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Wearing Skirts Over Pants Helps Me Straddle Two Worlds

As an Orthodox Jew, this less-than-fashionable trend gives me freedom of movement.

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Two days after this year’s spring equinox, I walked past a popular falafel place in downtown Jerusalem, where a street named after a British king meets a street named after a Herodian one. I turned the corner and stepped into a store whose racks are filled with clothing geared toward Orthodox Jewish women like me. Other pilgrims head for Jerusalem’s Old City or the Galilee. But on the rare occasions when I can steal a few hours on my own in the Holy City, I make a pilgrimage to a store that sells garments straddling the secular world and the religious one.

Not long after I moved from New Jersey to Israel in my early 20s, I noticed a fashion trend I hadn’t seen before: Orthodox young women, many of whom traditionally wear only skirts outside the house as an expression of modesty, were increasingly wearing pants under those skirts.

Now, I’m not exactly the most fashion-forward person on the block. For me, buying clothes largely falls in the same category as going to the supermarket or doing laundry: a means to an end, but — most of the time, at least — not on my list of activities I would willingly do if I didn’t have to.

Yet I immediately realized that this pants-under-a-skirt thing was a trend I could get behind, and hoped this gateway between the world of skirts and the world of pants — clothing items that, for some Orthodox Jews (though by no means all), represent the difference between a religious lifestyle and one that veers toward the secular — would be more than a passing fad.

Like Modern Orthodoxy as a whole — a segment of Judaism that embraces both adherence to the laws of the Torah and integration into modern society, that views higher education and career as complementary to religious life rather than at odds with it — I have a kind of complicated relationship with pants. (Er, that’s “pants” meaning “trousers,” not “underpants,” for any British readers sniggering out there.)

Many members of my generation of Modern Orthodox American Jews — that Oregon Trail generation stuck fording the river between Gen X and millennials — grew up associating skirts with the particular time or place in which we girls were compelled to wear them. For most of my childhood, I thought nothing of wearing a skirt to my Orthodox school on weekdays, a dress or skirt suit to synagogue on Saturdays, and pants or shorts after school and on Sundays.

Yet even as I continued to believe that Orthodox Jewish women and jeans were perfectly compatible, by the time I moved to Jerusalem in 2001, I had shifted toward wearing mostly skirts. This was primarily a way of publicly self-identifying as an Orthodox woman who took that identity seriously. When I had studied there for a semester abroad a few years earlier, I found that in Jerusalem, my jeans made me feel consistently misunderstood, that everything my clothing conveyed about me was inaccurate.

I can still hear the surprise in the voice of the man making an offhand comment from behind the counter at a cafeteria at Hebrew University on campus.

“What, a religious girl in pants?!” he said in Hebrew, his voice awash in incredulity when, clad in jeans, I asked him if there was a sink where I could wash my hands ritually for bread. Cue tiresome mental gymnastics by an inveterate overthinker: By choosing skirts over pants, wouldn’t I be buying into a dichotomy I didn’t really believe in? But by choosing pants over skirts, wouldn’t I be importing my American Jewish standards instead of integrating into the norms of the community I was living in?

Sensibly or not, on buses and in the streets I felt that everyone who saw me making my way through a city in which immediate classification by species of human seemed paramount (Jewish? Arab? religious? secular?) was putting me in the wrong box, and I didn’t like it. Instead of expressing who I was, my jeans were masking it. With mixed feelings, I ultimately shoved them in the back of my closet.

When I moved to Israel, I picked up a few pairs of loose cotton pants to add to the skirts in my wardrobe (think MC Hammer pants, but wide at the bottom instead of tapered), but it wasn’t until the pants-under-skirts trend hit not long after my move to Israel that I finally felt that I didn’t have to choose one side or the other. I could have both — at the same time.

The fashion phenomenon became a practice I adhered to religiously. Boxy black pants that work well with non-fitted straight skirts have become a core component of my wardrobe, and in the summer I’ve worn lightweight white cotton pajama-style pants under anything from sporty skirts to flow-y ones, knee-length to ankle-length.

Soon clothing manufacturers spotted the trend and started selling pants and skirts sewn together (you put them on like pants, but there's a skirt portion of varying lengths at the top), and I began my collection.

