Jerusalem — When Sharon Hymans, a 33-year-old resident of Beit Shemesh, about half-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, goes swimming, she does so in a swimsuit that allows her to swim while maintaining religious modesty.
The suit, by HydroChic, an Israeli manufacturer of modest swim- and sportswear, is attractive but not revealing, and exactly what Hymans, an Orthodox Jew who immigrated to Israel from England five years ago, was looking for.
“Judaism teaches us that our bodies should not be uncovered in public, to preserve our sense of self, which allows us to concentrate on improving ourselves internally and spiritually,” Hymans said.
Her swimsuit, she said, “is comfortable and dries quickly, and I don’t have to compromise my standards when I’m by the pool or on the beach.”
Wearing modest attire, Hymans said, “teaches my children to look past external appearances and to value the internal aspects of a person.”
Once a tiny niche market aimed almost exclusively at fervently Orthodox Jews, the modest clothing industry has blossomed in Israel — and abroad — in recent years, after designers and retailers began to realize the buying power of modesty-oriented Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Orit Freilich, an artist and instructor at the Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion, said the belief that frum [religious] people dress frumpily is merely a stereotype.
“If you go to the malls, you realize that religious women aren’t afraid to wear fashionable outfits,” Freilich said. “There’s a great deal of fashionable modest clothing,” and if a sleeve is too short or a neckline too plunging, “the buyer adapts it to her needs” by lengthening the sleeves or sewing in a piece of fabric.
The demand in Israel for stylish modest clothing is so great, Freilich said, that some mall stores, including Zara, Mango and the Mashbir department store chain, make a point of stocking some of their branches with large quantities of less-revealing clothes.
“You’ll find lots of long skirts in some locations, even though long skirts aren’t what’s trendy right now, because they know their clients. I heard from a Zara’s buyer that Zara Israel asked for a special modest line geared to religious girls,” Freilich said.
A spokeswoman for Zara Israel declined to comment.
The growth of Israel’s modest-clothing industry is clear to professional store buyers and consumers, but impossible to gauge with sales figures since there is no subgroup or definition of “modestwear.” But the vastly expanded assortment of quality items in mainstream stores, and the ever-expanding list of websites in Israel and worldwide dedicated to modest clothing and swimwear, attests to the growing demand.
Most modest lines were created by religious Jews, Christians or Muslims (e.g. Burkini), who report brisk business via their popular websites, and other companies are catching on. Speedo, for example, offers a total body swimsuit, called the Swim Cover Up, “to give all women the freedom to enjoy the water.” A visit to any pool in Jerusalem shows just how popular modest swimwear has become.
During a recent visit to Zara’s flagship Jerusalem store in the bustling Macha Mall, at least a dozen fashionably attired modern-Orthodox women were taking advantage of end-of-the-season sales alongside their secular counterparts. The clothes the religious women were bringing to the cash register ranged from below-the-knee skirts to sleeveless sundresses.
It’s common practice for modern-religious teens in Israel to wear strappy sundresses with a shirt underneath.
Unlike Zara, which is headquartered in Spain and has branches all over the world, the Mashbir, Israel’s homegrown department store, is proud of its track record with religious customers. Its stores, which are in every Israeli city, cater to both Jews and Arabs.
“We definitely stock different clothing, depending on an individual store’s location,” said Tatiana Sverdlov, who is in charge of the women’s department in the downtown Jerusalem branch. “We always take into account what the population is,” she added, pointing to a rack brimming with silky long-sleeved blouses that would look at home in Macy’s.
“It’s not that we don’t sell more revealing clothes,” Sverdlov said, gazing at several racks of playful summer dresses, pants and sexy bathing suits on sale in the rear. “We do have many secular clients.”
Still, Sverdlov said, in Jerusalem the selection tends toward the conservative.
“People want things not very low cut; they want their skirts longer, and also longer sleeves. Unfortunately, the dominant color also tends to be black, but I can’t say whether that’s a religious thing. Perhaps,” she said, mulling over the idea.
Because they know their community so well, several Orthodox Israelis have begun to manufacturer clothing for this market.
Gary Swickley, an American-born Israeli, was one of the first to recognize the potential. He created “Sleevies,” a product that lengthens shirt sleeves; and TeeNecks, a bib-like undergarment that “covers cleavage” by raising the neckline.
His company, Kosher Casual (www.koshercasual.com), has a retail warehouse in Beit Shemesh, and also sells “dress code” clothing to roughly 35 Jewish schools in the U.S.
“Business is growing very, very well,” Swickley said. “We’re moving into to the Christian market as well. We do a whole lot of wholesale business to stores and home businesses, and to other retail websites.”
Kosher Casual offers a variety of shirts with varying sleeve lengths and skirts “that stay below the knee even when a girl is sitting,” Swickley said.
Swickley doesn’t know how many Christians have purchased his items, but said, “If I get an order from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, I know it’s not from a Jew.”
Like Kosher Casual, HydroChic (www.hydrochic.com), with bases in Israel and New York, sells the majority of its merchandise overseas.
“We sell to 49 states in the U.S. via our website, and to England, Australia and Israel,” explained Daniella Peyser Teutsch, the company’s Orthodox co-owner, who said that 25 percent of her sales are in Israel.
Unlike Kosher Casual, HydroChic doesn’t market itself as the manufacturer of religiously modest clothing; not that it hides it.
“We sell to people who want sun protection, coverage, or for religious reasons are looking for modesty,” Teutsch said. “HydroChic’s products provide UPF 50+ sun protection.”
Teutsch and her partner decided to launch their company “to find a solution for ourselves, and we saw a need in the market. It gives us satisfaction that women of every race and religion have found a solution they’ve been looking for.”
For Barbara Sofer, a writer, “the privilege of living in Jerusalem came with an obligation to dress modestly. But I’m still my mother’s daughter and love clothes. I favor Israeli designers. Nearly all of them will add sleeves or sew in a triangle to disguise décolleté.”
Arlene Abrams and Efrath Levy, both former New Yorkers who live in Modi’in, come to the rescue when the designers don’t.
Their company, Trixie and Jane (www.trixieandjane.com), offers, among other things, the Sleeveless Demi, which provides a modest neckline; Slyfs, which are sleeves that can be worn under or over any top; and hemline extenders.
“We’re every woman. If it fits our needs, it fits the needs of our clients,” Abrams said.