A Modest Fashionista

Batsheva Hay, nee Rosenberg, is a selfstyled fashionista who cultivated a penchant for mixing vintage with contemporary pieces to create her own unique look. Recent profiles in the New Yorker and the New York Times reveal a fascinating story: When she was in her twenties, and working as a lawyer in New York City, she met Alexi Hay, a well-known fashion photographer. He had recently become an Orthodox Jew, one with a growing interest in Orthodox clothing. Batsheva shared this interest, and he began photographing her wearing the covered-up styles favored by the frum.

Fast forward a few years: Batsheva, now married to Alexi and leading an Orthodox life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, wanted to have a favorite Laura Ashley dress remade. The pattern alone was going to cost $250, so she decided she would have several versions of the dress sewn, using fabrics, some intended for upholstery, that she scored on eBay. And while she was at it, she decided to tweak the sleeves, adding a big pouf, and add a collar too.

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 4.45.48 PMThe dresses she made were “I feel I can be a better advocate having my own voice… Women have been anonymous for far too long.” SUSAN UNTERBERG, photographer and philanthropist, recently stepped forward as the formerly anonymous donor behind a $5.5 million grant program that has supported underrecognized female artists over 40 for the last 22 years. Recipients of the grant, “Anonymous Was A Woman,” receive $25,000 to help support their careers. garnering notice from fashion-savvy New Yorkers who saw in them something unique and also authentic. With their haimish-looking cottons, girlish prints (florals are big in the Hay pantheon, but strawberries and teddy bears figure prominently too), they weren’t pretending to be naive or quaint— they actually embodied those qualities.

And the fickle fashion tribe quickly jumped on board. These days, Hay’s dresses, sometimes styled with pigtails and platform boots, are worn by the likes of Lena Dunham, Gillian Jacobs, Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman.

So what does it tell us that a newly minted fashion darling is also an observant Jewish woman, raising her children within the sheltering embrace of an ancient tradition? Well, for one thing, Hay came on the scene at a time of prairie-revival and Little House chic; there have been a lot of calicos, flounces and high, ruffled collars on the runway of late.

But Hay’s contribution to this moment seems less like dress-up, and instead engages with deeper questions of faith and observance. It’s as if she’s demanding that Orthodox women—on the runway sidelines by tradition and by choice—step into the mainstream without compromising core values.

What strikes me as most interesting here is how the whole point of modest religious dress, designed in its way both to identify its wearers as of-a-tribe and also to keep them apart from the world at large, is upended by Hay’s clothing.

YONA ZELDIS MCDONOUGH, The Lilith Blog, November 14, 2018.