"Modern and Modest:" Interview with Nina of alltumbledown
When not memorizing Latin declensions, Nina, a graduate student of history, authors alltumbledown: a modest attempt at style, a blog about the intersection of modesty and daily fashion. In addition to brightly colored pencil skirts and everything sequined, she is a fan of Mad Men, the quickly-disappearing Jewish Lower East Side, and the printing press. She currently calls both Philadelphia and New York home.
Nina: I started alltumbledown after noticing what I perceived as a gap in the blogosphere. I had been following style blogs for a while, and though I found them entertaining and inspirational, they weren't fully aspirational for a Modern Orthodox woman like me. It takes more than a little bit of ingenuity to feel creative within the confines of halakhic clothing restrictions, and I wanted to both document my efforts at doing so and share my sartorial experiments with women who felt the same void. When I began alltumbledown, the modest blogosphere was quite a bit smaller than it is today, and I was (as far as I know) the only Orthodox style blogger.
The Modern and Modest project was borne of the many internet friendships blogging has yielded, many with women of various faith communities exploring the same issues I do. After exploring for myself (in a rather public fashion) what I think of modesty, my rather tumultuous relationship with the concept as dictated by Jewish law, and some shifting personal practices, I wanted to discover how other women grappled with similar concepts. I am especially interested in the intersection of religion and appearance, and those who dress modestly outside the dictates of an organized religious body.
Q: What have you learned so far while blogging that's surprised you?
Nina: Several things. First, the immense welcome I received not from Jewish women, but from Evangelical Christians. Since I started this project as a Modern Orthodox Jew interpreting the modesty laws through daily style, I assumed my readership would be largely Jewish. While my assumption was incorrect, I genuinely enjoy interacting with women who dress modestly for different reasons than I do. I do find it slightly amusing that my professional life as a graduate student studying Jewish-Christian interaction is mirrored in this most unlikely of places.
Secondly, I have learned how important modesty is to women of varying faiths and backgrounds, and how little it matters to me. I view modesty as a practical application of Jewish law; it is as unromantic (and dare I say, legalistic) to me as following the laws of kashrut. For many of my readers, modesty is an outward reflection of an inner striving for propriety, simplicity, Godliness, etc. While I find those principles admirable, my clothing choices have little to do with personal principles or ideology. I do not dress modestly because I want to protect "weak" men from the temptations of my body, or as a gesture of submission to my husband/God, but learning about how others express these beliefs through daily style choices has been interesting.
Q: What has it been like to discuss your relationship to modesty on a public forum like the internet?
Nina: The word that comes to mind? Freeing. There are a lot of assumptions that come along with dressing modestly in contemporary society (many of them related to the principles mentioned above), and I enjoy the freedom blogging has granted me to dispel them. I don't claim to represented modestly-dress women at large, or Orthodox women in particular, but do like that my story complicates the narrative in some small way. I have also, as your question mentions, shifted my modesty practices since starting the blog. In some ways, I have enjoyed the ability to explain my evolving thought processes and resulting shifts in appearance in the blank space of a new blog post. In real life, we rarely get the opportunity to fully explain ourselves without interjections, interruptions and the all-knowing eyebrow raise. But, as in real life, my readers bring their own expectations to our interaction, and I am cognizant that to some, I have failed at modesty. Disappointing my readers has been more difficult than I ever imagined it could be.
Q: What would you say to other young Jewish women grappling with issues around modesty?
Nina: For some women, modesty comes easily. It provides a template for shopping excursions and daily closet-wrangling while portraying a specific outlook on Judaism and life to the rest of the world. I am not that woman. I know that modesty will continue to be a struggle for the rest of my life, as I am both envious of the ability to not think about each item of clothing and how it can be "modestified" (shirt under, cardigan over, drop the hem, can't be done... the list is endless) and resentful of the ideological/religious/political assumptions my sartorial choices carry. For those who struggle with modesty on an aesthetic level, thinking creatively can be incredibly empowering. By cultivating a style that is creative, expressive of my personality, and anything but staid, I have embraced a "look" that happens to fit my interpretation of the modesty laws. For those who grapple with the political aspects of modesty's restrictive nature, I hear you, and can only recommend that you strive to find a comfortable balance between your interpretation of Jewish law and personal freedom. We are evolving beings, and don't forget that you are free to change your mind if that balance shifts.