Morality Ch. 28: Improper Fashions

The Bible implies that some fashions are immoral. It appears to condemn tattoos, jewelry, and much more. Is this culture specific, or are these things still banned?

A friend’s daughter popped into the living room to say goodbye before going out, but, distracted by an interesting book, he simply gave her a cheery wave without looking up. It was only the slamming of the front door, closely followed by his daughter stomping back into the room, that got his attention. “Why are you letting me go out looking like this?” she demanded. “It’s indecent!” It took him some time to work out that she’d been relying on being able to tell her friends that he’d banned her from wearing the latest risqué fashion. Sometimes our kids need us to be their scapegoats.

Roman society took dress codes very seriously, and the rich spent huge amounts on their appearance. Rules about hair were particularly strict. Wearing a head covering or decorative bands to keep the hair up marked a woman’s married status. An adult woman wouldn’t be seen in public with her hair down, though it was acceptable among her intimate family and friends. If formal guests arrived, she would demurely pull up a loop of cloth that was lying across her shoulder like a scarf. Jewish society had the same sensibilities. It was said of one particularly pious woman, Kimhith, that even her ceiling had never seen her hair.1 Only dancing girls, prostitutes, and loose women would let their hair down in public, and a demure woman would always keep it covered.

So why was the issue of hairstyles so controversial for the Corinthian believers? It seems the problem arose because they weren’t sure whether the church meeting was a public or a private function. They probably met in the home of a rich member, so how were they supposed to act – like family friends (in which case a headdress wasn’t strictly necessary, and you might even let your hair down) or like formal visitors? Paul’s response is typically mindful of others: he says that these meetings are public, so believers should be considerate of strangers (1 Cor 14:23). A modern parallel might be the wearing of a swimsuit. While most of us would find it perfectly decent for bikinis or swimming trunks to be worn at the beach on a hot day or around a private pool, we’d wear a bit more in church.

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Transparent fabrics

The Roman Empire’s well-defined dress code meant that you could tell a person’s rank and often their profession by the clothes they wore. A signature look for those of senatorial rank was a purple stripe on one’s toga – which was strictly forbidden to anyone not in this elite group. The gladiators’ fashion statement was their short leather tunics, which they wore even when they were off-duty to attract rich lovers. Well-off women had a wonderful range of materials to choose from. Intricate lace and expensive colored threads woven in complicated patterns were imported from the East or produced by house slaves. Embroidery was a skill that even rich women were proud to display, partly because it was a mark of matronly virtue that indicated they weren’t spending their time pursuing lovers. The fabrics ranged from dense woolen togas, which fell in clean, smart lines, to materials so sheer they were virtually transparent. These thin materials were worn as clothing by high-class prostitutes or as head veils by women who didn’t want to obscure their expensive hairstyles. Spangled dresses were made by lavishly weaving real gold into the thread.

Conspicuous wealth was common, and the £20,000 per year that Princess Diana reputedly spent on hairstyling would have been considered penny-pinching in the highest strata of Roman society. Juvenal, a satirical comic of the second century AD, complained that these rich extravagances actually made them ugly, like the woman who “encircles her neck with green emeralds, and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”2 The enormous amount of money spent on fashion was scandalous by any standard, and believers weren’t immune to this temptation. Paul urges believers to dress modestly and warns them against expensive hairdos, jewelry, and clothes (1 Tim 2:9). Peter writes about this to believers living among Gentiles – and specifically to those in Rome. He warns women not to concern themselves with outward beauty, making an impression by braided hair, gold jewelry, and fine clothes (1 Pet 3:3-4).

A few believers today meticulously obey the New Testament commands on fashion, such as the Amish, who avoid all ostentatious jewelry and perms – even buttons are frowned on. I love that they can compliment each other by saying: “You look plain today”!

Tattoos and jewels

The Old Testament has a different set of rules. Men must dress as men, and women as women (Deut 22:5), and if you shaved off a man’s beard he’d be too ashamed to appear in public (1 Chr 19:4-5). It was very important in all ancient societies to know who was male and who was female, because a woman alone with a man for just a few minutes was suspected of being defiled. There were rules against tattoos and cutting yourself. This didn’t refer to modern-day decorative tattoos and skin scarification for decorative purposes – that is, patterns made from scar tissue, which is particularly popular among some African tribal groups. The ancient practices forbidden in Israel’s law were deformities and injuries you were expected to make to demonstrate the depth of your mourning at a funeral (Deut 14:1; Lev 19:28; Jer 16:6).

The Old Testament is surprisingly critical of rich people flaunting their jewelry. Isaiah complains that “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles,” and says that “the LORD will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, the earrings and bracelets and veils, the headdresses and anklets and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings, the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls” (Isa 3:16-23). Amos calls them “cows of Bashan … who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!’ ” (Amos 4:1).

Sending the wrong message

Most of the church has decided that none of these commands are timeless – that is, we can ignore them. But is this true? They didn’t really change with time, except in emphasis. The rule about cross-dressing in order to deceive didn’t change – it is just that no one needed to state it in New Testament times because Roman society was so sensitive about modes of dress that no one would consider it acceptable. Conversely, the rule about women keeping their hair up or covered was so ingrained in the ancient cultures of Old Testament times that there really was no need to say anything about it in the past. It was only in the first century, with its climate of women testing boundaries, that such a question would even arise.

However, all of these rules mirror the culture they were created for, which makes it much less likely that they are timeless. The custom of permanently deforming or scarring one’s skin as a sign of mourning is no longer part of our culture. It is perfectly decent for a woman to be seen with her hair hanging loose – though this continued to be regarded as improper until relatively recently, so that “letting your hair down” still means to relax at home. Any nonhipster male can be seen beardless in public without feeling shame. And a prostitute can dress exactly the same as royalty (and vice versa), so it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about.

While we can ignore these specific commands, we shouldn’t forget they had a purpose, and that purpose is a timeless message for us. Sexually provocative clothing can send the wrong messages in any culture, just as well as provocative actions by someone dressed demurely.

What concerned Peter and Paul mostly were displays of ostentatious wealth that included wearing expensive jewelry, clothes, and hairstyles. As well as demonstrating a worldly concern with outward beauty rather than inner holiness, this showed these women had little concern for the poor and needy. James, too, has some cutting remarks for believers who show favoritism to the richly dressed over the poor (Jas 2:2-4). If the apostles were addressing today’s church, they might have included warnings about flashy cars, trophy wives, and homes filled with the latest high-tech gizmos. This was about far more than fashion; Peter and Paul were criticizing all types of selfish squandering. It’s a message that urges us to make sure we remember where our real treasure is.

1^ Babylonian Talmud Yoma 47a (
2^ Juvenal, Satire 6 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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