Michelle Honig, 27, sits at a coffee shop on Wall Street taking extra care not to spill her latte on her insect-embroidered sweater and her brightly fern-patterned knee length skirt. Honig is a fashion journalist, but being an Orthodox Jew gives her a uniqueness, a uniqueness that she doesn’t want. “I don’t want to be an Orthodox fashion writer, I want to be a fashion writer,” she said. “I’m the type of person that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to be a big fish in a big pond.”
Although Honig is required by the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, to cover her collarbone, elbows, knees, and cannot wear tight clothing, those restrictions don’t stop her from being fashion-forward. Her writings have been featured in the New York Observer, Vogue.com, and Bustle. She’s small but sassy and eager to inform me about every aspect of Orthodox Jewish fashion history.
After trying career routes in art and education, the New York City native decided that the best way to marry her intellectual interests with her desire to be in fashion was to be a journalist. “I realized I love feeling intellectually superior to others so that’s when I realized I wanted to be a writer,” Honig said with a laugh.
Do you ever envy people who wear skinny jeans or tank tops?
Yes. It would be much easier in the morning to have certain items for sure. But I’m happy with my clothing choices because it allows me to be creative. Most Orthodox Jews feel like they can’t dress because they feel like they are being told what to wear. For me, it’s “Oh I get to “modest-fy” and make it different.
Where do you find inspiration?
I kind of do whatever strikes me. I think people who say that they draw inspiration from things are pretentious, it’s not even true! That means you’re copying somebody. Style is something that’s personal, either you have it or you don’t.
Is it difficult to stand out in a community that has to dress somewhat the same?
People in my community tend to dress alike because they follow the flow. I kind of dress in opposition to people, I don’t like being like everybody else. That’s kind of like my MO. Even in high school, I could’ve had a clique but I realized early on that I’d never be able to be a follower and I’m not a leader either so I’m really just an independent. When I get dressed I think, “How can I be different from everybody else?”
You don’t feel the need to conform?
There’s a natural desire to want to fit in but I’ve never had a desire. Peer pressure? I’ve never experienced it. People tell me that it’s a contradiction since I am Orthodox but don’t want to do what other people are doing. I am full of contradictions, that’s just who I am but the truth is if I believe something is true I’m going to follow it.
What are the best and worst parts about dressing modestly?
Well in the summer, especially in the city, it’s unbearable. Some people think that they need to dress schlumpy in order to stick to the restrictions. If you believe that you are the daughter of the King you shouldn’t look like a mess, you should be looking like a queen. It’s projecting a sense of high self-esteem. The best part is that it gave me a sense of style.
Do you think Judaism encourages feminism?
Most Orthodox Jewish women are feminists. They might not call themselves feminists but they are. Truthfully, if you really look at it, Judaism is not patriarchal at all. It’s more similar to the yin and yang concept where you have two sides of the coin where, yes, there are men's roles and women's roles but they are equal.
What would you say to people who think the way you dress is oppressive?
More than any other Jewish law this is the most personal. If you have a negative view of Orthodoxy, you are going to dress immodestly and if you have a positive view you will most likely dress modestly. You can argue that’s what you have to do in Orthodoxy but at the end of the day, it’s a choice. As human beings, we have free will. It’s not inherently oppressive and the people who think it is were conditioned to think so. There is right and wrong in Judaism and you should dress according to the laws but it’s personal, it’s your choice.
Photo via Instagram/Michelle Honig
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Hattie Burgher is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism at New York University in the hopes of one day becoming a nicer version of Miranda Priestly. She enjoys reading and writing about fashion, religion, and immigration. When she’s not fervently typing away at her computer, Hattie’s most likely eating junk food, dreaming about eating junk food, or making herself feel bad for eating junk food. Follow her on Instagram @hattieburgher.