Identity, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.
One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.
I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team. 
The physically restrictive nature of the skirts I was required to wear was not something I often noticed. I have always been used to the reality that when we sit on the floor for class activities, I must carefully position myself to account not merely for comfort, but to be cautious about exposing too much of a leg. Field days always required a stretchy skirt with my face paint and team-color t-shirt, and amusement park trips meant that I layered shorts under the mandatory skirt for when it inevitably blew around on rides. A particular event that stands out to me is a terrifying climb down the Arbel cliff on my school Israel trip in eighth grade; scary as the enterprise was to begin with, it was made worse by the fact that my billowing jersey skirt (the only approved garment, layered over leggings, that is comfortable for that type of outdoor activity) prevented me from seeing where I was putting my feet.
Much of the discussion about skirts is focused on “well, loose pants can be more modest than tight skirts!” and much of the discussion about Orthodox school dress codes centers itself on the harmful, slut-shaming discourse surrounding girls’ bodies that these dress codes and their enforcement generate. When girls’ bodies are policed for looking “too sexual,” we are taught that it is our job to hide ourselves for the benefit of (straight) men, that our bodies are distracting, that the primary role our- inevitably sexualized—bodies should play in our lives is to be hidden But what about the skirts themselves? Skirts alone are heavy with symbolism and significance.
In the mid-1850s, Amelia Bloomer popularized a radical new style of dress, loose pants gathered at the ankles under a tunic, that was invented and supported by her fellow suffragettes.  Bloomer, and those who wore the outfit that would be known by her name, faced harassment and ridicule in the media and in the streets. It is worth noting that this innovation, and the opposition to it, was intimately tied to the movement for women’s political agency; advocacy for the increased physical freedom provided by bloomers was part of a larger feminist movement, not merely an issue of fashion.
In the summer of 1960, Lois Rabinowitz showed up at traffic court to pay a speeding ticket on behalf of her boss. The judge, however, screamed at her and sent her from the courtroom, and her husband had to pay the ticket instead. Why? Rabinowitz had come to court in pants. As the Second-Wave feminist movement took off in the later years of that decade, and women gained increased economic, reproductive, and other freedoms, pants became more widespread, and acceptable in public and professional contexts. Again, the rise of pants correlated with increased freedom for women.
When day schools (and, indeed, Orthodox communities at large) require girls to wear skirts, this is not simply the result of a desire to hide — and sexualize — women’s bodies. The baggage that comes with the banning of pants is that pants, literally and symbolically, are freeing for women. Pants are tied to liberation movements, and in the past, those who object to women in pants have been those who object to women in the voting booth, in the courtroom, and in the boardroom.
When girls and women are forbidden to wear pants, we are limited. We can’t run, or jump, or climb. Orthodox day schools, by banning pants, have aligned themselves with those who would limit women beyond the physical. The question is, then, is that the side of history they want to be on, as they teach girls science, math, and Talmud at high levels?

3 thoughts on “Skirts in Context

  1. When I was in day school, the standards for modesty changed from all skirts having to be knee-length to all skirts having to be ankle-length, and every single day, multiple times a day, I would trip over that hemline and almost bring the skirt down. (Not to mention I grew slightly out of my skirt once, and my parents couldn’t immediately get a new one so it rode up an inch too high when I sat down – I got an earful from the other kids over that.) Not only is it physically restrictive, modesty is a moving goalpost the frummies use to make themselves feel superior. There’s no pleasing them.

  2. I have been wearing skirts by choice since I was in my last few years of high school and I have to say that I do not agree with your post at all. I do agree that some dress codes are way to strict, but I was always able to fully participate and still do in any activity I want to wether its hiking, trampolining biking etc..

  3. I’m both surprised and not surprised to read that the issue of tzniyus is smoke screen for anti feminist / anti-equality or however you want to call the force in our society that resists giving more access and power to women. I wonder how many women in modern Orthodox circles (we’ll start there) know about the ground breaking work being done by groups like “Moving Traditions.” For just a sample check this out:

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