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Modesty Is Orthodox Approach to High Fashion

September 24, 1987|CATHERINE SEIPP | Seipp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Deborah Gordon loves fashion. She keeps close tabs on the new collections of Bill Blass, Bob Mackey, Chanel, Calvin Klein and Anne Klein. She has studied the color theory of clothing and is adamant that a stylish wardrobe begins with the correct palette. And even though she has five children, aged 4 to 14, her makeup is perfectly applied, her nail polish is unchipped, and her dangling earrings coordinate exactly with her outfit--a subtle shade of dusty rose pink.

Deborah Gordon is also married to Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon, who follows the tenets of Chabad Chassidism, a mystic sect of Orthodox Judaism. Gordon is executive director of the seven Chabad centers in the San Fernando Valley. This means better fashion sense must bow to the restrictions of Jewish Orthodoxy: Knees, elbows and collarbones must be covered; skirts and dresses are always worn instead of pants; and, except in intimate moments with her husband, a married woman's hair must be concealed under a hat, scarf or wig.

"Well, let's use a nicer word than restrictions," said Gordon, a slim, graceful woman with a warm and animated way of speaking. "We are staying modest."

Rabbi Gordon added, "The Torah philosophy is: Modesty equals beauty, and beauty equals modesty. And immodesty is anything but beautiful . . . and leads to the destruction of the family."

The couple sit in a sparsely furnished room of their well-air-conditioned Encino home, located just behind Chabad of the Valley headquarters.

Deborah Gordon has combined her interest in fashion and her precision as a Chassidic rabbi's wife in two businesses: With a partner, designer Rachel Ross, she produces a line of women's clothes designed to cover what's supposed to be covered, but in a stylish way. And for the past five years she has been a personal wardrobe consultant--mostly to women who need help finding flattering, fashionable clothes that conform to Orthodox ideas of modesty.

Of course, an outfit can technically obey all the modesty laws and still be . . . well, immodest. Not that a sexy garment is necessarily taboo. "Sexy is a very, very cagey word," said Rabbi Gordon. "Sexy can be beautiful, or it can be immodest. It's a 20th-Century word." Chassidic Judaism, which originated in Poland about 250 years ago, has its roots in the 18th Century rather than the 20th.

As the rabbi's wife, Gordon was often consulted on this point by members of her husband's congregation before she began giving fashion advice professionally.

"It all gets down to the message," she said. "A woman could have a flaming red dress that goes a step beyond. She'll say, 'Can't I save the dress?' and I'd say, "Yes, maybe with a white belt.' A person in tune with herself knows what is proper. . . . And if they don't, they call me."

'You're in Business!'

Before long, she began to get a reputation. "My best friend kept saying, 'You do this as a hobby; why don't you do this as a business?' " recalled Gordon. "She went and had some cards printed up behind my back and said, 'Here! You're in business!' "

Gordon charges $50 an hour for her services. There is a four-hour minimum.

On a hot afternoon the week before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Gordon looks cool and serene in a top styled like a sweat shirt and covered with lace appliques. The sleeves are pushed up, but they still stay below the elbow. Her hair is covered with a sleek head wrap fastened with a twisted scarf.

"You'd never notice it," she said, pointing to her top, "but do you see the bit of lace up here? It's a little extra, so if I'm bending over and the neckline slips down, it won't show my collarbone."

Men, noted Rabbi Gordon, have modesty restrictions too. "Men should not wear shorts," he said, "and men should not walk around with their chests blazing."

Isn't this a problem at the beach, for instance? No, because Chassidic men and women don't go to the beach. The Chabad center has a pool, but the sexes use it separately. "The women can show off their bikinis to each other," Rabbi Gordon said.

Except between husbands and wives, Chassidic men and women do not speak flirtatiously to each other, nor do they shake hands. In fact, there is no physical contact at all between the sexes. (Children are exempt from these modesty laws.)

"This may sound strange," said Rabbi Gordon, "but this is how it's always been in Judaism. And it works." There are even more conservative branches of Chassidism, in which men and boys wear side curls and women always wear some kind of heavy leg covering, but Chabad does not follow these customs. (While all Chassidic Jews are Orthodox, not all Orthodox Jews are Chassic.)

The increasingly suggestive advertisements of the fashion world do not deter Gordon from wearing the clothes of her favorite designers. "I wouldn't model for them," she said.

Hair Is Hidden

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