On the week of the spring equinox, I headed to the back of the store that serves as my pilgrimage site. I bought a skirt-over-pants combination in a deep purple that veers toward burgundy.

This was hardly my first such purchase. I’ve got the skirt-pants combo in blue denim (it’s like jeans, but with a jean skirt on top), in a too-easily-wrinkled tan cotton with flowers embroidered on the bottom of the skirt, in a thick gray cotton that’s too warm for the summer, and in marbled black. My most professional-looking one is a black-and-white not-quite-houndstooth with the solidity of a heavy suit skirt, and my most well-worn is a black polyester-blend with a pocket and a wide, stretchy waist. That one is so comfortable I wore it through several pregnancies, and now I have to rely on my husband’s flat-buckled belt to keep its expanded elastic waistband in place.

I recognize, of course, that the country I live in is no more a fashion trendsetter than I am, that the elision of the distinction between pants and skirts is not unique to me, to Modern Orthodox Jews, or to Israel. For instance, the loose pants and tunic ensemble known as the shalwar kameez is a hallmark of traditional South Asian dress — a factor that may even have influenced the trend in Israel, as several stores catering to young Orthodox shoppers in Jerusalem carry loose, light clothing that is either made in India (where many Israelis go backpacking in their 20s) or designed to look like it.

And there’s been some skirt-pants action over the last few years in the US, too, though that doesn’t mean it’s received the fashion seal of approval. “These days, there’s probably no other layering technique that’ll elicit such extreme, knee-jerk negativity than wearing a skirt or dress over a pair of trousers — and for good reason,” two US fashion editors wrote in Refinery29 in 2013.

For all that the world is more interconnected now than ever, subcultures of all sorts — from goth to prep, metal to hippie, punk to Modern Orthodox Jew — continue to display internal trends of their own, expressing sartorial nuances that may escape outsiders. A decade and a half after the invisible tipping point that turned the layering look of a shalwar kameez into a mainstream element of Modern Orthodox dress in Israel, pant-and-skirt combinations are not quite as popular as they used to be, though I certainly still wear them. What is most remarkable is that they have become unremarkable.

The trend has changed shape somewhat, with leggings of various lengths becoming the ever-present staple of skirt-wearers, and I can see the effect this has had on my daughters.

The oldest two of my four daughters, aged 9 and 7, like wearing loose and flaring knee-length skirts over leggings because that combination gives them the freedom of movement they need to be comfortable while adhering to school expectations. On gym days, they don’t carry anything resembling the blue plastic Gap bag with a drawstring that was part status symbol and part carry-all for the socks, sneakers, sweatpants, and T-shirts that I, along with the other girls in my Orthodox Jewish elementary school class, used to change into when it was time for gym. The distinction then was clear, if rarely articulated explicitly: Skirts were for sitting nicely in class; pants were for moving around.

On my daughters’ gym days, they just wear their usual informal uniform: a shirt with the school logo, sneakers that make it easy for them to kick a ball, a skirt that gives them room to run and jump, and leggings that mean they don’t have to worry about accidentally flashing the rest of the class when doing cartwheels on the artificial grass of the school playground.

Photos: Provided by the author

Like me, they both love to read. But when I pick them up from after-school care, they are at least as likely to be shooting baskets or kicking around a soccer ball as reading a book. I know I can’t attribute that entirely to their leggings, but I think it would be equally mistaken to dismiss the role those leggings play.

I’m not even sure my daughters realize what they’re missing by wearing leggings under their skirts, but I know. They’re missing the constant nagging presence that takes up mental space even as it becomes second nature, the propriety monitor in their heads that asks questions like “Can people see my underwear if I sit like this?” and makes statements like “Maybe I shouldn’t play, because I don’t want to get a run in my tights.”

The leggings and pants my daughters and I wear under our skirts mean we don’t have to choose between skirts and pants, between religious conventions and pragmatic considerations, between constriction and liberation. I don’t know what my daughters will choose to wear as they get older. But for me and my family, for right now, this subculture fashion phenomenon demonstrates that sometimes the best way to resolve a tricky dilemma is simply to skirt it altogether.


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