Thursday, February 23, 2012

(All We Are Asking is) Make Peace With Pants?

Consider this Part II of The Social Side Effects of Elbows and Knees. In that post, I discussed the modern Orthodox attitude (NOT Halacha) regarding modesty ("Tzniut"), particularly when it comes to sleeve and skirt lengths (aka "The Almighty Inch"). I promised to elaborate further on my views regarding girls wearing pants. Here is that promised elaboration.

This being a sensitive issue, I feel compelled to begin the same way I did in Part I, with a disclaimer that this WILL NOT be a discussion of Halacha, since there is no source in Gemara that states outright “females must not wear pants.” There are interpretations of Gemara which take that view. There are other interpretations which disagree. I am not discussing these opinions.

Furthermore, any views I express here are reflecting Halacha the way I was taught in school. These may not be the views you were taught in school, and I can’t help that. I will also restate that I think the Laws of Tzniut are a GOOD thing, especially in our world where ten-year-olds are wearing more makeup to school every day than I do to a wedding.

If The Almighty Inch didn’t get me yelled at, this one might. Because now we slip from a breach of modesty which may or may not be intentional to one that most certainly is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone accidently put on a pair of pants. But keep in mind that most of the comparisons I make, illustrations, and suggested "solutions" are meant IN JEST. 

Girls in pants. A great taboo in many Modern Orthodox circles, and yet I’ve never once gotten a satisfactory (Halachic) explanation of why. In terms of a social-practical answer of why long, tastefully-tailored pants are considered immodest when knee-length skirts are allowed, the reason (for me anyway) is pretty clear-cut. And for that I direct you once again to this image:

Simply put: when faced with these two women, which would you immediately assume is a religious Jew? And that’s it. The importance of being identifiable as an Orthodox Jew (and the pride that brings, if you have it) is the only (social-practical) reason I cannot argue with to wear long sleeves in the summer and knee-length skirts in freezing December.

But when it comes to the Halachic question of why I must wear leggings under static-clingy skirt to work instead of a nice pair of dress-pants, I am usually met with one of two answers: the first, because pants are Halachically considered menswear (aka Begged Ish), and the second, because pants are just plain immodest, showing off the shape of my legs in a way sure to attract attention from curious guys.

I will not discuss my opinions regarding these opinions (just be assured that I have them). Instead, I will tell you the story of the poll I took in my freshman year of college. I've always understood why skin-tight, short, leather, form-fitting, or translucent pants are not modest. For the same reason skin-tight, short, form-fitting, or translucent SKIRTS aren't modest. But I wondered if it was true that long, loose, Israeli-style or tailored-dress pants were really any "sexier" than knee-length or long skirts. This was my first time in a non-religion-oriented school, and I wondered.

So out of curiosity and over the course of a few months, I asked 100 guys in their late teens and twenties, of all different backgrounds, races, and religions, which they preferred on a woman, and which they found “sexier”: long, tailored pants or knee-length, tailored skirts? (Keep in mind I was not comparing tight jeans or miniskirts. In my opinion these are BOTH immodest for pretty obvious reasons).

The responses I got were diverse, but overwhelming. A vast majority of guys said they preferred skirts to pants, and over 90% agreed that skirts were “sexier”. They added comments ranging from brutal honesty ("because there's always hope for a gust of wind") to...well...

But those are just my findings on the subject. For all I know, other people think differently. All I could think after these finding though, was that clearly, I’m attracting more looks with a nice sun dress than with a pair of tailored trousers. And forget sweatpants. Most guys I spoke to agreed (in keeping with the "if it's comfortable you're not trying" rule of fashion) that sweatpants were about the LEAST attractive thing I could wear in public.

So what am I to do with this information? As a kid, I'd loved wearing jeans. Oftentimes I've started out for a long car ride or a field trip and wished I could just pull on a pair of pants. Not skinny jeans, nothing so tight as to exaggerate the truth, but just a pair of comfortable sweatpants that would allow me to ignore subway grates and sit Indian style on the floor. Which, as I and many other girls have pointed out, are REAL concerns of Tzniut in the modern world, and HAVE happened to everyone.

Subway grates and gusts of wind are annoying, but sitting Indian style is just plain infuriating to a lot of girls, especially those who went to Yeshiva or Jewish summer camp. And you know why? Because every trip, every kumzits, has a moment when the teacher or principal will require students to sit Indian style, in a circle, on the floor, making it unbelievably awkward for a girl in a modesty-approved jean skirt who winds up sitting across from a fifteen-year-old boy. 

On these occasions most girls will either hug their knees in a panic-like rocking position, or fold their legs beneath them and lean on one arm, a position which, believe me, grows very uncomfortable very quickly. And this would be no problem if they'd let us wear pants under our skirts. A LOT of schools, including ones I've attended, do not. (And no, tights do not accomplish anything.)

Typically, schools are prime example for "Tzniut rules that don't make sense," like the above Indian Style Rule. In my high school, the same no-pants rule applied, except for girls on sports teams during practice. Of course, sometimes a girl who had come to practice early would wander out of the gym into the hallway for a snack or something, and Heaven help her if she ran into one of the teachers on Tzniut duty. Meanwhile, of course, many girls would wear only skirts... of such a tight and slinky nature that they left absolutely nothing to the imagination (Yes, the ever-present "Hot Chani"). Sometimes, one of the more attentive teachers would call them out on this obvious breach of the true spirit of modesty, but other times...

I've seen this one happen more times than I can count. My problem is not with Halacha, but rather with the way some people who do not hold to these opinions are judged, and the sometimes arbitrary extent to which it is enforced. Take for example, the phys-ed trip.

On a school trip to Chelsea Piers, we came across another Orthodox group at the rock-climbing wall (we were allowed sweatpants for this one). Now, I'm sure you know that rock-climbing is not something you want to do in a skirt, and in fact, the instructor was arguing adamantly with the group's chaperone about the dangers such action would cause. And yet...

I DON'T CARE whether you swoon at the sight of sweatpants. That's just fine. But then don't take your girls rock climbing. Take them to another activity. To climb in a long skirt is DANGEROUS. And the same goes with ice-skating and swimming, both of which I've seen.

I suppose my point in all this is that while I respect Halacha and the opinions of others, it really boggles my mind when people are so bent out of shape about exact details when it comes to modesty. Considering we don't have one nation-wide rule when it comes to things like sleeve-lengths and dress-pants, I don't quite understand why people are then surprised when they see others don't hold to, or aren't familiar with, their personal standards. 

When it comes to dressing modestly for the sake of looking like an identifiable Orthodox Jew, honestly, I think that's awesome. I try my best to look Jewish every day. But as for long, loose pants being immodest, (even in regard to Begged Ish) I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. There, I said it. Start your yelling. You don't have to wear them. Just don't assume that those who do are therefore morally, or even Halachically, lax. 

And considering how many of my MALE friends complain about having to wear pants, you'd think they'd be open to a few breaches of fashion norm.

And so to these people, I offer the following solution, a trade which is sure to please absolutely no one. 

All we are saying is Make Peace with Pants. 


  1. Omg sitting on the floor in a circle in a skirt... you got that spot on. It's so annoying and awkward and uncomfortable!!
    And that moment when you finally say screw this, and change to sweatpants- its the most amazing feeling ever.

  2. Yeah I started wearing pants everyday because im a teacher and to sit indian style on the floor 8 times per day in a skirt was more than I could handle. Sooo awkward!

    Amen sista.


  3. Love it when you talk fashion. ;)

  4. Back in the day, millenia ago, men and women wore robes. I'm thinking we go back to that.


  6. While I abide by the "typical" laws of modest dress, I don't consider that a criteria for observance. I was in college with a lot of Sephardi girls who wore jeans, but did that make them any less religious than me? No. In their community, it is perfectly acceptable.

    Pants is more of an issue amongst Ashkenazim. If some people take it to a hysterical point, that cannot be helped. I wear my brother's castoff snowpants when I have to shovel and think nothing of it.

    The gals in the Israeli army were permitted by rabbanim to wear pants, since scrambling over tanks would give the dudes quite an eyeful.

    I personally think tznius should stop being an issue, and everyone should simply dress tastefully. Tznius is actually more about behavior than attire, and it applies to "bnei adam," meaning all humankind, not just Jewish girls.

    1. Amen, Lea! I couldn't agree more. So often people forget that Tzniut is supposed to be an attitude/behavior issue first which only superficially extends to what we wear (i.e. dress tastefully, not according to some rather arbitrary uniform).

      Interestingly, a lot of Sephardim I know have more of a problem with pants than a lot of Ashkenazim I know, although I'm really not sure what the reasoning behind that is, so I hesitate to comment on it. As for myself, I consider me rather frum and I think I dress in a tzniut (meaning modest) fashion. Most of the time I wear skirts, although I have been known to wear loose pants or jeans with a tunic top from time to time. Personally I see nothing wrong with it, either Halachically or social-practically.


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