Men & Women’s Apparel in Ancient Days and Today

A much contested topic is the difference between men and women’s apparel, or dress styles and how it applies to the New Testament believer. One of the hallmarks of the ‘Holiness‘ movement which began in the early 19th century and has carried many names since, is a strict conformity to laws/codes aimed at perfecting the saint, to remove the potential for sin. The Word of God of course tells us this is quite impossible, removing the ‘sin potential’, but nonetheless we try, and we should.

One of those main laws is a standard of apparel, or outward appearance, and Deuteronomy 22:5 is used to prove in the Holiness movements that God abhors women that wear men’s apparel, and men that wear women’s apparel. (These labels aren’t based on the labels at the fashion stores either!)

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” Deuteronomy 22:5 KJV

 

We recognize that this is Old Testament ‘law’ we are talking about, and some will now claim it simply doesn’t matter, but the Spirit of the Law certainly still applies. This topic is still taught strongly in many Christian churches, some as a ‘spirit of the law’ message of pleasing God, and some, as my background in Pentecostalism, kept the legalism of the Law and then took it to new heights. This study isn’t to debate the Law vs. Spirit argument, it’s simply to shine light on the context of the message, express what the audience looked like when this topic was first addressed, and how it would have been applied in that day. Later in the article we will talk about modern applications.

Before we dive headlong into this topic, I think it’s important to recognize the complete necessity to use Biblical Hermeneutics to ensure we have the most open minded, non-biased light shine upon this article. Biblical Hermenutics has three founding principles;

  1. The Bible must be interpreted literally and in its basic, simple form, not as allegory or mystery,
  2. The Bible must be interpreted historically, in context of the time, audience and author,
  3. Scripture is always the best interpreter of Scripture.

Following these guidelines we can all arrive at the same understanding without the error of ‘private interpretation.’ It is and should be notable that this verse (read literally) does not say ‘Women, don’t wear men’s clothing, and men, don’t wear women’s clothing!’ It quite specifically distinguishes between ‘wear that which pertaineth unto a man’ and ‘put on a woman’s garment’.

Let’s understand those two phrases independently, but first let me illustrate why it is important to understand the phrases and context.

How different was Hebrew dress style?

ShalmaneserIII
In a rare depiction of Hebrew clothing, King Jehu kneels at the feet of Shamanesar III.

Not very! As you can see from this image, men and women wore nearly identical clothing. There are three women and five men in this depiction. There were certainly alterations made to ‘garments’ to separate the sexes, as that was important to God and His people. However, and most notably, men wore beards and facial hear to appear as ‘men’ and were often depicted with weaponry while women had the same flowing robes with modifications, such as overall length and hoods or hair coverings and historically, jewelry.

Men and women’s clothing had decorative differences but the general ‘garments’ were identical in most ways. These images were found at Ancient Hebrew Clothing and the article is insightful.

What is “pertaineth unto a man”?

We get ‘that which pertaineth’ from the word kel-ee’ which has a broad meaning and is found referenced in Strong’s Greek & Hebrew definitions, #H3627

something prepared, that is any apparatus (implement, utensil, dress, vessel or weapon) armor, artillery…furniture…weapon, tool

Adam Clarke’ commentary gives the following description:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man – כלי גבר keli

geber, the instruments or arms of a man. As the word גבר geber is here used, which properly signifies a strong man or man of war, it is very probable that armor is here intended; especially as we know that in the worship of Venus, to which that of Astarte or Ashtaroth among the Canaanites bore a striking resemblance, the women were accustomed to appear in armor before her.

Of equal note and importance, is the word ‘man’ in this verse, which is geber and it is found in Strong’s Greek & Hebrew definitions, #H1397

From H1396; properly a valiant man or warrior; generally a person simply: – every one, man, X mighty.

