home :: site contents :: contact     

The Holy Bible (with Commentary)
The Psalms (for singing)

Scottish Gaelic Turkish

Foreign Languages
Law and Grace
Short Articles

Doctrinal Articles
Stories of Faithful Christians
Famous Letters

Summary of Bible Teaching

The Christian’s Great Interest
Gospel Mystery of Sanctification

Pilgrim’s Progress

Christian Clothing

Other Online Books














































        Christian Clothing                                                                    (PDF version here)


Scripture Standards for Dress and Conduct



5. Women’s Clothing

As men’s garments suit their work and station, so women’s garments complement the protected place of women, who are given to be corner-stones of the home and guides of their children in the way of life (Prov. 31:1; II Tim. 1:5). Co-heirs of the grace of life and joint-heirs with Christ (I Peter 3:7; Rom. 8:17), women in particular are enjoined to be discreet and chaste (Titus 2:5). Young men are to be sober minded (v. 6) and to guard against the lusts of youth (II Tim. 2:22), but divine revelation emphasises the need for women to be modestly covered and careful to see that their attire is in every way agreeable to the will of God:

I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety (I Tim. 2:8, 9).

The godly women of old were adorned with full-length dresses which covered them approximately down to the ankles or the feet (Isa. 47:2; Jer. 13:22, 26), and which were sometimes richly embroidered, particularly among royalty (II Sam. 13:18; Psalm 45:13, 14; Ezek. 16:10). Such garments served as reminders of the perfect righteousness of Christ, as did the long robes once worn by men at weddings and other occasions (Matt. 22:11).

We have already seen that one great difference between noblemen’s long robes and the ordinary attire of women is that the woman’s dress was the guardian of her modesty; thus in public she invariably wore a long robe and that at full length on every occasion. Her “outer garment”, says Easton’s Bible Dictionary, terminated in an ample fringe or border, which concealed the feet (Isaiah 47:2; Jeremiah 13:22)”.[1] Smith’s Bible Dictionary states that although the costumes of men and women were very similar, there was sufficient difference to mark the sex, and

it was strictly forbidden to a woman to wear the appendages, such as the staff, signet-ring, and other ornaments, of a man; as well as to a man to wear the outer robe of a woman. Deut. 22:5 . . . The dress of the women differed from that of the men in regard to the outer garment . . . Among their distinctive robes we find a kind of shawl, Ruth 3:15; Isa. 3:22, light summer dresses of handsome appearance and ample dimensions, and gay holiday dresses. Isa. 3:24.[2]

As long hair is comely, indeed essential for women (I Cor. 11:15), so the long skirt is modest, attractive and ladylike, and these facts are detected even by the natural senses; whereas it is patent that trousers, while acceptable for men, are neither fitted nor suited for ladies. Trousers are not mentioned in the Bible as part of the woman’s wardrobe; they were never worn by women as an outer garment and are not to be considered an adequate substitute for the long skirt.[3] In Scripture the uncovering of the woman’s skirt is a euphemism for adultery: “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor discover his father’s skirt” (Deut. 22:30). Matthew Poole remarks as follows:

His father’s skirt, i.e. the skirt of the mother’s garment, i.e. the nakedness, which is here called his father’s skirt, because his father and mother were one flesh, or because his father alone had the right to uncover it. The phrase is taken from the ancient custom or ceremony of the bridegroom’s spreading the skirt of his garment over the bride, to signify his right to her, and authority over her, and his obligation to the marriage duty. See Ruth 3.9; Ezek. 16.8.[4]

Isaiah prophesied of the spiritual captivity and humiliation of the Roman abomination – which is represented as the “virgin daughter of Babylon” (cf. Rev. 14:8, 17:5, 9) – and made reference not only to the shame of uncovering the thigh, but of making bare the leg (that is, between the knee and ankle), the Hebrew words speaking of the removal of the skirts which cover this area:

Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man. As for our redeemer, the LORD of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel (Isa. 47:1-4).

The reason the woman’s leg is mentioned with shame is that it should have been covered with the modest apparel appropriate for women, unlike the “legs of a man” (Psalm 147:10), which represent the strength of one who girds up his loins for battle. Women’s skirts are meant to be long and relatively spacious – not so tightened as to hinder a modest gait (Isa. 3:16) – and are essential for feminine modesty and dignity:

For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare . . . Therefore will I discover thy skirts upon thy face, that thy shame may appear (Jer. 13:22, 26).

