What Kind of Clothes should we Wear?

Christopher C. Warren

Some people ask the following questions:

"If you are so determined to follow the biblical pattern in everything, why don't you wear tunics and sandals instead of suits and shoes?"

"Men never wore trousers in biblical times, so why do you?"

"Since it is obvious Christians can't wear biblical dress in cold climates, what then should be the standards?"

"How far should Christian imitate the customs of 2 to 4 thousand years ago?"

These are interesting and valid questions. There is an apt expression which says: "Dress maketh the man." Although we know a great deal about the dress of the peoples of the Middle East over the millennia from Egyptian, Babylonian and Hittite monuments, there are few commandments in the scripture telling us how to dress. In fact, there are only two:

  1. Men may not dress in women's clothes, nor women in men's clothes (Deuteronomy 22:5);

  2. Priests must dress in a prescribed way.

Otherwise, the dress patterns seemed to resemble those of the surrounding nations.

Patriarchal Times

In the tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni-hasan in Egypt we find a procession of Asiatics who arrive in Egypt with eye paint. They are all dressed in vividly colored garments, and this gives a clue as to how Abraham and other nomads were clad in about the XIIth Egyptian dynasty. Other murals, such as the fresco from the tomb of Sebekhetep (Thebes, 15th century BC), show Syrian emissaries wearing white garments edged in blue and red which are wound below the waist.

According to Genesis 3:7,12 the origin of dress is associated with the sense of shame. It is a shame to be naked (Genesis 9:22-23) and we find this the especial fate of prisoners and fugitives (Isaiah 20:4; Amos 2:16; Mark 14:52). Children, however, used to run around naked up to puberty.

The most important garments in the Biblical period were a kind of loin- or waist-cloth, a long or short skirt or robe, an upper garment, and a cloak, not to speak of the belt, headdress, veil and sandals.

Men's Dress

The loin- or waste-cloth ('ézôr) reaching from the waste to the knee was a common dress during the Bronze II and III ages, but it disappears during Bronze III, although it survived as a military dress (Ezekiel 23:15; Isaiah 5:27). The other kind of dress was the animal skin and hairy cloak or mantle (Zechariah 13:4; 2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4) which was only worn by prophets and poor people (Ecclesiasticus 40:4) or for penitence. Covering of the hips and thighs was required only of priests (Exodus 28:42; 39:28).

The ordinary shirt, which becomes predominant in Bronze III, and is the normal dress of the Iron Age, is called kuttónet in the scripture (chitón in Greek), which seems to have been made of linen or wool. It was worn next to the skin and reached down to the knees or the ankles. It was made with or without sleeves, short or long. For work or for running, this shirt was pulled up (Exodus 12:11; 2 Kings 9:29), from which we get the expression to "gird up ones loins." The scripture also mentions a kuttónet passím, which was a special kind of garment (Genesis 37:3,23,32), and was worn also by princes (2 Samuel 13:18-19). It was possibly a highly colored garment, a kind of plaid twisted round the body. The shirt, presumably worn underneath it, is possibly the sádin (Judges 14:12; Proverbs 31:24; Isaiah 3:23), but might include in this class of garments the me'îl, regularly torn as a sign of mourning (Ezra 9:3; Job 1:20; 2:12), and worn by men of importance, e.g. Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:4), Samuel (1 Samuel 2:19; 15:27; 28:14), Saul (1 Samuel 24:4,11), Job and his friends (Job 1:20; 2:12), and Ezra (Ezra 9:3).

The ordinary mantle is generally called simlâ and can be identified with the 'abâye of the modern fellahin. This is a more or less square piece of cloth, with is sometimes thrown over one shoulder or, as now, over both shoulders. There are openings for the arms at the sides. This cloak, which everybody possessed, could not be given in loan, as it was used at night as a covering (Exodus 22:25-26; Deuteronomy 24:13). It was generally taken off for work (Matthew 24:18; Mark 10:50) and was also used to carry all kinds of objects (see Exodus 12:34; Judges 8:25; 2 Kings 4:39; Haggai 2:12).

Another cloak was called 'adderet, which it is not easy to describe. It was sometimes made of a costly material (Joshua 7:21,24) and was worn by the king (Jonah 3:6) and by prophets (1 Kings 19:13,19; 2 Kings 13-14), where it was possibly made from animal's skin. It was not in general use, and the word does not appear in late Hebrew. Notable men and women wore in later times the sáníp (Isaiah 3:23; 62:3), which was a piece of cloth twisted around the head.

The poor people generally went around barefoot, but the sandal was known (Deuteronomy 25:10; Am.2:6; 8:6). The soles were of leather or wood and tied with thongs (Genesis 14:23; Isaiah 5:27; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16). These were taken off inside the house.

