Dear Jew In The City,
Why don’t Orthodox women wear pants even though in today’s world you can tell women’s and men’s clothing apart?
What you’re hinting at is one of the reasons why most Orthodox women don’t wear pants: kli gever – the prohibition for a woman to dress like a man. (Beged isha is the corresponding prohibition on men dressing like women.) It used to be that pants were only worn by men, in the same way that skirts are only worn by women now, so wearing pants was the equivalent of wearing men’s clothing. But you’re right that there are certainly pants out there today that are specifically made for women, so kli gever can’t be the only reason behind skirting pants.
Besides kli gever, another reason for wearing skirts is modesty. Yes, I know that there are baggy pants out there that are far more modest than skin-tight skirts, to which I will respond that skin-tight skirts do not meet the traditional Jewish definition of modesty either! Now there are some rabbis in the Modern Orthodox community who believe that very baggy pants can meet tznius (modesty) guidelines, though in my personal opinion, the types of pants that women crave are the ones that show off their assets and not the MC Hammer kind.
(As is always the case, I’d just like to remind everyone that I’m not an authority of Jewish law, but rather an observant woman who had many of the questions that make it to this site. So I’ll tell you what was explained to me back when I asked this question and what I discovered on my own as a skirts-only gal. But there are other opinions out there more to the right of me and more to the left. For more specific information and textual sources, please consult your LOR – local Orthodox rabbi.)
While skirts are not mentioned in the Talmud in its discussions of modesty, Jewish women, as a community (at a certain point in time) decided to wear them exclusively in an effort to be more modest. So while a woman could put on very baggy, made-for-women-only pants, there’s still the issue of skirts being a community norm. Although there are a range of styles, fashions, and lengths of skirts that can be worn (to allow for individuality and personal style) there is something to be said for dressing as part of one’s community.
Back in Egypt (we’re talking The Ten Commandments era-Egypt), one of the things that the Jewish people were praised for was for keeping their own style of dress. So while there seems to be a range of opinions as to whether or not skirts are a must from a law-based perspective, there is certainly something positive about them from a community-bonding perspective.
Now on to my personal story: I started wearing only skirts as an experiment right before I got to college. I wasn’t convinced that they were mandatory by all opinions, but I did want to associate myself with other observant Jews (and I didn’t find super-baggy pants particularly appealing), so I gave skirt-wearing a go. I realized, after a while, that wearing skirts in public (I did and still do wear pants in front of other women and family members in private) was a good personal reminder about who I was, what I believed in, and what I wanted to represent to the rest of the world.
It was actually a non-Jewish dorm neighbor in college, though, that made me realize how nice it was to associate myself with my community in an outward way. It was towards the beginning of my freshman year, and this neighbor shared an interesting story with me and a fellow Orthodox friend. He said that when he first got to campus, he was eager to make friends, so in an attempt to find like-minded people, he put on (and kept wearing) a t-shirt with his favorite band on it. He struck up a conversation with a classmate along the way based on the shirt, but the conversation didn’t end up leading to a friendship since he and the classmate didn’t have much more in common than the band. And then he said to us, “You people, with your yarmulkes and skirts, you can find each other so easily and automatically know that you’ve got so much in common. You’re so lucky to be a part of a community like that.”
I think all too often we Jews see our laws and customs as restrictive and limiting, so it was nice to be reminded, especially by someone from the outside looking in, as to how fortunate we are to have them.
All the best,