To the same end is the Lord’s denunciation of the city of Nineveh, which is represented as a harlot (Nahum 3:5, cf. Deut. 22:30; Isa. 47:2; Ezek. 16:37).              

Thus the whole outfit of godly women should be long, relatively loose and flowing, and evidently composed of opaque material, not indecently thin or adhesive. It should be completely different from the attire of the woman in Proverbs 7:10, who, as John Gill thinks, was wearing “showy gaudy garments, such as the Athenian whores wore, or short ones, as the Romans; the word signifies one fitted to her body, neat and well shaped, to recommend her: so the woman, the whore of Rome, is said to be arrayed in purple and scarlet colour”.[5] But the beauty seen in the godly women of Scripture was not so much of bodily form as of the face, indicating that their clothing was not formfitting but graceful: “Now the name of the man was Nabal; and the name of his wife Abigail: and she was a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance” (I Sam. 25:3, cf. Gen. 24:16, 29:17; II Sam. 14:27). Note that the same Hebrew words as used for Abigail’s “beautiful countenance” are used in Genesis 29:17 for Rachel, who “was beautiful and well favoured” – yet some modern translations indicate that the phrase in Genesis makes a reference to bodily form or figure. Such an interpretation introduces a new slant on the text which tends to the impression of a modern fashion, alien to the commodious dress in use among Abraham’s kinswomen (cf. Gen. 31:34, 35).

In the New Testament the apostle Paul enjoins women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety” (I Tim. 2:9). The word translated here as “apparel” is katastolh (katastole), which combines stolh (stole),[6] the common New Testament word for a dignified long robe (Mark 12:38, 16:5; Luke 15:22, 20:46; Rev. 6:11, 7:9), with the prefix kata (kata), which means “down” or in some instances “covered down” (cf. I Cor. 11:4). Elsewhere in Scripture, where garments in general are intended and not dignified long robes in particular, the word is usually imation (himation), and stole or katastole are not included. Thus, using the word katastole, Paul commands Christian women to wear garments in the form of long robes – modest apparel, or modest long robes in keeping with the custom of the godly women in Old Testament times. So John Gill:

that women adorn themselves in modest apparel: the word rendered ‘apparel’ signifies a long robe, which reaches down to the feet; and the word translated ‘modest’ signifies that which is clean, neat, and decent, yea, beautiful and ornamental . . . The apostle adds, with shamefacedness and sobriety: these are the two general rules by which dress is to be regulated; it is right and proper, when it is consistent with chastity, when it is not immodest and impudent, and more like the attire of an harlot than of a woman professing godliness; and when it is moderate as well as modest, and suitable to a person's age and station, and is not beyond the circumstances of life in which they are. There is no religion or irreligion in dress, provided pride and luxury are guarded against, and modesty and moderation preserved.[7] 

So the argument that women in modern, Western-style trousers may be as biblically modest and distinctively feminine as the ladies of the era when both sexes wore Eastern robes is groundless, the Eastern woman’s garment having always been a full-length, feminine dress,[8] similar to the traditional attire of Christian women in the West.[9] An interesting quotation from Tertullian (AD c. 155–c. 220), the Church Father from Carthage in modern Tunisia, demonstrates that a major factor in the distinctiveness of women’s robes from those of men was their elegance and their modest, concealing nature – they “were the evidences and guardians of dignity”:

Just so, if a man were to wear a dainty robe trailing on the ground with Menander-like effeminacy, he would hear applied to himself that which the comedian says: ‘What sort of a cloak is that maniac wasting?’ . . . Turn, again, to women. You have to behold what Caecina Severus pressed upon the grave attention of the senate – matrons stoleless in public. In fact, the penalty inflicted by the decrees of the augur Lentulus upon any matron who had thus cashiered herself was the same as for fornication; inasmuch as certain matrons had sedulously promoted the disuse of garments which were the evidences and guardians of dignity . . . But while one extinguishes her proper adornments, another blazes forth such as are not hers.[10]

