Jewesses in Skirts

Let me explain. Among Orthodox Jews, many of the women refuse to wear pants – they will only wear skirts of knee length or longer. Yet the reason for this practice is not so clear. Many reasons are given by different people. I’ll list a few, along with a sentence about why I don’t think they make so much sense:

(i) Modesty: Pants are immodest because they are form-fitting to the leg. Yet there are many other parts of the body for which clothes that are just as form-fitting are fine, yet are equally not allowed to be uncovered under Orthodox Jewish law. Besides, no one said you had to be wearing skinny-jeans.

(ii) Men’s clothing: Under Biblical law, women may not wear men’s clothing. Yet by now, it is normal for women to wear pants. Indeed, most Orthodox rabbis agree that this is not the main reason.

(iii) Suggestive: Certain parts of the pants might be sexually suggestive. If this is a problem for women, this would then definitely be a problem for men.

You might be asking yourself at this point: “What the heck does this have to do with game theory?” Well, I actually have a good reason for why many Orthodox Jewish women wear skirts, and it involves a perfect Bayesian equilibrium of an extensive form game.

We divide Orthodox Jews into two classes, each of which holds different communal standards. The first group adheres to a rather stricter standard, which may include certain norms about interactions with men, more stringencies regarding keeping kosher, etc. The second group is a little bit more laid back, though they may also be fully observant according to what they believe is necessary. I’m not making any claims about which one is better – I don’t want to go there – just bear with me.

Orthodox Jewish women in each class prefer others to recognize that they are in the correct class. This is perfectly understandable – one in the first class would not like others to offer food that didn’t meet their standards of keeping kosher, or would not appreciate certain advances from men; one in the second class might not appreciate being pressured into adhering to (from their perspective) unnecessary strictures. We therefore assign each class a payoff of C for being correctly labeled, and W for being incorrectly labeled, where C > W. For similar reasons, other Orthodox Jews would want to correctly label Orthodox Jewish women into these two classes.

To complete the model, we condition the beliefs of other Orthodox Jews on the signal of whether a given woman will wear only skirts (we assume that they can tell if they only wear skirts some of the time). If yes, they place her in the first class; if no, they place her in the second. Since having to only wear skirts is a restriction on the fashion choice of women, we’ll assign a modest loss of payoff (S) for only wearing skirts, where C – W > S.

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Given their belief structures, other Orthodox Jews will assume that if you wear a skirt, you’re in Class #1; if you sometimes wear pants, you’re in Class #2. Knowing that others have this belief, the best strategy for Orthodox Jewish women is to actually always wear a skirt if they are in Class #1, while to not bother if they are in Class #2. In this way, the beliefs of others are self-fulfilling in the dress code of Orthodox Jewish women.

Of course, this model isn’t always true – I’m sure there are some people who have strong reasons (aside from those mentioned here) to choose to deviate from the equilibrium path described in this model. Yet I think this actually, to a large extent, gives the most compelling, and most credible, reason for why this dress code exists.

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