Q: Is it permissible to wear jeans or a jean skirt? I heard that some rabbis ruled that it is forbidden because jeans are not modest.
A: Quite simply, the material itself is not a problem. This material is durable, not easily ruined and, as is well-known, quite affordable. This material also does not stick to the body. A material which sticks to the body and outlines its contours is not modest for men and, all the more so, for women. My understanding is that the rabbis who say that it is forbidden to wear jeans do not do so because of immodesty, but because they represent a distorted culture. When you wear jeans, you identify with this culture. The whole problem of wearing clothing which represents the surrounding non-Jewish culture is called "Chukat Ha-Goyim – following the non-Jewish practices." It is forbidden for us to wear the same clothing as non-Jews. This prohibition only applies, however, if the non-Jews are the only ones who wear a particular type of clothing. If observant Jews also wear them, there is no problem of "Chukat Ha-Goyim." This discussion is similar to one regarding the black suit worn today by many yeshiva students. Originally in Russia, yeshiva students did not wear suits, they wore all sorts of long coats. What happened? Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once visited Paris and he saw that university students were wearing suits. He said, "Those who are learning in yeshiva need to dress like those students. They are students of Torah and holiness." In Lithuania, the students therefore wore suits. When those students arrived in Jerusalem, the Sages of Jerusalem excommunicated them. They wrote harsh broadsides that wearing this type of clothing is a violation of "Chukat Ha-Goyim." One needs a long coat. There is a principle, however, that if people breach this prohibition and dress like non-Jews, they are in violation, but once this practice has spread, it is no longer forbidden since this dress is no longer worn solely by non-Jews. This is stated in the responsa of the Rashba (vol. 5 #121). It is possible that in the past someone who wore jeans was identifying with the distorted culture, but today all sorts of people wear clothing made with jean material, both men and women, including righteous, G-d-fearing individuals. It is therefore permissible to wear such clothing. Ha-Rav Moshe Feinstein also has a responsum on this issue in "Igrot Moshe" (Yoreh De'ah 1:81). He was asked if there is a requirement to wear the clothing which Jews wore in Poland, since in America both Jews and non-like dress alike. Ha-Rav Moshe answered that it is permissible to wear the clothing like the non-Jews since there is no unique type of Jewish clothing, and even G-d-fearing Jews wear the clothing like the non-Jews. Similarly, there is a story told about a couple who moved from Hungary to America, and the wife wanted to cover her with a wig like others in America instead of shaving her hair and wearing a scarf as had been the custom of her foremothers in Hungary. The husband, however, did not agree and he went to Ha-Rav Moshe Feinstein to ask about this issue. Ha-Rav Feinstein saw that the husband did not have a beard. He asked: Did your father and grandfather have beards? He said: Of course, everyone had a beard. He asked: why are you clean-shaven? He said: This is America! Ha-Rav Feinstein said: If so, there is no problem for your wife to wear a wig. Everything is dependent on the issue of modesty. If the jeans and the jean skirts are modest, they are acceptable. If they are not modest, including having images and decoration which draw the attention of others, they are not acceptable. In short: It is not a question of the material, but the piece of clothing itself - as in the case of all other items of apparel.