Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

By Michael Williams from New York, United States (Tim Gunn & Heidi Klum)

The fashion conscious people of the world know it to be true: “Clothes make the man.” What we wear has a profound effect not only on how others see us, but on how we see ourselves. I learned this when I was first graduating from Cantorial school. Our first interviews were conducted over the telephone, but our advisors suggested that we dress in a suit – as if the interview were happening live and in person. You know what? It made a BIG difference. Wearing my suit and dress shoes, I felt professional, organized, put together. I know that when I spoke, I presented myself in that way as well.

This week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh, talks a great deal about the clothing of the priests. We learn about everything they wore from the hats on their heads down to their linen undergarments. Every piece was designed with care. Every color, stone and ornament had meaning. Why? The priests needed to be enveloped in their role from the outside in. The clothing served not only to broadcast their role to the community, but also to help the priests themselves feel the importance of their job.

This brings me to the question of attire in the synagogue, and it is a fascinating question. Many people feel that we should wear our best to services. Clothing should be modest, so as not to draw attention away from prayer, but nice – at least as nice as what we would wear to our places of employment. They argue that this good attire shows our respect for G-d and the importance of the synagogue as a place we should dress up for.

Others suggest that the synagogue is a place where we should feel comfortable. After a long day at work, we should be able to put on a comfortable pair of jeans and gather to sing and pray casually with our community. The synagogue, according to this group, should be a relaxed and friendly environment – not one where it is necessary to dress to impress.

In my own synagogue, people from the two camps seem to comfortably co-exist. In the same service, I can look around the room and see jeans and suits. I am glad that both groups feel comfortable expressing these two points of view, but it leaves me in a bit of a quandary when someone asks me directly how they should dress for synagogue.

I grew up in a Reform congregation where women wore skirts, stockings, and (often) heels to services (heaven forbid you should wear nice slacks!) They have since moderated that, and I know that my mother often wears slacks to synagogue (nice ones, though – not jeans!). As a result of this upbringing, I cannot imagine even wearing a pantsuit on the bima. I always wear a skirt whether I am sitting in the congregation or on the bima.

I like dressing up to go to synagogue. It means that even though I go every week, services are special. But surely, readers you know me by now – I don’t like to tell others what to do! I like to make people question what they do, define reasons for their choices. If you are going to wear jeans to synagogue, don’t let it be because that is what you were wearing all day, and you didn’t think about it. Let it be a conscious choice. Similarly, if you are going to dress up for services, don’t do it because that’s what you have always done. Our clothes inform how we feel about ourselves. How do you want to feel when you step foot in the sanctuary?

I walk right on the line. I want to be comfortable and I want to feel special and respectful. I wear comfortable long skirts. My long skirts mean that I don’t have to worry that when I sit on the bima, people can see up my skirt! It isn’t comfortable or relaxed for me to have to worry about those kinds of things. My long skirts are very comfortable, but they are also not my every day attire. They are special and dressed up for the occasion of Shabbat and worship. It’s a compromise that works quite well for me, even though I’m pretty sure that the fashionistas of the world would call my Shabbat dress a “fashion don’t!”

I am interested to hear your thoughts. How do you dress for synagogue and why? How would you recommend others dress? Do you have a different answer for Friday evening versus a Saturday morning? What about kids and teenagers? Should clothing rules be different for them and if so, should they lean more towards dressing up or dressing down?


10 thoughts on “Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

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  1. It depends on what you’re role is, what the service is, and the culture of the synnagogue. For example, if I’m going blindly, as in I don’t know the vibe, it’s my first time, etc, I’ll assume modest skirt and top (well, as modest as my tops come!) – dress or skirt-set with knees & elbows covered, dress shoes and conservative jewelry, if any. If I’m on the bima, I probably have an idea of the congregation, so either a professional looking dress-suit or a conservative dress (I tend to avoid patterns unless it’s an accent piece, like a blouse under a suit, etc). If I’m just in the congregation, and pants are appropriate, I have no qualms wearing dress slacks.

    I would NEVER imagine wearing jeans, nor would I allow my children to wear jeans, unless it is a very casual service/environment, such as a Young Judaea event, etc. And, if jeans are worn, they are worn with dressier shoes and top.

    Even more personally, if it is a situation where I’d have the chance to meet a nice Jewish boy (and his mother wasn’t going to be in attendance), I’m wearing a v-neck top. 😉

  2. I also grew up in a home where appropriate dress was emphasized, whether it was to school, temple, the theatre, or just into Manhattan. It sets the right tone. To this day I can’t dress down for any of these events – and neither do my kids. And I’m sure it will continue. As in anything – it’s the example that’s been set that matters.

  3. As a public school teacher, I found debates about appropriate dress in school fascinating. I use to keep LARGE T-shirts in my classroom for girls that I felt were not appropriately dressed and for boys whose pants slid a bit too far south. Inappropriate dress tends to distract from the task at hand. The same is true in shul. Inappropriate dress (sloppy clothes, jeans) distract from making you feeling like a Sabbath BRIDE. (and most likely distract others as well). I love to take a shower just before Shabbat and to don myself in nicer clothes to greet the Sabbath. I want to feel special because shul is a special place to communicate to G-d.