The femininity of the woman’s dress is also manifested in its simple delicacy and ornamental features. Charles Bridges (1794-1869) writes:

The primary respect inculcated to the inward ‘adorning’ [I Pet. 3:4; I Tim. 2:10] in no way renders the exterior grace a nullity. Even in isolated seclusion some regard would be due; much more, as suited to the gradation which Providence has assigned; and as commanding an husband’s respect, who justly claims, that his wife’s exterior, so far as she is concerned, should continue to be not less pleasing, than when at first his heart was drawn to her.[11]

Thus in kings’ houses, where “soft clothing” is worn (Matt. 11:8), the woman’s dress is especially ornamented, according to her sex and station:

I clothed thee also with broidered work, and shod thee with badgers’ skin, and I girded thee about with fine linen, and I covered thee with silk. I decked thee also with ornaments, and I put bracelets upon thy hands, and a chain on thy neck, And I put a jewel on thy forehead, and earrings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thine head (Ezek. 16:10-12, cf. Gen. 24:22; II Sam. 1:24, 13:18; Isa. 49:18; Jer. 2:32).

Nonetheless, unnatural extravagance is condemned throughout the Word of God: “Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair” (Jer. 4:30, cf. II Kings 9:30; Isa. 3:18-23; Ezek. 23:40; I Tim. 2:9; I Peter 3:3). Clement of Alexandria, the Church Father born in Egypt around AD 150, said in his comments on clothing:

Let the women wear a plain and becoming dress, but softer than what is suitable for a man, yet not quite immodest or entirely gone in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, person, figure, nature, pursuits. For the divine apostle most beautifully counsels us ‘to put on Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the lusts of the flesh.’[12] 

Such articles of clothing as the headscarf or veil are not ordinarily appropriate for men – whose veiling the head for pagan worship[13] is probably alluded to in Ezekiel 13:18, 21 – but well suited to ladies. The English-born Puritan John Cotton (1585-1652), who immigrated to the colony of New England, wrote, “The vail is for a sign, 1. Of subjection, I Cor. 11.10. 2. Of protection, Gen. 20.16. 3. Of ornament, Isa. 3.23. The same word.”[14] Similarly, James Durham explains the biblical usage of women’s veils in his work on the Song of Solomon, a commentary highly commended by John Owen:

The last step is, ‘they took away my vail from me;’ the word that is rendered ‘vail,’ comes from a root that signifieth to subdue, it is that same word which we have, Psalm 144:2, ‘who subdues the people,’ &c. It hath a threefold use, 1. For decoration, as Isa. 3:23. 2. For a sign of modesty, pleaded for by the apostle, I Cor. 11:6. 3. And mainly, for a sign of women's subjection to their own husbands; for which cause Rebekah puts on her vail, when she meets Isaac, Gen. 24:65. And therefore it is called power, as being the sign of the wife's being under the power of her husband, I Cor. 11:10. Here her vail is the tenderness of her profession, whereby, in a decent, modest and humble way, she professed herself to be a believer, seeking after Christ Jesus, as one bearing the badge of subjection to him as her Husband.[15]

In his famous allegory, John Bunyan describes the conduct of the unescorted believing women when approached by two villains: “Now, by that they were gone about two bow-shots from the place that let them into the way, they espied two very ill-favoured ones coming down apace to meet them. With that, Christiana and Mercy, her friend, covered themselves with their veils, and so kept on their journey; the children also went on before; so that at last they met together.”[16]

So the woman’s head-covering is useful in many situations, and was part of the traditional woman’s costume in Australia and the home countries until the late nineteenth century, being worn for decoration, modesty and submission, and to protect the head and long hair from the elements. (In order to shelter the face from the hot sun, rural women sometimes wore a larger, broader veil, or put on a brimmed hat over their headscarves; and the “poke bonnet” popularised late in the reign of King George IV afforded similar protection.)

