By: Eitan Lipsky and Lilly Gelman | Features  | 

The YU Dress Code: Setting a Standard and Creating a Community

By any stretch of the imagination, YU is not a typical university. Most notably in splitting up the campuses by gender and in incorporating a Torah/Judaic studies requirement into the curriculum that is necessary to graduate, the university prides itself on weaving certain central Jewish values into the very fabric of how it is structured. In light of this, it is certainly worth noting the stance that the university has taken towards its students’ dress.

In a document that can be found on the university’s website, most recently updated in October 2017, the Yeshiva University dress code succinctly states that “female students are required to wear dresses or skirts that are knee-length, and tops that have sleeves and a modest neckline,” and that “male students are required to wear pants and a shirt.” According to the document, the dress code is “in effect in the academic buildings of the University buildings at all times.”  

Interestingly, the date of the dress code’s establishment and who decided on its terms are somewhat of a mystery. It does seem to be the case, however, that there was a time when no formal rules existed regarding dress. According to Dr. Ethel Orlian, Associate Dean of Stern College for Women, if one “looks back many, many years, there was sort of an understanding that came within the student body that one dressed school.” Because of the different way people used to dress, Dean Orlian explained, there was no need for YU to have an official dress code. However, when the styles began to change “it was necessary to differentiate the street from the school.” At this point, an unknown author or group of authors composed this set of rules pertaining to dress that, per Dr. Karen Bacon, Katz Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences “reflected the culture of the university, a Modern Orthodox Jewish University.”

As is typically the case with documents written years ago without a strict set of guidelines for how to understand them, there is quite a bit of vagueness in the specifics of the rules set forth in this dress code. A requirement of “sleeves” on women’s tops does not specify whether this might allow cap sleeves, or whether Stern’s women might have to wear sleeves that cover past their elbows. Additionally, the characterization of a neckline as “modest” (a provision of the dress code only added within the past year) seems to leave room for plenty of subjectivity and interpretation. For men, a need for “pants” leaves open the possibility that this would allow short pants (AKA shorts) in addition to the classical school pants. Finally, the requirement to adhere to the code “at all times” leaves doubt as to whether the intention might have been to include non-school hours, and would therefore apply to those who find themselves on YU’s campuses over the weekend or in the summer.

What is also extremely noteworthy about this policy is its lack of any mention of how it is to be enforced. At no point in the code does it mention who is responsible to enforce these rules, nor does it lay out possible repercussions. This leaves open the possibility that the responsibility of monitoring these policies might fall on the academic faculty, the security team, or even perhaps the student body. However, with no recourse towards those who do not abide by these rules, whoever is meant to enforce it would likely have a difficult time doing so.

After having noted several difficulties with the document’s language as well as with its status as an enforceable code of rules, we now turn to the question of the nature of its policies. Doing so forces us to ask the question, what is the overall purpose of the dress code and how is it reflected by the particulars of what types of dress it allows and disallows? To buttress the question, it must be emphasized that it is not the common practice for universities to have dress codes. If one were to retort that this dress code is a “Jewish thing”, then they can turn to Touro’s Lander College and note that there is no mention of a dress code to be found in their student handbook.

It would seem that the key to understanding YU’s uniqueness in incorporating a dress code into its student policies is by gaining a better appreciation of our uniqueness as an institution. While it might go unnoticed due to our familiarity with them, there are a number of policies in place, take for example the restriction against alcohol (a staple of many university students’ diet) in the dorms, that are aimed at forging a culture on campus of Modern Orthodox idealism and focus on proper Jewish values. In this sense, the dress code is also a reflection of the culture that is trying to be created on campus. While the policies themselves might not be perfectly clear, and there is no real way of enforcing them, the very fact that there is a document laying out dress that would be embraced by our community as a whole is indicative of its true purpose. According to Dean Bacon, the dress code reflects the “culture of a Torah U’Madda Modern Orthodox institution” and that the culture is not only limited to the way we dress, but that it is “reflected in our food, in our curriculum, and our calendar. This place is a reflection of that.”

This way of viewing the dress code is not meant in any way to detract from the terms of the code itself. On the contrary, in light of the code’s role in setting some sort of standard of Modern Orthodox dress, the particulars become crucial. While it is often remarked that there is a double-standard of sorts surrounding acceptable dress for men versus the more restrictive approach towards women’s dress, the university’s dress code made sure to address both parties. The dress code, however, does articulate much more specific guidelines for the women, specifying skirt length, sleeves, and neckline, while leaving the male guidelines much more loose, reflecting a disproportionate amount of focus placed on the nuances of female dress in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community in comparison to male dress. When asked about this, Dean Orlian explained how this skewed emphasis was not intentional, and that the female dress code was put into place because it “needed to be done” with no thought of the parallel guidelines on the men’s campus.

Perhaps this more open allowance for male dress can account for the indifferent attitude of UTS, the male undergraduate torah studies programs, towards the existing policy. The Dean of UTS, Rabbi Menachem Penner, replied to the Commentator’s request for comment that “UTS has no particular angle on the dress code issue.” Furthermore, no mention of a requirement to wear a kippa or tzitzit for men despite their well-established status as part of Orthodox Jewish dress, seems to indicate a lack of concern for a dress code reflective of Modern Orthodox values on the men’s campus in comparison to the women’s.

The absence of a requirement to wear a kippa or tzizit is also an indication of the non-halachic foundation of the dress code. While the female dress code does seem to align with the societally accepted halachic norms of dress in many Modern Orthodox communities, Dean Bacon explained that halacha was not a factor in determining the dress code, but rather that it was written as a reflection of Modern Orthodox values. While it is certainly safe to say that halachic convention regarding dress influenced the accepted values being reflected in the dress code, specific Halachic opinions were not influential.

The dress code, set to reflect the standard of dress in Modern Orthodoxy, is also meant to create a sense a community among the students of Yeshiva University. Dean Bacon said that, when a student chooses to attend YU, they need to ask themselves if “we want to feel like we are all together. Not that we are all identical but that we are all part of a community with some reasonable acceptable communal standards.” “There is something so valuable and beautiful about feeling part of a community,” she continued, and when “people come to YU, they should immerse themselves in the culture of Modern Orthodoxy and take on all the trappings,” including standards of dress.  That being said, the dress code at Yeshiva University should extend beyond the classroom during the academic year, to Shabboses, club events, and summer courses.

This expectation of taking part in the YU community leaves every student, teacher, and administrator responsible for enforcing the dress code. “Every single person who belongs to our community” is responsible to implement the dress code, Dean Orlian said. “There is no monitor, no officer, it is the responsibility of everyone who cares.”

As with many things in the Modern Orthodox community of today, dress is a topic about which there are many different opinions, both in a halachic sense as well as from a societal standpoint. Despite this, however, it appears that the dress code at Yeshiva University is actually meant to unify those different views into one community reflecting the greater values which we have in common. The nuanced differences in the way we dress become irrelevant once it is recognized that as members of Yeshiva University we are creating a united environment of Torah Umadda. Dean Bacon described her hope that in doing so we can “get these surface and externals out of the way so that we can focus on what is important -- learning, growing, studying, developing habits of the mind and heart that will make all of us better people in the future.”