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Pants, Pants Revolution: How My First Pair of Jeans Redefined Modesty for Me

When I bought jeans recently, I redefined what ‘tzniut’ means to me as an Orthodox woman

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(Collage Tablet Magazine, original images Wikimedia Commons and iStock Photo.)
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When I bought a pair of jeans earlier this year, I felt like I was driving home with a terrible cargo of guilt and sins. They were the first jeans I’ve ever purchased.

As a proper Orthodox girl, I’ve worn skirts for as long as I can remember. Not only were skirts simply what my community, not to mention my parents, deemed appropriate dress for women. To me, pants represented Sinful Temptation. Sure, it’s an extreme association to have with an item of clothing, but the Judaism with which I was raised excelled at playing the guilt card, and I’ve been an eager card-carrying member my whole life. So, dutifully and without question—although rarely happily—I wore skirts.

But now I’ve joined the “Pants, Pants Revolution,” the name a friend of mine has given to the growing number of Orthodox girls deciding to wear pants—which among my peer group is becoming a more common phenomenon. And once I joined the revolution, I couldn’t stop. I went back out almost immediately and bought several more pairs.

***

When I was growing up as a Modern Orthodox kid, I would cast my eyes longingly at pants. My friends in grade school, who were also Modern Orthodox, wore them. Like any child, I didn’t enjoy being different, but I believed that wearing pants was simply “wrong” and skirts were “right.” I thought I was following halakhah better than they were. When I went to a high school and then a seminary where only skirts were allowed, the issue faded for several years. By the time I finished school and found myself once again in a circle of friends in which wearing pants was common, I didn’t give it much thought. I was no longer uncomfortable being different. In fact, I embraced it. After more than 20 years, wearing skirts didn’t even occur to me as something I could or should change.

But then my younger sister, 21 and living the Modern Orthodox life in Israel with her husband, called me one day a few months ago and informed me that she had done some halachic research and decided that wearing pants poses no problem for women today; she sent me her readings and the rabbinic teshuvot that supported her decision to start wearing pants, and I realized I agreed. I’d been taught that one of the main reasons pants aren’t allowed is because they’re begged ish—men’s clothing, which is forbidden—but had never understood why they’re still considered men’s clothing in today’s age. It turns out, there are rabbis who agree with me. It felt silly, suddenly, to spend my life dictated by social expectations that, to me, didn’t have legal backing. Especially if that expectation was uncomfortable, hard to walk in, and made sitting Indian-style incredibly awkward.

But still, I hesitated. By this point in my life, I thought about all my actions as personal decisions instead of mindless movements dictated by a higher, intractable law; I wanted my life decisions, and my religion, to grow out of mature choices and meaningful thought. Yet wearing skirts wasn’t just about obeying a higher, intractable law that I wasn’t sure I believed anymore. To me and my community, skirts are a symbol of something more than a fashion decision; they are symbols of Orthodoxy, the mark of belief in a religion that can and will guide the minutest aspects of our day. There was something nice about being recognizable as belonging to Orthodox Judaism. When I would spot a man with a kippa or a woman in a skirt and long sleeves, there was an implicit understanding, an invisible head nod of recognition that only we could perceive. This social aspect, more than anything, made me appreciate the strict bindings of modesty laws, especially as my social circles grew and I began working outside the strictly Orthodox community.

I wondered: Why fix something that’s not broken? Even if I was swayed by my sister’s reasoning and didn’t see a halachic problem with wearing pants, I was used to wearing skirts. I was OK with it. But as weeks passed and became months, I would find myself staring longingly as women passed easily in pantsuits, looking so professional and comfortable that my pencil skirt seemed more like a shackle than an item of clothing. It happened on a level I didn’t even recognize, so much so that I was caught off guard the moment my mind was made up: I would start wearing pants. Such a monumental decision didn’t seem like the type of thing that would happen while walking to the bathroom at work one day. But it did. Just like that. Well, “just like that” after months of consideration.

