There are layers, both literal and spiritual, to getting dressed as a Hasidic person or an ultra-Orthodox Jew. It’s like a math equation. For women, there is often a “shell”—a cap-sleeved shirt to cover the collarbone—and then another shirt, sometimes with a collar and typically of a solid hue, that must reach past the elbow. Depending on the sect, or the individual’s or family’s religious preference, there is thick opaque hosiery, sometimes in a peachy orange hue, branded with raised quarter-inch seams running down the back. There is, of course, a skirt that goes below the knee. (Women are not allowed to wear pants.) For some Jewish women, like those belonging to the extreme Bobov or the Satmar enclaves in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park (and upstate New York), a skirt has to reach exactly three inches below the kneecap—no longer, no shorter. The idea of modest dressing is referred to as?tznius, a law mandated by the Torah that has later been translated, often with creative liberty, for each community by its respective rabbis and rebbes. These men will dictate details like wig style or skirt length.
As for those who leave their lives as Orthodox Jews—the ones deemed as “off the derech” (meaning “off the path,” OTD for short)—they are faced, in the secular world, with both finding themselves and, eventually, their style. “You have to admire that kind of courage,” says the project’s photographer Gillian Laub. “Risking the loss of everything you’ve known to live an authentic life.” So, what does a post-Hasidic wardrobe look like? In one case, there is Abby Stein, a transgender woman who meets me at a coffee shop near Columbia University, where she is currently studying public policy and gender studies. Now a trans activist, she was once a rabbi who hailed from a high-ranking Hasidic dynasty, a mishmash of two of the most extreme sects, Bobov and Satmar. She is a direct descendant of the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, and compares her early life to something like being born into European royalty. Stein eventually left the sect with the help of Footsteps, a nonprofit New York–based organization that provides support to the ultra-Orthodox looking to leave the community. In 2015, Stein officially came out to her parents. Pre-transition, when Stein was still religious, the details of her men’s clothing had sacred, almost tribal meanings. Each piece of velvet or embroidery signified one’s power within the community, as well as his rank. “When it comes to arranging weddings or matchmaking, if a boy wants to marry my sister, but he would refuse to wear a specific garment,” she says, “the marriage wouldn’t happen. The engagement wouldn’t happen.” Today, she wears bold print jeggings and a pink shirt. “I like pink,” she says.
Another woman, who is still a part of a religious community but secretly lives a secular life, will leave her house with pants under her skirt. (We’ll refer to her as Leah to protect her identity. When a woman comes out or is outed as not religious, she is at risk of being ostracized and having her children taken away from her.) While Leah maintains a relatively religious appearance—something she refers to in its Yiddish terminology, a “frum?appearance”—when she is within the community, she still battles judgment from its members for details perceived as inconsequential by the outside world. “When you wear a shirt that is a little lower cut or a skirt that isn’t four inches below your knee or a wig that is a little long, they look at you,” she says. But when she leaves the confines of the community and is in jeans—sans wig—Leah is liberated. “It is like living two lives,” she says. “I?need two wardrobes.”