Does God care about how we dress or what we wear? Does God expect us to look unattractive in how we dress? The issues are complex, cultural, and contextual, but how we dress sends a message to others about who we are and what we want from them.
The apostle Peter writes (1 Peter 3:3-4), “Let your adornment be not the outward kind, braiding hair and putting on gold or wearing clothes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable (adornment) of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is polyteles (costly, precious) in the presence of God.” (In Mark 14:3, polyteles is used to describe the nard poured on Jesus, ointment which cost 300 days’ wages for a pound.) In verse 5, Peter says that’s how the holy women of old used to “adorn” themselves – you can’t dress more costly or chic than that, if God is your audience. That’s the kind of wardrobe that will never wear out or grow old or out of style where it truly counts, he says.
Similarly, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:9, “(I desire) that the women adorn themselves in decent apparel, with modesty and sensitivity, not with hairdos or gold or pearls or expensive (there’s that word polyteles again) clothing, but with good works, as is fitting for women who profess reverence for God.”
Neither Paul nor Peter calls for women not to wear clothes or jewelry, nor are they forbidding the styling of hair, or to wear only good deeds (!). The issue is: Whom are the women trying to impress? If the answer is God, Peter and Paul tell such women that they’re going about it all wrong. Otherwise, they must be either trying to make an impression on other women, or they are trying to attract the eyes of men. The apostles would say: Don’t bother trying to play either of those games.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus tries to liberate women from the perceived need to dress like sex objects. He writes in Enchiridion 40: “Immediately from age 14 women are called ladies (kuriai) by men. Seeing therefore that they have no other role but to have sex with men, they begin to beautify themselves, and to put all their hopes in this.” Epictetus argues that instead, “It is worthwhile to make sure that they should perceive that they are valued only by appearing decent (kosmiai – well-ordered) and modest (aidemones),” i.e. not trying to show off their bodies.
We hear echoes of the New Testament apostles elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world. The philosopher Plutarch writes in Moralia 141e that what a woman can wear that makes her most chic is “not gold, emeralds, scarlet, but whatever invests her with dignity, good behavior, (and) modesty.” The Roman comic Juvenal complains in Satire 6.457-9, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she thinks is disgusting, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”
The first-century philosopher Seneca writes in On Consolation to Helvia 16:3-4: “You have not defiled your face with paint and cosmetics. Never have you taken pleasure in clothing that exposed no greater nakedness when it was removed. In you has been seen the unique ornamentation, the most beautiful appearance, to which no age is vulnerable, the greatest distinction: modesty (pudicitia).” In another essay, Seneca complains about the use of silk: “when a woman wears it, she can scarcely with a clear conscience swear that she is not naked.” Merchants import these clothes, he says, “at vast expense from nations unknown even to trade, so that our married women may not display more to their adulterers in the bedroom, than they do in public.” (Benefits 7:9)The prevailing logic in the New Testament world is that women only dress in expensive clothes with elaborate hairdos and jewelry when they are advertising for fornication or adultery. While that view is an oversimplification, it is sometimes true, and even when sexual immorality is not intended, how we dress may produce unintended but avoidable effects on the beholder.
It’s too bad that we can’t find ethical treatments of this subject from women in New Testament times. The literature we have is mostly opinion on how women’s dress and appearance. The only advice given to men is to not make themselves look like women: don’t cut your beard, shave off your body hair, or wear soft clothing. The issue of how men should avoid inspiring lust within women is overlooked almost entirely.
Clement of Alexandria (early 200’s AD) is a good sample voice from the early church on dress and related subjects. We today are not bound by the opinions of Clement’s day, but they are interesting in context.
In Christ the Educator 3.11.53, Clement writes, “the wearing of gold and the use of soft garments need not be absolutely avoided.” But yet he sees piercing the ears as “violence to nature” (3.11.56). He thinks followers of Jesus should be content to wear a gold signet ring (3.11.57), and a brooch to hold women’s hair in a ponytail (3.11.62). He opposes the dyeing of hair and the wearing of wigs (3.11.63). Clement says it may be OK for women to make themselves look sexy for their husbands alone, but only if the plan is to wean them away from that need (3.11.57). All Clement tells men to do is not to undress before women (3.5.33), and to avoid staring at them (3.11.82-83). Contrary to the Greek preference for long hair on men, Clement recommends baldness (3.11.60).
Like Seneca, Clement complains about silk garments, which “do nothing more than disgrace the body, inviting prostitution. An overly soft garment…cannot conceal the bare outline of the figure…so that even one not trying to stare can plainly see the woman’s entire figure.” (2.10.107) Outside the home, Clement thinks women should be completely veiled (3.11.79), and should avoid wearing dyed garments (2.10.108-109) or garments shorter than knee-length (2.10.114).
The Westminster Larger Catechism (Question 139) says, “The sins forbidden in the Seventh Commandment…are: adultery, fornication…immodest apparel…and all other provocations to, or acts of, uncleanness either in ourselves or others.” Both sexes are often blissfully unaware of the way they may provoke desire in other by the way they dress.
As the great theologian Catherine Hobson has observed, how can people see the image of Christ in you, when there’s so much distraction blocking their view, such as cleavage or tight clothing? From a secular perspective, the state prison that I visit has a visitor dress code (https://www.illinois.gov/idoc/facilities/Pages/VisitationRules.aspx#dress) that clearly defines clothing that creates the wrong environment for men in the prison. (We need a sign like this in many of our churches!)
Jesus asks in Matthew 6:25, “Is not the body more than clothing?” While Peter and Paul’s audiences were wrestling over whether to wear designer clothes or jewelry, Jesus’ Galilean audience was worried simply about how to find enough to wear, period. But if we accept Jesus’ words about visual adultery (Matthew 5:27), then we must consider to what degree how we dress can contribute to such desires in others.