I wanted pants, I decided, which meant I needed to buy some. This fateful shopping trip was the culmination of weeks, or even years, of a mind slowly reaching its own decision. And yet I didn’t even know I would be buying pants that day until I was standing at the register of Fox’s holding a pair of jeans, among all the new clothing I had set out to buy for the upcoming holidays. From the dressing room where I’d tried them on to the register where I laid them down, I went back and forth in my mind: I’ll buy them. No, I’ll put them back. I’m brave enough for this. Actually, I’m not.

But I had gone shopping that day with my sister, and she encouraged me to try the jeans on. I tried on pair after pair, discarding all of them in indecision, until I was left with one pair that I couldn’t seem to get rid of. Snug but soft, comfortable but flattering, they were the type of faded jeans that seemed like a staple for every other woman’s wardrobe—and now, apparently, mine. So, I threw them on the pile and paid for them. They were mine, and I was a step closer to actually wearing pants in public. It felt thrilling and normal all at the same time. I looked good. I felt good. And I was buying jeans. I felt so … normal.

Jeans, beyond pants, are the essence of comfort, the symbol of the average American. Male or female—it doesn’t matter. If you’re American, you probably have jeans. You wear them to your family football cookouts, or whatever typical Americans do in their free time. When I wore them, I knew I wouldn’t stand out as different from everyone else, as I had for most of my life. I would be like any American girl, wearing her jeans.

When I got home, I suddenly felt nervous all over again, like a teenager afraid to come home smelling of alcohol. I hesitated, then told my mom, “I bought pants.” She turned to my sister and joked, “You corrupted her!” And that was it. Nothing more was said. Once again, I was reminded that I’m 23 and can make my own decisions, something that takes longer to sink in than it should. That step over with, I proudly showed them off to my fiancé, whose only real question was why it had taken me so long to come to the decision he knew I’d wanted for so long. And then, in a flurry of excitement and the reality hitting me, I texted some friends.

“I’ve officially joined the Pants, Pants Revolution!” I said. They all demanded pictures. No one was shocked; I was the girl who publicized sex at Stern, after all. It was only natural that I should wear pants. It was only bizarre that it had taken me so long to realize that, as much as I grew up being the quintessential Modern Orthodox good girl, I didn’t belong in the group of girls who did as they were told because they were told it was right. I think for myself. And now I wore those decisions publicly.

The truth is, I expected more shock from more people, which I haven’t gotten. My boss didn’t even notice I was dressed differently until I asked him when he was going to notice it. My friends didn’t blink. My fiancé’s parents, who didn’t say anything for days after they saw me in jeans, finally asked me about them—but were simply curious how I had gone from wearing no pants to suddenly owning four pairs. “I just bought them all now,” I explained. A couple days after buying that first fateful pair, I realized I wanted more. So, I bought two pairs of pants and another pair of jeans. And that was it. I may have felt different, more myself in some ways and more new in others, but to everyone else I was the same.

When I first started wearing jeans, I checked myself in the mirror a hundred times a day. Did they accentuate my thighs? Make me look even shorter than I already am? But now, months later, I’m actually more comfortable with my body in pants than I ever was in skirts. I actually feel more modest than before. Instead of battling a subconscious desire to rebel against the modesty laws I felt were imposed on me without my being asked, I now feel as if I have chosen my own path of tzniut, and the items of clothing like shorter skirts and low-cut shirts that I used to wear despite the fact that they were risqué (or maybe because they were risqué) no longer feel necessary. If anything, I feel more honest about who I am in pants—not to mention more comfortable.

And just because I’ve changed my attitude toward pants doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on tzniut altogether. Quite the contrary—I’ve defined what modesty means for me and embraced it. Now that I’m married, I cover my hair every day. The hats, perhaps seen simply as a hipster style by most people, are recognizable to other Orthodox Jews as a symbol of my marriage—they are, in some ways, the new skirt. This makes my decision to wear pants even more comfortable with me: I have chosen my own path in the complex laws of modesty, and in doing so I have found a precious balance of being me and still being recognized as a fellow Jew.

***

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julis123 says:

Good to see that there are still modern Orthodox resisting the Haredization of Judaism.

I’ll take this as serious haskalah when orthodox men start wearing skirts.

honeybear62 says:

First, sorry to disappoint you, but the true Modern Orthodox have been wearing pants forever. The trend to go to the right is a new concept, only the last 20 years, We of the older generation realized a long time ago we could be true to our religion and ourselves.
I am glad some of the younger women are realizing this now.

rebeccnm says:

im sry but this article is so shallow. it does not depict the actual ongoing struggle religious girls have. its just not that easy

citygirl16 says:

as a long time modern orthodox pants wearer, with friends on all sides of the pants/skirts divide, this is just not that exciting of an essay. i know that it feels like this intense personal religious decision and the internal battle feels great. but i basically wrote this essay myself when i was a college freshman, and so did many of my friensd, whether over email, for more formal publication, or as an assignment for a class. i have shopped with friends for their first pair, i’ve lent pairs to friends on the fence. i know its a big deal internally, but this essay is certainly going to strike those who dont understand the nuances here as a shallow essay, and wont get why it was even published.

disqus_Em8AoQWUp0 says:

Another pointless plea for attention. Not surprising, as that is what the Beacon was founded for.

janedoe35 says:

I wear pants every single day and the issue of beged ish never even occurred to me. I would also never leave my house without a skirt over said pants (yes, I do wear jeans and knee length skirts together – this is acceptable in Israel, where nobody has any fashion sense anyways). You’re right that beged ish is not a strong argument against pants nowadays, but there is still the issue of the split between the legs. Even if you say that slacks are permitted, the tightness of jeans on the crotch and butt raises a very serious tznius problem – which you totally neglected to address.

    Tunics that cover the hips is the obvious answer for covering our dangerous crotches and backsides. As to the fact that our legs split, that we’re not mermaids,that is the man’s problem. Once again, the extremes of tzniut sexualize women as surely as does skimpy clothing.

      janedoe35 says:

      It’s only an obvious answer if the question is raised. Like I said, I also wear pants, I just cover the top of them.

      kweansmom says:

      Wearing long tunics over your jeans doesn’t give the wearer the feeling of “being a normal American girl” that the author seems to treasure. I doubt she is wearing a baggy tunic over her beloved snug jeans.

      What you see as “extreme” is what many halachic authorities have seen as mainstream for centuries. The author is right that some rabbinic authorities are okay with women wearing pants, but she glosses over those who are not. What’s not clear from the article is, at what point does the desire to feel “normal” trump halacha? Janedoe35 brought up legitimate halachic issues.

        You don’t know what she wears. I wear leggings with long sweaters or what some may considers mini-dresses myself. It’s the prurience of men that I’m calling out as extreme, inasmuch as the stricture on skirts is indeed because they seem unable to look at an ankle (see Cole Porter) without making a beeline for the vagina. I see the haredi girls in my neighborhood in the summer confined in long sleeves, long bulky skirts and heavy socks over tights, too hot to jump rope or play while their brothers frolic in shirtsleeves. I see boys turn 13, put on a Borsalino and become entitled bullies in the kosher market. How did “mainstream” halachah bring that about. Looks more like calcification to me.

      janedoe35 says:

      Also, to address the second part of your comment (I didn’t have time earlier to properly articulate what I want to say), I don’t believe in dressing modestly to protect men; you’re right, that’s not my problem. I know that I look much better in pants than in skirts, but I choose to wear skirts because I want to feel like a person, not a body to show off. I do not want to feel like guys are looking at me like a piece of meat. And please don’t answer me with some crap about how not every guy wants to rape every girl that he sees in jeans. I’m talking about the simple difference between the way that tight pants pull the eye vs the way a (loose) skirt, well, doesn’t. Hey, I know I’d check me out in pants.

