Tznius is the most important thing for a bais Yaakov girl to learn. Tznius is a woman’s second most important tafkid in life. The most important thing in the world for a man is Torah study, and the most important thing for a woman is to support a man. But for women who don’t yet have a man to support in Torah study, tznius is their highest calling.
And so, tznius is taken very seriously in bais Yaakov, and is addressed on a daily basis. The spirit of tznius—not making public what should be private—was explicated not just in spirit, but in many details of every day life. For example, running in the street is not tznius, because it draws attention to oneself. This does not refer to jogging for exercise, which is absolutely unacceptable, but more incidental running, like to catch a bus. It was about decorum and high class behavior. A bas Yisroel is a bas melech. And a bas melech would not run to catch the bus.
Admittedly, these were not hard and fast rules. For example, if the bus was the only way to get to davening on time at school, then running would be the lesser of two evils. But really, you should leave your house early enough to catch the bus without running. Probably, that’s what a bas melech would do, if a bas melech took public transit to a school in Brooklyn.
To be properly tznius, you had to consider all your actions in the light of propriety, class behavior, and decorum. Walking outside with wet hair is improper, unclassy, and lacks decorum. A bas melech wouldn’t do it, and neither should you. Additionally, our teachers informed us, if people saw us with wet hair they’d imagine how we got our hair wet. And did we really want men imagining us in the shower, with no clothes on?
Please note that the teachers never used the word “naked.” Vulgarisms are not tznius. Lashon Hakodesh is the most tznius language in that it doesn’t have non-euphemistic terms for the things that cultures create euphemisms for (Footnote 1). You don’t need me to explain further, do you? Anyway, we should take the example that Hashem has provided us, and avoid contaminating our speech with impure terms.
And yet, in spite of all this emphasis on keeping everything hidden, our uniform included a white blouse.
There is one thing about white shirts that cannot be denied: they are sheer. Perhaps not as sheer as the filmy stuff they sell these days that are meant to have a layer underneath, but even a heavy-duty oxford—and these were not heavy duty, although they masqueraded as oxfords—can be seen through in light shades.
And what is under a high-school girl’s white oxford?
Well, I’m not going to spell it out. It wouldn’t be tznius.
Okay I will.
This is not an impossible situation. If your bra matches your skin tone and if your shirt isn’t too snug (as it shouldn’t be), you can often wear a white shirt without giving the world too much information.
In fact, the situation was probably not as dire as it seemed to me, examining myself with a hypercritical eye in by sunlight in my mirror. If you weren’t examining me with a hypercritical eye in sunlight, you probably wouldn’t notice a thing. My mother may even have said as much.
But that never occurred to me. The first thing bais Yaakov teachers do when they meet you is give you a set of elevator eyes to rival what you’d get from Anna Wintour. And all the talk about wet hair sparking the imaginations of bystanders fed my teenage conviction that people were looking at me all the time.
And so, dressing was a daily conundrum. Given the requirement to wear a uniform shirt on one hand, and the necessity of remaining tznius on the other, how was one to appear in public?
There are two possible solutions to this.
The first one is to layer something underneath. A subtle white t-shirt, perhaps, if you can wear something opaque subtly under a white blouse. After all, if it’s short-sleeved, you can see the sleeve ending on your upper arm, and then everyone knows they’re seeing skin-tone below that. Skin tone that should not be visible.
Or you could wear long-sleeved. A warm and potentially tight option.
Or you could wear sleeveless, since the shoulder of our oxfords were double-thick and would hide the edge of the tank top below.
It gets more complicated, though. Crew-neck vs v-neck? V-necks would lead to show-through—same problem as short sleeves. But crew necks, although they might cover your collar bone (tznius bonus!) were much railed against by the teachers. Basically, the crew-neck t-shirt under a button-down is what men wear (footnote 2). And women can’t wear what men wear. It’s improper. So any show of white crew-neck at your neckline would get you frowns of disapproval from the teaching staff.
One student got frowned at daily, until one day she was called into the Rebbetzin’s office for good 30 minutes. After that, nobody bothered her and her crew-neck layering-tees. When necessity requires it, even a squeamish teen can talk bras with the Rebbetzin.
I still haven’t got to the sweatshirt yet. That’s next.
Footnote 1: This is an assertion of the Rambam, and apparently it’s patently untrue. See this paper on untranslatable Biblical words.
Footnote 2: I don’t actually know that the problem was imitation of men. Maybe it was some lumberjack or boyfriend shirt style in secular culture — because anything trendy is automatically untznius. Or maybe there was some butch lesbian thing going around. Who knows? I was too insulated from secular culture to know the reasons teachers got upset about the most innocent fads. The thing I always wondered was: why weren’t they?