A Lady’s Guide to Headcoverings

Very egalitarian, my synagogue. Ladies can do practically anything on the bima. Anything that gentlemen can do. And since we’re so very egalitarian, our dress rules are egalitarian too. Gentlemen on the bima must sport headcoverings and therefore so too must ladies.

The headcovering of choice for your standard American Jewish gentleman is a kippah. Like a suit and tie, a kippah sends Messages to those who observe it. “I am a Respectable Gentleman,” it says. “I comply with a certain set of social mores. Please interact with me accordingly.”

And like a suit and tie, transporting that mode of dress wholesale across gender boundaries results in awkwardness. A suit and tie are all very well if you’re an air hostess or a waitress at a five-star establishment, maybe even if you’re in Big Business if you have a special ladyfied suit and tie, but I personally would feel like a bit of a pillock wearing them in the street. They’re just not clothes I wear.

Likewise kippot. Some ladies wear kippot and it seems to suit them just fine. I’ve got no quarrel with them. I just personally feel that in my circles, a kippah says “I am a Respectable Gentleman,” and I have no particular desire to go around saying “I am a Respectable Gentleman.”

But I am on the right-wing side of my synagogue, for better or worse. Kippot in my synagogue sometimes mean “I am a Respectable Jewish Gentleman” – that’s men who wear kippot all the time – and sometimes they mean “I am in Shul, and Respectable Men Cover Their Heads In Shul.”

That is to say, “covering our heads is how we show that now we are Doing Religion.” And since egalitarianism means “now the ladies may and must do everything the gentlemen do,” we have definitively proved that Respectable Jews Cover Their Heads In Shul. Serious God Business Needs Hats, as we say. And accordingly, if the ladies are to be permitted to join in with the Serious God Business, they must cover their heads, because we know that it is not proper religion unless you have your head covered.

Happily, I am not the only lady who dislikes wearing kippot. Yes! There are other head-covering options open to a lady in the synagogue.

These fall into three categories.

1. The Respectable Lady’s Shul-Going Hat.

You know. If you don’t own one, your mother does, and she wears it to weddings.

Respectable Lady Hats are no fun when it is ninety degrees out.

Orthodox Married Lady hats also fall into this category – the berets, diamente-adorned baseball caps, and headscarves beloved of the Modern Orthodox. These aren’t exactly Respectable Lady Hats, but the logic goes like this: the Orthodox wear these things all the time, and everyone knows the Orthodox are terribly authentic and do religion constantly, so these are obviously acceptable religion-indicating hats.

A sub-category here is the “Oh, hey, look, my head is covered!” Stealth Headcovering, when the hair is tied back with a wide bandana, such that a kippah-sized area of the head is covered.

2. The Feminised Kippah.

On the model of the little-round-Jewhat, but manufactured of beads, or pink material, or otherwise embellished such that no man could respectably wear it. The problem is, of course, that unless your feminised kippah has been your religion-inducing hat of choice for two decades (such things are exempt under the heading Hallowed Traditions), it is an inherently doomed exercise. After all, the point of Ladies’ Headcoverings is to replicate the kippah’s function across the gender boundary. The Feminised Kippah merely produces a kippah which no man would ever wear, thus (arguably) defeating the object entirely. Or (perhaps) accomplishing it perfectly.

3. The Doily.

Cousin to the kippah, someone at some point had the bright idea of replacing the knitted circle with a lace circle, thus accomplishing “Little Round Jew Hat For Wearing Whilst Doing Religion” and “Totes Feminine, It’s Made Of Lace” simultaneously. Brilliant.

There are two ways of wearing the doily.

a). Flat, otherwise known as the “Where are the petits fours?” mode of wear. (Incidentally, I once saw a lady visiting a shul which did not supply doilies. But she obviously very much felt that it is not religion unless you are covering your head, so she improvised a doily substitute from a paper towel from the bathroom. This was not so much “Where are the petits fours?” as “Now Wash Your Hands.”)

b). Folded, otherwise known as the “Damned if I want to look like a tea-table” mode. At Events, folded doilies are frequently hot-glued onto combs. The model displayed here is the kind provided gratis by the shul and held to the head with a bobby pin.

Folding renders the doily approximately the same size as a kippah, which gives it the advantage of increased authenticity. So we see that a folded doily is a) authentic religion-inducing headgear and b) feminine.

But it is still undeniably a doily. Now, maybe I feel like a pillock wearing a kippah, as it’s assuming a mode of dress more generally associated with gentlemen. But a doily is a mode of dress generally associated with a) ladies from 1950s North America b) aspidistras. You see the difficulty.

So this is my latest Absolutely Brilliant Solution To All Problems Caused By Misapplied Gender Binaries In Jewish North America. Wear a kippah, because we are not a grandmother. But fold it into quarters, because wearing a round headcovering folded into quarters is obviously a distinctively feminine act.

Honestly, sometimes I amaze myself. Not only does this accomplish head-covering according to the rules of my shul, but it is obviously a profound statement about American Jewish egalitarianism. “Aha,” people will say. “Here is someone who obviously wants to challenge gender roles in dress as defined by her synagogue, but in quintessentially-feminine passive-aggressive fashion, as expressed by this highly-original act of sardonic sartorial subversion. Marvellous. By such brave acts as these the patriarchy will crumble.”

It’d be simpler to wear a suit and tie really. Or an aspidistra. If anyone wants me, I’ll be at the florist’s.

Further reading on kippot.


  1. Posted June 22, 2010 at 09:54 | Permalink

    Perhaps by making the Kippah so utterly feminine that almost no guy would wear it is a way around the prohibition of ‘Beged Ish’

  2. jen
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 13:31 | Permalink

    Is a kippah kli gever utterly depends on context, and it’s possible to argue it six ways to Shabbos. and as mara d’atra of this blog, I declare that topic so dull and overhashed as to be verboten on this post.

  3. Posted July 6, 2010 at 14:53 | Permalink

    “Marta d’atra,” no?

    Also, the paper towel thing is so not original. My grandmother, a”h, always covered her head with a paper napkin to light Shabbat candles. Every single time. So did my mother. It’s kind of hard to keep it on while you’re waving your hands or if there’s a nearby fan or AC, but it’s how it was done! Perhaps because she lit candles in the kitchen window, and that was what was handy?

    I don’t think my grandmother was the only one. (My grandmother was the lady who wore hats to shul, but not otherwise; knew large parts of davening by heart but was probably only a mediocre reader of Hebrew; was traditional–not to be confused with Conservative.)

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