“I’m still orthodox but I…wear pants/text on Shabbat/have pre-marital sex…” When does it stop being defined as “Orthodox” and just become “doing whatever I want”?

    pelerojo says:

    One of those things is not like the other. Namely, the texting on Shabbos thing. The other two are actually okay (the sex before marriage thing is immoral, but whatever). Wearing pants accentuates a woman’s body, which is probably the real issue with them, but hey: maybe next she’ll start practicing necromancy and eat a kid stewed in its mother’s milk!

      Sex before marriage is not forbidden because it’s “immoral”. It is an
      Isar Dearasa (law from the Torah). The reason a man cannot have
      marriageable sex is because a man is not allowed to touch a Nidah.
      Leviticus 18:19

disqus_Vv4avRnkUP says:

Between the lines…just fragments of thoughts:

-Skirts Shmirts!!! –Fashion is the covering-up of one’s way of dressing oneself. -An individual is expressing herself in the fashion they wish that fits presentably and comfortably to it’s lifestyle. ——-Therefore, clothes may make the person, but that individual decides on her presentation… ——Who decides what’s decent? -Well, being oneself and exuding confidence makes the person real and imparts a personality that embodies everything.
-let’s get real…with all due respect

Chana says:

I was sort of interested in what the author had to say until she got to the part about how she was “the girl who publicized sex at Stern”. Maybe pants have a place in Orthodox modesty, but shameless self-aggrandizement doesn’t. And the cliche narrative about how the “good girl” decides to start thinking for herself and breaks with tradition, thereby implying that people who continue following those traditions are a bunch of brainwashed sheep, is both very tired and an extreme disservice to Orthodoxy. It’s also oversimplified to the point of intellectual dishonesty-not everyone who disagrees with you does so out of misinformation or fear of being shunned. I have known for years that there is very little actual halachic grounds against women’s pants, but choose not to wear them for a variety of personal reasons, which don’t include fear of what my rabbi would say if I didn’t. Bottom line, I wore skirts in public high school for years. At one point a girl was surprised to find out I was Orthodox, and I asked her “Why do you think I wear skirts all the time?” She said “I don’t know, I thought you just liked them”. Goes to show that people’s lives don’t revolve around what you wear.

Gila Heller says:

Wow…tough crowd…obviously a controversial topic, but regardless of where you stand on the halachic spectrum, this is a sensitive and nuanced article regarding one individual’s personal decision. Ad hominem attacks are completely unwarranted.

    mouskatel says:

    I think the point is that it’s not really that controversial. Only in the author’s head and maybe a very small substratum of religious girls/women in their late teens/early twenties.

    Sophi Zimmerman says:

    Thanks for being the voice of reason here.

herbcaen says:

Perhaps you should do something more worthwhile than writing insipid articles. Might I suggest going uptown to Einstein Med and work on a cure for cancer or HIV

hrt313 says:

Some people’s lives do not revolve around what they wear, however in many fields these days it is incredibly important to present oneself in a certain way. fashion should be individual…it should give some hint as the what the person is like on the inside. I come from a modern orthodox background and I have friends who prefer skirts and friends who prefer pants not because someone is pushing them to wear certain things but because they feel like the level of modesty is sufficient for them. It is important to teach modesty- not give guidelines to be followed. Now, as I am in college, I am exposed to the secular world and I see that I have the same choices as these people yet I choose to wear my jeans, t-shirts, and pantsuits modestly because I came out my moderate Jewish community with certain values, not just a cryptic set of guidelines.

musings1 says:

that Simi Lampert-Lichtman is ok embarrassing herself with such inane, pointless writing is one thing, but why is Tablet publishing such rubbish? these kinds of non-reflective “reflections” undermine the real struggles of people wrestling with questions of faith and family and loyalty and what not, and is plain offensive to thinking people everywhere

Guest says:

that Simi Lampert-Lichtman is ok embarrassing herself with such inane, pointless writing is one thing, but why is Tablet publishing such rubbish? these kinds of non-reflective “reflections” undermine the real struggles of people wrestling with questions of faith and family and loyalty and what not, and is plain offensive to thinking people everywhere

    Sophi Zimmerman says:

    I believe it’s a great article and well-written as well.

