(lubavitch.com) Under rhythmic beats of café jazz and club electronica, a string of young women paraded down the catwalk, as lithe as contestants on "America's Next Top Model." They wore playful confections made of gauzy fabric and delicate trim. The bohemian chic skirts and couture-style gowns they modeled looked well suited to the fashion week tents of New York or Milan.
But this was neither. Rather, it was Ecole Beth Menachem, a Jewish school in the city of Lyon in the south of France where, to demonstrate that women's clothing can be fashionable but also hew to Jewish standards of modesty, students and teachers banded together last June to host a special fashion show. They solicited garments from French designers that included skirt hems below the knee, sleeves below the elbow and collarbones covered, and hundreds of people from the area crowded in to see the designs.
There were nods of appreciation for the ankle-length floral skirts, and pictures were snapped of the long banana yellow dress worn over platform heels. But the loudest applause and glee from the audience was for a pair of sleek skirt and jacket sets in denim fabric.
This was to be the school's new uniform for girls.
The significance of introducing a school uniform in fashion-conscious France, where young women pay acute attention to their clothing and appearance, cannot be underestimated. And as teachers and administrators from Beth Menachem recalled, the road getting there was not a quick and easy one.
Sarah Gurewitz, Chabad representative to Lyons, cofounded the school as a small kindergarten in 1982, and now it has grown to an enrollment of nearly 600 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Still serving as the school's principal, she had the idea to introduce uniforms several years ago as she noticed that the upper grade girls were becoming increasingly invested in their clothing, to the point of being obsessed with brands and competitive with each other.
Broaching the idea was a delicate endeavor in Lyon, where no other school has uniforms, as explained by Edela Gurewitz, Sarah's daughter-in-law and a Jewish studies teacher at Beth Menachem.
"For a few years, she was talking about it to the parents and teachers, but in France it's not part of the culture. Now this year, she ended up doing it. She thought that if the children think less of clothes, they can put more into their studies."
Knowing that the students would not consent to wearing anything that didn't conform to their high fashion standards, Mrs. Gurewitz solicited the help of a parent from the school who is also a fashion designer. He came up with a few variations of outfits that were unveiled at the June fashion show, which girls between the ages of 11 and 16 were to begin wearing to school in September.
The uniform the students ultimately chose is a light colored denim fabric skirt with a tiny flare below the knee, and a matching fitted jacket with prominent brass buttons, subtle ribbons over punchy pockets and slightly flared shoulders. The silhouette it strikes is sophisticated and sleek, and by all accounts, the girls have been delighted with it.
"My daughter Rivka is 13, and in the beginning when she heard about the uniform, she was not happy about it," said Lidia Azoulay, who also works as an administrator at the school. "But when she saw how easy it became to get dressed in the morning, she loved it. There had been problems of competition between the children from rich parents and the children from poor parents, but now there is no problem."
Another mother from the school, Aida Nemenov, said that both she and her 11-year-old daughter Zelda were thrilled with the new uniform. "Zelda told me that all the girls in the class are very happy. They all feel the same, and at that age that's very important. They feel good because it's not old style—it shows you can be modern and modest too. And as a parent, I'm telling you, it's much better economically. I buy two or three uniforms, and I'm not passing my time buying clothes the whole year."
The uniform has been such a hit that girls report feeling proud to be seen wearing it in the fashionable shopping districts of Lyon after school, and parents and teachers from other schools in the area have expressed interest in replicating the idea. Mrs. Nemenov said that when her family has guests to their home, they inevitably ask if they can see the famed uniform they have heard so much about.
And far from the initial skepticism around the idea of introducing a school uniform in fashion obsessed Lyon, now everyone in the school seems to want one.
"My eight-year-old girl is asking, 'Why don't we have the uniform?'" said Mrs. Azoulay. "And the boys are asking, 'Why don't we get a uniform?'"
Soon, in fact. They are in the works.