  4. This debate was particularly relevant to my family when our kids were young and it wasn’t always easy to convince them to join us at services. If their decision hinged upon them not wanting to change their clothes, I always opted for having them go to services wearing whatever they had on. However, they always saw my husband and myself dressed appropriately for synagogue. And, guess what? As they got older, the debate ended. They knew how they were to dress. Sometimes the path of least resistance is best.

  5. I actually enjoy going in Jeans as a busy mom of two kids age 6 and 3, I have to dress up for work and I love to be relaxed on Saturdays. At the same time I also like dressing up to go to Temple for special events etc. But on my crazy Saturday mornings rushing to get to temple, I’ve very happy particularly for tot shabbat or kids service to be in Jeans. Any service with you Sally is dressed up. We still miss having you here in Worcester. Maybe sometime you can visit us and be a guest 🙂

  6. Sally,
    I don’t know if you remember but in my first year at EET we still wore robes. I loved it because that made me feel special as a worship leader but also because I could still be my casual relaxed self on the inside – Also I did not have to spend a lot of money I did not have on clothes. Now thankfully, I serve a very relaxed cerebral congregation and appearances are just not important enough to them so I feel free, even without the robe to be me. I do dress a little nicer than during the week and some congregants are relaxed while others dress up. We do what is comfortable for each of us and no one cares. Miss you…

  7. you brought up a question that hits me in the gut. As a NYC teacher and administrator for 30 years in special ed and some of the most difficult schools,I’ve seen the MAJOR effects that dress codes have on student performance and school environment. the best principals were at the doors in the morning checking for shirts tucked in,ties (supplied if needed) and girls with too reveling clothes were sent home. it’s more than self- respect – it means that this building is a place that something professional and serious is expected of me. it means school is separate from the street. and the students love it. To me the worst offenders are the teachers allowed to come in jeans and sneakers.
    and while I try not to criticize those in temple in worn jeans,I must admit i find it somewhat offensive. let’s at least stick to nice black or colored jeans and a pair of shoes.

  8. I think that both ways are ideal to wear in temple, even if your wearing jeans or a skirt. Wearing jeans can make you feel comfortable because a synagogue is welcoming and some people prefer to pray and be comfortable or some people prefer to be beautiful because temple is a beautiful place and they want to feel special when they are praying. Everytime when my family and I go to services we tend to dress up because temple is a very sacred place. This is how I feel about this argument

  9. I notice that all the responses so far have been by women.

    This is an interesting and significant question.

    My own practice is that if I go on Friday night I just wear my work clothes, which I characterize as “business casual”. There is no time to go home in between work and shul anyway, so if I am going, I am going in whatever I wore to work. If I go on an average Shabbat morning — again, it’s “business casual.” On the high holidays: a white shirt and tie. In recent years, I have stopped wearing a jacket, because I just end up taking it off anyway — it’s too hot under both a tallit *and* a jacket. I never wear jeans at any time, for the last fifteen years or so, as I find them uncomfortable, so that question is not relevant for me. The next step down from business casual is gardening clothes or sports clothes, and those are definitely *out* for shul.

    My synagogue is more informal than average, one might even say “frumpy”. Sometimes it’s too informal for my taste, but I wouldn’t make any rules. I agree with the comment about a dress code in school, but kids *have* to go to school whether they like it or not; people don’t *have* to go to synagogue. Requiring people, even by convention, to “dress up” is one more barrier to going. Of course, if they want to dress a little better, they should feel free to do so. Some in my synagogue dress in ties without any implied requirement that they should do so.

    My opinion on the minimum (endorsing, of course, my own practice): Business casual, and the equivalent for kids. That is, informal, but clean, in good repair, and not provocative. I think it is a good compromise between creating an atmosphere of respect and dignity while keeping it easy for people who are busy (if not harried!) to show up.

  10. Another man’s voice. On Friday night, about a third of the men are wearing ties, and almost nobody is wearing jeans. Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very casual — lots of jeans, and when weather-appropriate, lots of shorts. If someone wears a tie, it’s a signal that he’s giving the d’var Torah or leyning.

    But — when there is a bar mitzvah, we all tend to dress up in honor of the occasion, and knowing that the folks who are there specifically for the bar mitzvah will be dressed up.

    Some 25 years ago, when the world was a whole lot more formal than it is today, I was distressed when the woman lighting candles on Rosh HaShanah was wearing pants. I commented on this after the holiday to the associate rabbi, and he told me that that was the compromise. The young woman who was given the bimah honor got the form letter confirming what she was to do and when she was to do it, which included the instruction of skirt below the knees. She called the associate rabbi, offering to withdraw, because she didn’t own a skirt below the knees and was not about to buy one just for this. The associate rabbi asked the senior if it would be okay for Judy to wear pants on the bimah — to which the senior replied, Why not? I do.

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