But it is not the purpose of this booklet to prove that the veil is required for all public appearances of women. What is certainly a moral duty is that women be covered up with a closed neckline. When the backsliding Church was condemned in Isaiah’s prophecies, the daughters of Zion were described as haughty, walking “with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go” (Isa. 3:16). James Durham in The Law Unsealed (also commended by Dr Owen) says:

And therefore we say, that in men and women both there is condemned by the Lord, 1. Costliness and excessive bravery [i.e., showiness] of apparel, I Tim. 2:9. which saith not that we are to foster sordidness or baseness, or that men in all places or stations, and of all ranks, should, as to their apparel, be equal, but that none should exceed . . . 4. Wantonness and lightness in them [i.e., clothes and dressings], which is especially in nakedness, as to such and such parts of the body, which in modesty are to be hid; for women having clothes for a cover, ought to make use of them for that end; and it is more than probable, that that walking with stretched-out necks, there reproved, relateth to women, their making more of their necks, and their breasts bare, than should be, or is decent, they affected to discover or raise their gorgets,[17] when God commendeth modesty, and nature is best pleased in its own unaffected freedom, yet they stretched them out: It is both a wonderful and sad thing, that women should need to be reproved for such things, which are in themselves, 1. So gross, that let the most innocent be inquired, whence these more than ordinary discoveries do proceed: and they must at least grant, that the first practisers of such a fashion, could have no other design in it, than the more hereby to please and allure men’s carnal eyes and regards: And, 2. So impudent; for if to be all naked be shameful and exceeding ready to provoke lust, must not nakedness in part, more or less, be, and do the same? So that this will be found a glorying in their shame; for nakedness hitherto was always looked upon as a reproach: We read of old of such as were grave, that they covered themselves with a vail: And, I Cor. 11. married women’s going abroad uncovered is looked on as unnatural: What would such say if they lived in our times? We are persuaded the gravest among women are most averse from this evil, and the lightest are most prone and given to it: And seeing all women should be grave, it must import a disclaiming of that qualification where this lightness is delighted in: If therefore there be any shame, if there be any conscience, we will expect to prevail with some who are touched with the sense of gravity, that they may be good examples to the rest, at once endeavour effectually to bring gravity and modest shamefacedness in fashion again.[18]

Mr Durham had no need in his generation to emphasise the woman’s duty to wear long garments, because the world was not then so far out of order. This fact is demonstrated in the treatise of William Ames (1576-1633) against human ceremonies in God’s worship. In this work, long garments are equated with “women’s proper apparel” – the claim that the woman’s veil of I Corinthians 11 was an introduction in worship is here met with the argument that the veil was “a civil order of decency, used as well out of God’s worship as in it . . . which will bear well this conclusion: that it was no more religious, than women’s proper apparel, long garments, &c.”[19] Such an argument evinces the orthodox belief that it was not merely contemporary fashion that compelled women to wear long garments, but “a civil order of decency”. As is clear from the context, Dr Ames was not attempting to convince his opponent of the virtues of long garments for women (which are complemented by long hair and other coverings) – he was simply using the example, as being obvious even from nature itself and approved of by all churches, to persuade his opponents in a more controversial dispute, one that concerned human ceremonies in the worship of God. Dr Ames continues: “modesty, shamefacedness, gravity, and care of not offending, are professed by all apparel of modest honest fashion. And yet I never heard of modest apparel called a mystical religious ceremony.” So it is the age-old conviction among Christians that, aside from what men may wear, the long gown has always been, and still is, the garment which for women is indispensable. In fact, it seems that no Protestant reformed church prior to the late 20th century ever considered the long dress not to be essential to feminine modesty, and the teaching that such covering is morally required of women was not disputed among Christians in past ages. 

True modesty is pleasing to God and springs from a heart consent to His holiness, obtained by union with Christ, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Peter 1:3). And good works, performed in obedience to God’s commandments, “are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith”,[20] as the apostle James teaches (James 2:18, 22). “But he that lacketh these things,” says Peter,

is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (II Peter 1:9-11).


[1] M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary.

[2] Dr William Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary (1884).

[3] However, trouser-like undergarments such as pantalets have long been in use among modest women in the East and West.

[4] Matthew Poole, Commentary, vol. 1, p380.

[5] John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible.

[6] Definition in James Strong’s ‘Greek Dictionary of the New Testament’: stolh, stol-ay’; from (stellw); equipment, i.e. (special) a ‘stole’ or long-fitting gown (as a mark of dignity): long clothing (garment), (long) robe” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, p67). Compare with definition of the English word ‘stole’ (taken from the Greek stolh via the Latin ‘stola’) in the Concise Oxford Dictionary: “Stole1 n. 1. (Rom. Ant.) Woman’s long loose outer dress” (Oxford University Press, 1978, p1133).

