Out with "the Sarah Palin," in with "the Marie Antoinette?"

The new hair of Orthodox married women?

The most recent garment-related decree of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, of modesty courts fame, has given us a great new marketing idea for Orthodox women’s fashions. In a recent talk, R. Elyashiv announced that contemporary sheitels, as wigs worn by married Orthodox women are often called, are not an acceptable way to cover one’s hair in accordance with the tradition for married women. A woman who wears one, R. Elyashiv said, is considered as if she is going bareheaded, reports Yeshiva World News. Given that wearing sheitels — often pricey, designer models — is common practice amongst married women in many Orthodox communities, this pronouncement is a big deal.

It’s not the concept of wearing a wig that R. Elyashiv considers problematic, though (indeed, a Talmudic discussion deems them acceptable as a form of head covering); rather, it’s that today’s wigs, “contemporary” sheitels, look too much like real hair.
(Rabbi Elyashiv’s talk (in Yiddish) can be viewed online here. )

Not everyone agrees with the controversial ruling. Hirhurim’s Gil Student, for one, explains some of the relevant halacha and why he disagrees with R. Elyashiv. For once, though, we can see R. Elyashiv’s point — that “covering” your real hair with even nicer looking hair misses the point of the matter — and we appreciate that in this instance he blames both women and their husbands equally for allowing the offending practice (after all, one reason the Gemara says wigs are okay is because they make women more attractive to their husbands.)

But sheitel-machers and wearers need not fear. In forbidding only “contemporary” sheitels, R. Elyashiv has left open a huge and untapped niche in the sheitel industry, and we smell a huge opportunity here for the fashion-forward Orthodox woman: vintage and vintage-style sheitels.

If “contemporary” is the problem, go for old. If real-looking is the problem, go for over-the-top. No one said sheitels can’t be pretty or interesting, just that they can’t look to much like your real hair. (I’m reminded that an unmarried friend once suggested she might cover her hair with a clown wig when she gets married. One wonders if that would pass muster…)

R. Elyashiv did not specify when exactly the “contemporary period” of sheitel-making began, but we figure if you stick to pre-Victorian styles, you can’t go wrong. And looking to high fashion from previous centuries and other countries would be a great source of inspiration. After all, Marie Antoinette was a style icon of 18th century French fashion, and she had some of the biggest wigs around. (“Let them eat sponge cake!”) By comparison, the Sarah Palin wig that made a splash last month is plain and school-marmish. Even with the matching Kawasaki 704 glasses.

Come to think of it, men wore wigs back then, too. Maybe we could start thinking about replacing kippot with, say, an English barrister’s wig. It wouldn’t look any more out of place than a streimel.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman