The basic impression never fails. Stick someone in a black hat and suit next to someone wearing contemporary clothes and a suede kippah and ask people which man is more observant. Almost every time the response will be "the guy in the hat and suit".
Not knowing anything about the two people this is the answer most people give based on first impressions. It could be that the guy in regular clothes sits and learns all day long while and is especially medakdek in his mitzvah observance while the guy in the hat and suit is, well Sholom Rubashkin or something like that. It doesn't matter. Who's going to look more at place in the Orthodox shul down the street?
Many of us recoil from this simplistic observation and feel that it is quite wrong. Judging people by the clothes they wear is superficial and can lead to great error. What's more, there is a resentment in the non-Chareidi community over the importance specific uniforms play amongst the Chareidim. It seems wrong to us that you should be rated by others based on the hat you wear, not on your basic actions.
As a result there is a great deal of effort put forth by many in the Modern Orthodox community to show that the halacha does not support some of the things Chareidim treat as assumptions. One does not have to wear a black hat while davening or at any other time for that matter. One does not have to wear exclusively white shirts and dark suits either. A recent excellent book reviewing issues of importance to the Modern Orthodox community emphasizes this with plenty of halachic support.
But is that all there is to it, or does the paraphrase "Methinks the Modern Orthodox do protest too much" seem applicable here?
Consider where the term "Chareidi" came from. It is based on a verse describing folks who tremble, are "chareid" for the word of God. The Chareidi philosophy is based on a total dedication to connecting with God through the performance of mitzvos and that no area of life is devoid of mitzvos.
Thus for a Gerer chasid, the bekishe and shtreiml aren't simply a uniform to identify membership is a group but an act of worship. The chasid doesn't wait to get to shul and put his tefillin on to begin his religious service. He starts it with rising from bed and getting dressed.
The importance of this cannot be overstated as it puts non-Chareidi protestations at the seeming overemphasis on outfit in a different perspective. As noted elsewhere, Modern Orthodoxy is often defined by what it isn't. It isn't Reformative, it isn't UltraOrthodox. Many in the community bristle at this definition but when one looks at the complaints I noted, it seems to resemble reality.
Consider that the Chareidi approach to clothing is positive - I wear this outfit to worship God. Consider the Modern Orthodox retort - I don't wear that outfit because I don't have to. Then look at other areas of difference between the two communities. What is the Chareidi approach to television? I don't watch television because it's against the Torah. What is the Modern Orthodox rebuttal? There's nothing against the Torah about watching television.
In each example one brings up the theme seems to be the same. The UltraOrthodox perform acts with the express purpose of making them part of their worship. These acts may be inventions, a product of the revision of history, a derivative of a chumrah from the gemara in Uktzin or the like. They may have no basis in halacha at all! Yet they are done as part of the ongoing service of God that is prioritized in the Chareidi community.
And the Modern Orthodox? How is watching television part of one's worship of God? How is a colourful contemporary outfit part of one's service to the Divine? Are these acts of dedication to God or admissions that parts of their lives are simply exempt from serving Him?
It seems to me that this is why we have the immediate impression that the guy in the Oreo outfit is "frummer" than the guy dressed in a secular style. Knowing nothing else about the two men we can reach one immediate conclusion. The guy in black and white is making a positive statement to all who see him about his loyalty to Torah and mitzvos. The guy who's dressed normally is not. He may be just as pious or even more than his UltraOrthodox counterpart but in this one aspect where we see them he is lacking a positive statement of dedication.
Now, I reject the idea that the outfit is an important part of determining one's yiras Shamayim and level of Torah observance. The pitfall of accepting that is a culture in which the outfit goes from one determinant to the sole determinant of one's acceptability to the group. How many times in recent years have we seen people who own only variations on the Oreo outfit who did not have problems cheating and stealing? How many times have we seen men whose lives revolve around the hats they wear rioting and attacking others who don't share their taste in clothing?
But I do think that this area raised an important challenge for Modern Orthodoxy. One can look at regular clothes and say "Well I can't be bothered to bring God into that part of my life" or one can note that a Jew who is dressed in normal clothes might better relate to his non-religious counterpart and show him that an otherwise "regular" guy can also be observant, that the Torah lifestyle isn't simply for the "other" that requires a restrictive dress code. A simple re-framing and suddenly Torah is in a new part of one's life.
There is a lot Modern Orthodoxy can learn from the Chareidim and this, the idea that Torah should impact all parts of our life including the most mundane ones, is one of those things.