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Certain faiths specify clothing designed for maximum modesty. But, drabness, too? No way. Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and Muslims follow the rules with fashion flair. Using accents such as jewelry, expansive buttons, appliques and lace, many have wardrobes that are . . . : Divine Dressing

July 09, 1993|ANDREA HEIMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Atma Kaur Khalsa sits in her white BMW, her white silk scarf blowing behind her white cotton turban and white cotton knit dress, waiting for the traffic light to turn green.

Khalsa, a follower of the Sikh Dharma religion, is on her way to Saks Fifth Avenue to check out the latest fashions--white fashions, that is.

Although most Angelenos throw on a T-shirt when it's hot and a sweater when it's cold--and buy whatever brand or style of clothing strikes their fancy--adherents of certain religions must work within specific guidelines when choosing their clothes.

For practitioners of Sikhism, Orthodox Judaism and Islam, dressing is not simply a matter of taste and comfort--it is an extension of their religious conviction. But many of those who live a religious lifestyle find they are still able to express themselves and their style within the dress restrictions.

Although most American Sikhs dress only in white, which denotes purity of spirit and focuses attention on their spiritual path, Khalsa says, they are allowed to individualize their looks with different styles, shades of white and accessories. (Many Sikhs in other countries do not wear white.)

Sikhs, both men and women, wear loose-fitting clothing made of natural material, usually on top of leggings, which allows members to sit and move easily during their daily minimum of 2 1/2 hours of prayer. They do not cut their hair because they believe the body is perfect, and they wrap their locks in a turban that represents their "crown of spirituality."

Khalsa, a Sikh for two years, works as an image consultant in her own company, Optimal Image Consulting Diversified. The transition from a "high-fashion environment" to her Sikh lifestyle was a bit awkward at first, she says. But she has come to reconcile the two.

"I went from black Chanel suits and pumps to a veil and turban and all white," says the 38-year-old Los Angeles resident, who accents her white, beige and bone outfits with gold and opal jewelry. "It took awhile to develop a sense of style. But now it's fun. There are different turban fabrics and styles and different ways to tie a turban--higher, wider, shorter. You can wrap it in white chiffon or muslin. And I still enjoy shopping at Saks and Neiman's."

Orthodox Jews have their own dress restrictions as well but, like the Sikhs, Orthodox practitioners say style is important.

"I think about dress as another way of expressing my creativity," says author and teacher Xianna Shiffman, a 41-year-old Orthodox Jew from North Hollywood who teaches part time at Valley Torah High School. "I like fringes, points, gold metallic--garments that flow and have movement, not things that are stiff or static. I like to look poetic."

Orthodox Jews, especially women, are required to dress modestly, covering their knees, elbows and collarbones, and wear skirts and dresses instead of pants. According to the Orthodox philosophy, women should look attractive but not provocative--feminine and gracious, but not sexy.

"People are always complimentary," Shiffman adds. "The fact that I'm Orthodox isn't something people would know to look at me. It's possible to be stylish and modest at the same time."

Observant Muslim women must also dress modestly and must be completely covered except for their face and hands, while men must be covered from their navels to their knees. Men and women are expected to dress conservatively: A typical woman's outfit consists of a long, loose shirt over loose-fitting pants. Among the most observant, "outer garments"--floor-length coats--are worn over the clothes at all times except when with close relatives or at work.

"We are supposed to hide our beauty so we don't attract the wrong type of attention," says Shamim Sheik, a Muslim who is a substitute teacher in Los Angeles. "We show off our beauty among the ladies, and we compete within ourselves. We have a lot of style, but we show it off to each other and to our husbands only."

Bilquis Ahmed, a Muslim woman who lives in Redondo Beach, wears the traditional garb but says fashion is still a consideration. "I always coordinate the colors I wear with my scarves and my clothes," says Ahmed, 32, a microbiologist for the Orange County Water District.

Even if fashionable, not all those whose clothing reflects their religious observance meet with acceptance in their manner of dress.

Ahmed typically wears a scarf around her head folded in triangles and pinned under her chin. "Some people think I'm a nun because I have my hair covered," she says. "When I go out with my friends, they say people stare. But I never notice it. And during the Gulf War and the Iran revolution, people would look at me like I was a terrorist."

Ram Das Khalsa (all Sikhs take the last name "Khalsa," which means "pure one"), a lawyer who has been a Sikh for 22 years, wears the traditional men's garb and has encountered judges who aren't tolerant.

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