Is the Future of Modern Orthodox Women In Pants?
Women from most Orthodox Jewish communities, be it Hassidic or Yeshivish, wear skirts in public unless they are comfortable breaking from community norms. Women from most of the rest of the Jewish world are comfortable wearing pants in public, to the extent that it’s considered a fashionable or acceptable choice by society at large. For some Modern Orthodox Jews, skirts versus pants gets tricky. In these communities, pants feel to me very much like the movable fault line of Jewish women’s religious practices, with different impulses pushing and shifting the line, slowly over time. I think a lot about where this is headed in the future.
At its core, the skirt for Orthodox Jewish women, especially American Orthodox Jewish women, is intended to be a form of religious modesty. I would also argue that it has developed its own secondary meaning in current religious practice, beyond the literal rules of modesty. It is a marker or projection for women, in much the same way that wearing a yarmulke is an important marker for men in most Orthodox communities, despite the fact that neither is a religious commandment.
If you’re a Modern Orthodox woman, the question of pants is often a function of where you live and how you were raised. The confusion is itself deeply embedded in these communities’ practices. Take our schools, for example. I don’t know of any American Modern Orthodox school that does not require female students to wear skirts as part of their daily uniform or dress code. This is true in both elementary schools and high schools. The nuances differ—your length or cut requirement mileage may vary—but, ultimately, every one of these schools across Modern Orthodoxy’s relatively large religious spectrum is committed to skirts.
Until they’re not. There doesn’t seem to be much public discussion of this, but what little there is, tends to focus on the “normative culture” aspect of American Modern Orthodox women wearing skirts, and not on the idea of practical modesty. Many Modern Orthodox schools do allow girls to wear sweatpants (or, in rarer cases, shorts) for playing sports and some other active scenarios. The SAR High School's Family handbook even explicitly says that “Girls must wear sweatpants during gym class (leggings are not permitted).” There seems to be an understanding that pants, especially loose fitting ones, have a place in this context. This is also sometimes true on school trips. When my school goes on trips or retreats, most girls wear sweatpants under their skirts to school on the day they leave, and then remove their skirts, with either explicit or tacit approval from the school, when we leave on the retreat. This is true even if the activities are coed. There appears to be some acceptance, or at least recognition, that pants can fulfill religious modesty requirements.
Things only get more complicated when similar groups in Israel are taken into account. Israeli Orthodox women certainly share many of the same sensibilities of their American counterparts, but also seem more willing to change practices over time. Anecdotally, there appears to be wider acceptance of religious women wearing loose-fitting pants in some parts of Israeli society. For example, there seems to be an established culture and history, perhaps born from practicality, of women wearing pants in working situations, like on kibutzim. As best I can tell, for these women in Israel, there is a utilitarian factor to determining the bounds of religious modesty. Loose fitting pants can undoubtedly be less revealing than a tighter fitting skirt, no matter the length, depending on the circumstances. Israelis seem more comfortable with this idea.
So, what comes next? Will we start to see pants become accepted in some Modern Orthodox schools? Will we see a retrenchment, with pants banned altogether?
The more I think about it, the more I think we may see some American Modern Orthodox schools allow pants as part of their dress code or uniform in my lifetime, and broader acceptance of pants in general. The fact that sweatpants are allowed for school sports, regardless of who is in attendance (the events are coed, in many cases) seems to be a recognition of the fact that pants, as a purely practical matter, can be less revealing than a skirt when running and jumping. Allowing pants in these types of settings is an acknowledgment of the utilitarian component of religious modesty. Skirts fall into a halachic gray area, subject to a degree of interpretation, as can be seen by the varied practices around it. Changes to our traditions move more slowly than societal changes. Women long ago started wearing pants, and not just skirts and dresses. As a result, the utilitarian thought process of what actually constitutes a modest thing to wear will gravitate slowly to where society is already. There’s an override of the symbolic modesty and self-identification aspect of the skirt. Self-identification for Modern Orthodox women may have to come in other ways, perhaps via baggier pants than are currently fashionable.
So, what’s holding schools back? Is it fear of being the first mover, and the judgment that may come with it? We’ll see. Personally, I like wearing sweatpants. At home, it’s my clothing of choice. Will it change my life if my school lets me wear them? Probably not, but I’d probably enjoy having the option.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.