s “Ask the Rabbi” section: “How is it that ultra-Orthodox women wear wigs … that you can’t know if [they're] real or not?”
The answer provided was that some wigs are more modest than a head covering, since they cover all of a woman's natural hair, while with a veil, some of the natural hair could show. Nevertheless, the rabbi noted, “In the area of wigs there is some [association with] promiscuity, and some women have wigs that look more natural and prettier than their own hair, and indeed there’s a problem of immodesty here.”
The theoretical debate can sometimes slide into violence, as when extremist ultra-Orthodox men poured oil on ultra-Orthodox women wearing wigs in the Me'ah She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and another ultra-Orthodox man robbed a wig store, allegedly to punish the owner for selling wigs.
Bergman says that she’s not familiar with this debate. “I belong to a sector where the wig is accepted. There’s a length of hair that is suitable according to Jewish law, and whoever deviates from that, it’s her problem. I’m not a 'rebbitzin' [a rabbi’s wife, charged with teaching brides the laws of family purity] or a Jewish law [expert]. I go with the customer according to her style, each one according to her custom.”
Ultra-orthodox women's enthusiasm for lingerie takes the debate over modesty one step further. Ariella Sternbach, who works at a lingerie shop at the ultra-Orthodox town of Beitar Illit, tells Al-Monitor, “At first I was surprised at the ultra-Orthodox women and what they’re willing to invest in lingerie — for example, in lace sets. These are the prettiest and most daring things. Lingerie salespeople can attest that the sectors that invest most in lingerie are Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. Whoever covers up more outside invests the most in underwear. When I started to work at the shop, I saw a woman choose a very daring fishnet stocking. I thought she didn’t realize what she chose and tried to hint to her gently, but she knew exactly what she was buying.”
Sternbach says that many ultra-Orthodox brides come to the shop to buy sexy lingerie for their wedding night. “Some of them wear it under their wedding dress, and some on their first night.”
Sternbach explains that not only does this fashion trend not run contrary to modesty, it actually suits it. “There’s a lot of interest in investing in looking beautiful for the husband, even to wear fancy dresses at home. I remember a client who said that her financial situation wasn’t good, but she still bought high-end sets. She explained that it’s a religious duty, and so it’s money that God will return. In my view it’s a very healthy approach, to be modest on the outside and wear it only at home. It’s a beautiful thing that contributes to intimacy.”
Fashion designer Avigail Lorenzi also holds that the desire to look good privately is not immodest. “It’s true for the fanatics, who could also wear cloaks,” she says, “For modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women it’s different.”
The shop where Sternbach works was the first of its kind in an ultra-Orthodox town. Until then, such purchases were made secretly. The opening of the shop met some opposition because it sold some daring styles in bold colors. “We received some strange letters,” she recalls, “but you have extremists everywhere. A rebbitzin came to check up on us and we told her, if there was no demand, we wouldn’t sell it. One of our clients said, 'If your husband isn’t interested in this, that’s the problem.'”
Men are strictly forbidden from entering the shop, but some buy things for their wives over the phone. “Some of the women come to the shop and ask for a particular color because “that’s what my husband likes,” notes Sternbach.
Men may also be involved in the process of choosing a wig. Bergman says, "Some husbands come with their wives to choose something they like.” For her, it makes sense. “A woman would agree to give up a lot of things before she’d give up a wig,” she concludes. “It’s her appearance and her beauty, and she won’t compromise it.”
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