Women's Dress

The dress of women was very much the same as that for men. But the difference must have been sufficiently noticeable, because it was forbidden for men to wear women's clothes, and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5). The difference has to be sought in finer material, more colors, and the use of a veil and a kind of head cloth called the mitpahat (Isaiah 3:22), which could be used to carry loads. The most common dresses for the Israelite women were the kuttónet and the simlâ. The fine underwear sadín was also worn by women (Proverbs 31:24; Isaiah 3:23). For feasts, women wore a more costly attire (1 Timothy 2:9). Hip and thigh clothing was not worn. A long train or veil was used by ladies of rank (Isaiah 47:2; Nahum 3:5).

Dress for Special Occasions

Festive attire was distinctive from ordinary dress in that the material was more costly (Genesis 27:15; Matthew 22:11-12; Luke 15:22). The color was preferably white (Ecclesiastes 9:8; Mark 9:3; Revelation 3:4). Tissues of byssus, scarlet, and purple were much appreciated (Proverbs 31:22; Ecclesiasticus 6:30; Jeremiah 4:30). Women liked to adorn their clothes with gold and silver (2 Samuel 1:24; Psalms 45:9,14-15; Ezekiel 16:10,13; 27:7).

Dress for mourning and penitence (saq) was probably some kind of haircloth similar to the mantle of the prophets. This was worn with a belt and sometimes on the naked body (Genesis 37:34; 2 Samuel 3:31; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30).

Dress of Priests

The oldest sacred dress seems to have been the ephod bad, probably a simple loin-cloth (2 Samuel 6:14,20). The priests of Nob were known as men who wore the "linen ephod" (1 Samuel 22:18). Samuel (1 Samuel 2:18) and David (2 Samuel 6:14) wore a simple linen ephod. This ordinary ephod has to be distinguished from the ephod of the high priest made of costly material (byssus = sés), worked with gold, purple, scarlet, or the like. This part of the dress reached from breast down to the hiPsalms It was held in place by two shoulder-bands and was tied around the waist (Exodus 39:1-26). There is also mention of an ephod which was used for the oracles. This was hung in the Temple (1 Samuel 21:9). The ordinary priests wore during the liturgical service a cloth which covered the hips and thighs (Exodus 28:42-43; Leviticus 16:4) and a long embroidered linen tunic with sleeves (Exodus 28:40; 39:27), also an elaborately worked belt of twined linen, blue, purple and scarlet stuff (Exodus 28:40; 39:29). They also had a kind of turban called misnepet (Exodus 28:4,37,39; 29:6; 39:28). As in Egypt and Babylon, it was forbidden to wear woolen clothes (Ezekiel 44:17). They were not allowed to wear sandals in the Temple (Exodus 3:5; 29:20).

This constitutes the sum of what we know of Biblical dress patterns from the scripture as well as from other sources.

Dress Standards in the Christ's assembly

What, if any, of the biblical modes of wear should be maintained today?

  1. Paul speaks of the woman's headdress or veil in connection her subjection to headship or peribolaion (1 Corinthians 11:15). Rebekah put on a head cloth when meeting Isaac, her espoused husband, to denote her subjection (Genesis 24:65). Women should wear them when praying and prophesying, and are encouraged to wear them whenever possible at home and elsewhere to show proper subjection to their husbands, as is still the custom in much of Eastern Europe. Allowances are, of course, made for weather conditions.

  2. The Israelites were commanded by God to make fringed edges on the skirts of their garments, with a blue string above the fringe, as a visual reminder that they were set aside as a people holy to the Lord, reminding them that they should obey all of God's Commandments (Numbers 15:38-41). Many Christians today wear pins or other symbols on their clothing to advertise to the world that they are Christians -- crosses, doves, and fish -- although unbelievers also do this a great deal now for fashion's sake. But we should not wear symbols today, but show the world who we are through the words we speak and by our godly works.

  3. The Lord has told His people not to be unduly anxious about having sufficient clothing (Matthew 6:25-32). The Christian woman is warned not to let expensive, showy dress or style be the thing she seeks, but rather let her clothing be modest, yet well arranged, showing soundness of mind. She should therefore give attention to her dress but should put the primary stress on the apparel of a quiet and mild spirit (1 Timothy 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3-5). The writer of Proverbs describes a good wife as seeing that her family is well clothed, industriously making garments with her own hands (Proverbs 31:13,21,24).

  4. No Christian man should marry a Christian woman who continues to dress as the pagans do (Deuteronomy 21:10-13), and vice verse, i.e. in a way that is antithetical to scriptural standards. When Israel fell into idolatrous and immoral practices, God condemned the women of the nation who haughtily garbed and decorated themselves in order to attract men (Isaiah 3:16-23, Proverbs 7:10). Most women today dress up to be noticed or to be seductive, trusting in their prettiness to get by in life. This is not how it should be for Christian women who should emphasize modesty and spirituality. They should never dress up to be sexually attractive (except in private with her husband) nor go the opposite extreme of being untidy or dirty and thus dishonour the Name of Christ.