Lastly, the word for wear in ‘wear that which pertaineth unto a man’ has an important distinction. It is translated from the Hebrew word haw-yaw’ which is found in Strong’s Greek & Hebrew definitions #H1961

A primitive root (compare H1933); to exist, that is, be or become, come to pass (always emphatic, and not a mere copula or auxiliary)

So let’s apply the first two laws of Biblical Hermeneutics and write this portion of the verse in historical context;

“The women shall not become or exist as a valiant, mighty man of war and wear the armor, weapons and affects of a warrior,”

This is a significantly different context then the standard message preached in legalistic pulpits today! God is clearly interested in the roles of the male and female as Scripture makes clear many times, but I fear modern interpretations have taken the letter of the Law (Yes, Old Testament Law) rather than the Spirit of the Law.

“But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” Mark 10:6 KJV

 

What is “women’s garments”?

 

I’ll repeat these images again from Ancient Hebrew Clothing to highlight that this is a different and difficult question to answer. What is quite clear from the imagery at the beginning of this article and these two images is that women’s garments were quite similar to men’s. Some important differences can be noted however, both in historical writings and imagery

  • Men’s apparel generally flowed to the calf or just below the knee but could sometimes ride to the ankles/feet
  • Women’s garments always went to the ankles
  • Women’s garments were generally decorated differently and often had a hood, or head covering
  • In all known imagery men wore facial hair and women of course (as nature teaches us) did not
  • In opposition to modern legalistic Pentecostalism, women’s garments included jewelry, bracelets, necklaces and other fine adornments to show social status, rank & beauty

As we did before, let’s investigate the wording used here. Please note that the scripture uses ‘garment’ when speaking of women. The word for ‘garment’  is sim-law and is found in the Strong’s Greek & Hebrew definitions #H8071.

Perhaps by permutation for the feminine of H5566 (through the idea of a cover assuming the shape of the object beneath); a dress, especially a mantle: – apparel, cloth (-es, -ing), garment, raiment.

Generally, the idea of the ‘women’s garment’ is ‘feminine, prettiness, delicacy’, and we know the Bible speaks of ‘effeminacy’ often regarding men, and that men are not to be so (delicate). Deuteronomy 22:5 makes this very clear.

So what then IS feminine?

having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. – Merriam-Webster

If we again apply the two primary laws of  Biblical Hermeneutics we can express ‘womens’s garments’ as such;

“neither shall a valiant warrior put on fine, delicate and pretty clothing and jewelry to make himself appear as a women”

Most interestingly, some commentaries explain that men would dress as a women to escape capture or harm and that cross-dressing was used in pagan rituals to gods such as Venus and Astarte. This would also require the man to use a face covering or shave to ensure he looked less like a man.

What is the difference between men’s and women’s apparel?

So now we understand two very important truths;

  • God is definitely interested in Men and Women looking different – he used the word ‘abomination’ after all!
  • Contextually, and culturally, the difference between the sexes had little to do with the actual common ‘garments’.

This is important to carrying on this conversation and bringing this article to a close. My background was fifteen years in a legalistic Pentecostal church which took this ‘law’ to new heights, so not every application will match my final arguments exactly.

First and foremost (I recognize some will not like this statement) this law was quite cultural, as Jewish laws were given to a culture. If applied equally today, it would need to carry the weight of the culture in the audience. If in one culture, a”women’s garment” was a facial scarf, then men would not wear the same scarf or they would be effeminate (a man seeming feminine).

In the Pentecostal faith, women were never to wear jeans, or pants, anything that split the legs (except nylons – these are almost universally required to stop men from lusting after the bare flesh of their ankle or calf) and men were never to have long hair (I Corinthians 11:14). The simple argument was ‘pants are for men, and dresses are for women.’ This may have been culturally true for a very long time (Study the History of Costume) but other cultures had very different relations between the sexes and modern western society no longer has the same definitions of dress.

The important Spirit to the law is not splitting hairs over whether or not there should be a universal dress standard applied via God’s Word, rather, we should strive to make it obvious that ‘he’ is a man, and that ‘she’ is a women.