Srdjan says:

Oh, people, are you talking about a new barbie doll? Is there finally orthodox one with pants? Great! Now I have a great present for my orthodox daughter.

YochevedZ says:

I was hoping for an essay talking about tznius issues regarding Dance Dance Revolution and whether it was more appropriate to play in a skirt or in pants, if at all. Instead I got a girl telling me that since today’s pants are really not men’s clothes, orthodox women have no reason not to wear them. Very disappointing.

Also — I would feel shackled in a pencil skirt too. They’re uncomfortable and impossible to move in. I love how this is the comparison that the writer gives as to how amazing and comfortable pants are. Flowy, elastic a-line skirts are literally the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn around my waist…and that includes my most comfortable pair of jeans from back when I wore them.

It is a shame that a girl cannot trust her father when he says men see things differently when it comes to the opposite sex. But maybe fathers are not as trustworthy as they used to be. If you read your Torah you might understand. Do this girls when you are married. Ask your husbands. Hopefully you can trust them. When you pour yourself into your clothes you don’t leave much to the imagination. That is both of our problems as much as you might like to excuse yourselves.

Daniel William says:

The attack on 24 years of character Knox is a lawyer, the people, they were first accused of murdering the Meredith. http://wp.me/p1CkXq-Qj

robert zafft says:

So, what should a frum woman wear in the Highlands of Scotland, where men wear kilts?

mizbrown says:

Interesting read. I’m not Orthodox, or even Jewish. Instead, I grew-up in a Baptist Christian family where pants are considered men’s clothing and indecent for women. I’m almost 40 years old and I finally purchased my first pair of jeans. Sadly, they sit in my closet because I feel so immodest wearing them. Last year I was forced to purchase a pair of khaki pants because I was going to Egypt and I REALLY wanted to ride a camel. I thought it was funny that my pants provided more modesty in that country and others I visited than my skirts ever could. Maybe this year I will be able to wear my jeans (with a very long tunic) and still feel like a ‘good girl’.

MervinRock says:

I have a problem with the honesty in this piece. As if the idea of an adult woman going ga-ga over buying pants for the first time isn’t sad enough, the author equates the nervous feeling to that of a “teenager afraid to come home smelling of alcohol.” Seriously? The author came home drunk in high school? Given her evidence she has provided, I doubt she ever came home late – let alone late and drunk.

Banksy says:

Your article was very interesting and you clearly have a knack for writing.
Your decision to wear pants was your very own and that’s your choice.

But with all due respect, you published an article practically promoting pants based on a decision you made mostly if not wholly based on feeling.

There are so many ways of dealing with obstacles we face, especially when it comes to Judaism and its observance.
When faced with questions, its the soul craving for more.
Question more, learn more; G-d is not there to corner us.

Your article sheds light on the great difference between Spirituality and G-dliness, but I will leave you all to think of it on your own.

I wish you the best of luck in your undertakings.

Abigail Nelson says:

Well, honestly i am a woman that never wears skirts but rather i am more comfortable wearing jeans and etc.. I am for sure be loving it because i can even walk and smile comfortably at anytime and anywhere you want. that’s just what I’ve always wanted.

thanks, seersucker suit

Sophi Zimmerman says:

Thanks for the great article. I see you have many detractors in the comments which means you are saying something very important. Keep up the good work!

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Pants, Pants Revolution: How My First Pair of Jeans Redefined Modesty for Me

When I bought jeans recently, I redefined what ‘tzniut’ means to me as an Orthodox woman