  5. Today's unbelievers wear many kinds of pagan symbols -- the so-called Peace Logo (actually an upturned, broken cross, used by witches to deny Christ), snakes (symbol of Satan and unlicensed sex), the Yin-Yang sign (a New Age symbol meaning that perfection is a balance of good and evil), upturned crosses (a Satanic symbol mocking Christianity), good-luck amulets (St.Christopher), etc.. These should not be worn by Christians. Not even the "Christian Cross," because it has its origins in paganism also and existed thousands of years before Christ was crucified. I sometimes wonder, if Christ was stoned to death, would rocks be the symbol of Christianity? Or, if Christ was born in today's age, and he was electrocuted, would we wear golden electric chairs around our necks? Or if he was shot by a firing squad, would we wear silver guns around our necks? So why wear a symbol of the means of death invented by those who crucified people to the pagan god of Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), which is where is "T" from the cross came from?

  6. Our clothing should reflect our spiritual identity. God figuratively clothes His people in garments of righteousness and salvation (Psalms 132:9; Isaiah 61:10) whereas His enemies will be clothed with shame and humiliation (Psalms 35:26). For example, does a tough-looking, dirty, metal-studded leather motorcycle jacket worn with torn jeans and sunglasses reflect the Kingdom of God or the world? Paul commands Christians to strip off the old personality and to clothe themselves with the new personality, some of the features of which are the tender affections of compassion, kindness, lowliness of mind, long-suffering, and, especially, love (Colossians 3:9-14). This should be reflected in the clothes they wear too.

Beyond these things, the scripture says little more. Here are some further guidelines and instructions to help you be more fully obedient to the commandments:

  1. In countries where men customarily wear tunics or long shirts (as in scriptural times) rather than trousers, these should be the preferred (but not obligatory) mode of dress.
  2. Where trousers can be avoided, women should preferably wear dresses (in extremely cold climates, trousers cannot really be avoided).
  3. Men and women should not have tattoos (Leviticus 19:28).
  4. Women should grow their hair long (longer than collar length) and men cut theirs short (not longer than collar length) (1 Corinthians 11:14-15).
  5. Avoid fashions and fads. Keep your color schemes simple.
  6. Women should avoid exposing their legs above the knee (except when bathing) and should avoid tightly fitting clothes. Long dresses are preferred.
  7. Swimming costumes should be modest; bikinis should be avoided and one-piece swimming suits enjoined.
  8. Do not oppress the poor with clothing regulations they cannot possibly afford to meet but encourage them to find solutions in God's grace.
  9. In cultures were semi-nudity is the norm, do not make people feel guilty where there is no guilt nor immorality associated with the mode of dress. Allow them to be led by the Holy Spirit and God's Word. Remember how the Garden of Eden was.
  10. Do not interfere with cultural norms of dress to such an extent that Christians will suffer unnecessary persecution and ridicule. Remember that salvation is of the soul. Allow the Indians to wear saris, the Malays to wear sarongs, the Africans to wear long shirts or go topless, the Arabs to wear Arabian dress, the Europeans and Americans to wear suits, but do not impose any single uniform pattern of clothing. Encourage Christians to wear their best clothes on the Sabbath. If a European wishes to wear a polo-neck shirt and sweater instead of a suit and tie, that is up to him. Let all be satisfied and live with a pure conscience, not making a special display or trying to be "different" to draw attention to self.


One last point. Remember that clothes do alter your self-awareness. So when you are putting on clothes, ask yourself: Am I unconsciously trying to convey a message when I dress? If I do, is that message consistent with the Gospel? Would I dress this way if I knew the Lord Jesus would come and visit me? Am I deliberately trying to upset others the way I dress, to demonstrate "independence" or "originality"? Are my motives pure?

A few months ago I let my young son try on an old East German uniform I acquired in Berlin before unification. He was instantly transformed into a "soldier", strutting around as soldiers do. An international traveler remarked how when he wore the traditional Japanese yukata (the man's equivalent of a kimono) he found himself behaving as the Japanese do. When he was back in his suit, he found himself behaving as Europeans do. Put someone in the clothes of 19th century courtiers and they behave like 19th century courtiers.

Clothes do modify our behavior and we should never forget that. Not only are clothes expressions of our soul, but they affect our souls too. People who wear expensive clothes act "rich", and those who wear rags act "poor". When decent people put on soldiers' uniforms, they find themselves doing things they would never do in civilian attire. So stringently avoid the clothes of the "anticulture" as promoted by rock groups and listless youth, because your spirit will be changed by them. Don't wear suits because business men wear them -- the Christ's assembly is not a business organization (though many Churches are).

Let our outward dress match our inward holiness; and if your inward holiness isn't up to standard, then let your outer dress reflect the lofty goal you aspire to be in Christ Jesus.

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