[7] John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible.

[8] The woman’s costume also made use of sleeves. In Scripture, baring the arm was comparable with girding up the loins, symbolising manly action and fighting strength (Isa.52:10; Ezek. 4:7). William Greenhill comments on Ezekiel 4:7: “‘Thine arm shall be uncovered.’ Soldiers of old were wont to have their arms naked in fight; the pictures of the ancient warriors and worthies are so painted; and P. Africanus upbraided Sulpicius Galbus, quod tunicis uteretur manicatis uti fœminæ, because he made use of robes with sleeves after the fashion of women; and some interpreters say, that the Indians and Africans do it to this day, they fight with their arms naked . . . A like phrase to this you have in Isa. 52:10, ‘The Lord hath made bare his holy arm:’ as servants strip up their sleeves, make their arms bare, and ready for service; so the Lord made bare his arms, and put forth his power to do some choice service for his people. In this manner was the prophet to prophesy unto the people” (An Exposition of Ezekiel, p131).

[9] Assyrian bas-reliefs of Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish in Judah (cf. II Kings 18:14, 17, 19:8; II Chron. 32:9; Isa. 36:2, 37:8) depict local women in ankle-length dresses, and men with shorter robes and short hair. For an example of the women’s dress, see ‘Cart with women of Lachish’, Davis Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Book House, 1990), p128.

[10] Tertullian, ‘Change Not Always Improvement’, On the Pallium, chap. 4. Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BC) was an Athenian dramatist.

[11] Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Proverbs (Banner of Truth, 1987), p624.

[12] Clement of Alexandria, ‘On Clothes’, The Instructor, Book 2, chap. 11. Clement died between AD 211 and 215. For John Owen’s warning on Tertullian and Clement (among others), see endnote [1].

[13] John Calvin on Ezekiel 13:18: “Then they had veils or coverings which they put over their heads. In this way imposture flourished with the Roman augurs; for they veiled their head when they wished to begin their incantations. Livy says, that the augur stood at the threshold with his head covered, and uttered these words, ‘O Jupiter, hear;’ so that it is probable that veils covered the heads of those who wished to consult God” (Commentaries on Ezekiel, vol. 2, p30). Said Cyprian of Carthage (AD c. 200–258), the North African Church Father and martyr, to those men of God who had endured the fierce Decian Persecution of AD 250: “Your head has remained free from the impious and wicked veil with which the captive heads of those who sacrificed were there veiled” (‘Treatise 3 – On the Lapsed’, The Treatises of Cyprian).

[14] John Cotton, A Brief Exposition with Practical Observations Upon the Whole Book of Canticles (London, 1655), p138.

[15] James Durham on Song 5:7, Commentary on the Song of Songs. For further biblical reference with regard to the veil (which could be drawn across to cover the face to varying degrees), see Genesis 38:14, 19; Numbers 5:18; Ruth 3:15; Song of Solomon 1:7 (AV margin), 4:1 (Hebrew), 6:7 (Hebrew); Isaiah 47:2; Ezekiel 16:10.

[16] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress – The Second Part, p191. It should be noted that when the villains refused to move on peaceably, the two women “both shrieked out . . . and so put themselves under those laws that are provided for the protection of women”; their reliever marvelling that as they were “but weak women”, they had not petitioned “the Lord there for a conductor” and so “avoided these troubles and dangers” (ibid., p192). Engravings for editions published in Bunyan’s lifetime depict these women in long veils and ankle-length dresses (see Works of John Bunyan, vol. 3, Banner of Truth, 1991, p84).

[17] Part of the woman’s collar or veil covering the throat and chest. Old French gorgete, diminutive of gorge, throat.

[18] James Durham, ‘The Seventh Commandment’, The Law Unsealed, pp306-308. Durham goes on to speak of excess in “the light and wanton manner of adorning houses and buildings with filthy and immodest paintings, pictures, and statues, and such like, which, with other things, is spoken of and condemned, Ezek. 23:14” (p310).

[19] William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship (1633).

[20] ‘Of Good Works’, Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 16:2, p68.

Contents | Next Section