I would ask the Legalist who declares that ‘women in pants makes them look like men’ to second guess the nonsensical comment and instead focus on the ‘weightier matters’ of the argument, which is modesty. Examine this image courtesy of Shutterstock.

stock-photo-casual-men-standing-with-hands-crossed-and-women-lean-on-them-on-grey-studio-background-215678686

Are you unable to tell the men from the women? In a cultural setting, should these four enter the room, would any one be confused about their genetic makeup? I think not. Thus rendering that argument invalid or misappropriated.

Well…Then what about modesty?

This is a very important to God also! In the King James bible, Modest is found one time, though the principle is taught many times over.

“In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;”

The word translated as modest is the Greek word kosmios which is found in Strong’s Greek & Hebrew definitions #G2887

From G2889 (in its primary sense); orderly, that is, decorous: – of good behaviour, modest.

Referencing G2889 we get a better revelation of the implications of the cultural use of the word:

Probably from the base of G2865; orderly arrangement, that is, decoration; by implication the world (in a wide or narrow sense, including its inhabitants, literally or figuratively [morally]): – adorning, world.

In a very interesting blog article titled “Modesty – I don’t think it means what you think it means” the writer Rachel Held Evans points out that in different cultures, what is ‘modest, or morally correct’ is quite different from “us”. For instance, some Muslim cultures allow the women to wear nearly any type of clothing/decoration so long as the Hijab is adorned. In India, some cultures in traditional attire would expose their pierced naval and midriff with impunity but would not dare to expose their knees.

The point is, modesty is a Godly principle, but it is quite subjective to the culture in question. Take the words of the Apostle Paul as an example of subjectivity. While written for other purposes, they fit this application well.

“Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. Romans 14:4-8 KJV

Modesty is both cultural, and intent. There are cultures that count modesty as a head dress on a women while the majority of her body is uncovered. She would be considered lewd and immodest for removing her head dress in the presence of other men, while her breasts are not considered sensual is in Western cultures.

This is all to say that the manner in which a man or women dresses carries with it the intent of the dressers heart. A women in a skirt or dress can be just as provocative as a women in pants, or an Indian Sarees. If the person dresses in a way to intentionally seduce the thoughts and arousal of another that is not their spouse, they have been immodest and created a stumbling block.

Take for example short sleeve shirts (which again is a legalistic regulation of the Charismatic Pentecostal faith)  on both men and women. In today’s culture this is quite normal and is not very provocative is it? In that social circle (legalism), it was taught that sleeve lengths had to be below the elbow to ensure you didn’t slip into immodesty and thereby arousing onlookers, causing adulterous lust. Truth be told, elbows haven’t been known to cause much arousal, but what DOES cause arousal is based by what the cultural props up as ‘sexual’ or ‘appealing’.

94ec477044871a78ef406a04eae6d0b5.jpg

Having applied all this logic and reasoning, we have to realize that we cannot easily define what is for only ‘men’ or ‘women’ to wear. We have the Spirit of God to guide us and if we are filled with His Spirit, he will convince us of what is profitable or not. If we complete Chapter 14 of Romans, the Apostle Paul eloquently ends his discourse by saying, your convictions are between you and God and you are blessed for trusting in that Faith and not legalism, which is the primary message of Paul to the gentile bride of Christ.

“As for the faith you do have, have it as your own conviction before God. How blessed is the person who has no reason to condemn himself because of what he approves!” Romans 14:22 ISV

If we are to hold to the evidences found about what constitutes appropriate clothing for men and women of faith, we must admit that the M or F on the tag doesn’t always mean it is good, profitable or appropriate to wear. That our sincere desire to please God would outweigh what man specifies. Likewise, we can’t allow rigid law teachings based on cultural mores to an ancient culture locked in legalism be pressed upon the modern believer as absolute and for us today, universally across a planet with a wide range of diverse understandings of what ‘modest’ is.

God’s Word is eternal, but we must be wise in application and understanding the intent of God’s word.

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 KJV

God Bless,

 

4 thoughts on “Men & Women’s Apparel in Ancient Days and Today

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