Modesty in Dress and Appearance
David W. T. Brattston
The principle that Christians should be modest – not unduly exposing their bodies or decorating themselves with finery – has a long history. It arose well before the twentieth century, and predates even the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, the principle goes back to the earliest years of the Church, and is found in the works of prominent Christian writers from the first to fourth centuries.” Those who commented on it taught that we are to wear unaffected dress and not embellish our bodies.
The principle starts in the New Testament itself, where 1 Timothy 2:9-10 commands “that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.”
A few generations later, in A.D. 125, a Christian named Aristides in Athens wrote a description of his coreligionists’ practices and habits, noting that: “They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another”.
The matter was explored in greater depth by Clement of Alexandria (Egypt), the dean or principal of ancient Christianity’s foremost Bible school. Between A.D. 190 and 202 he wrote a number of books for the training and nurture of believers. One of them was Paedagogus (The Instructor) and another was Stromata (Miscellanies).
The purpose of Paedagogus was to improve the soul and to advance it in the Christian life. It stated that to attain virtue and properly practice Christianity, disciples are to avoid enhancing their physical attractiveness and refrain from wearing expensive or skimpy clothing. Clothing for both sexes must extend below the knee. Clement also taught that believing women are to keep their arms and heads covered. It forbade Christian men to voluntarily adopt the appearance and mannerisms of females, to wear earrings or finger rings, or to allow their hair to grow below the eyes. Wigs and other false hair were condemned as an affront to God.
Describing the life-style of the sincere Christian in Stromata, Clement commended simple speech and a simple mode of life. This treatise condemns all luxury in dress, body, or manner, including expensive clothes and beauty ointments, which it calls “treacherous garments and treacherous unguents”. It also describes how a believing wife is to conduct herself. She is not to adorn herself beyond what is becoming, for simplicity renders a wife free of suspicion while she earnestly devotes herself to prayer and supplications. She is not to leave her home too frequently but keep herself as far as possible from the view of all who are not related to her, and deem housekeeping of more consequence than useless frivolity.
In an address to new converts, Clement encouraged modesty towards women.
Thus far plain dress and bodily modesty in Egypt. Shortly before Clement wrote, a radical sect arose in Phrygia (now northern Turkey). To refute their false notions, a pastor named Apollonius wrote a treatise against them in A.D. 210. To prove that one of their leaders was not a prophet, Apollonius asked questions which reveal the contemporary Christian attitudes to cosmetics and dress:
Does a prophet dye his hair?
Does a prophet use mascara on his eyes?
Is a prophet fond of dress?
Tertullian was a lawyer who became a clergyman in Carthage, in what is now northern Tunisia. He wrote on most aspects of the Christian life, including two books on the Christian rules for external appearance: On the Apparel of Women and On the Pallium. Written around A.D. 200, On the Apparel of Women began:
If there dwelt upon earth a faith as great as is the reward of faith which is expected in the heavens, no one of you at all, best beloved sisters, from the time that she had first known the Lord, and learned (the truth) concerning her own (that is, woman’s) condition, would have desired too gladsome (not to say too ostentatious) a style of dress; so as not rather to go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance
The female tendency to beautify oneself, wrote Tertullian, can be traced to fallen angels mentioned in the Old Testament. As agents of Satan, these evil angels descended to earth and had relations with the female descendants of Adam. It was to sexually attract such demons that women started enhancing their outward beauty by artificial means. To avoid falling into the same sin, said Tertullian, Christian women should be adorned only by “humility and chastity.” He condemned fancy clothing and elaborate dressing of the hair. On the Apparel of Women states that a woman’s beauty, be it natural or artificial, will lead her into the sins of pride and vainglory unless she takes measures to avoid provoking carnal desire in men. While disavowing any intention to encourage Christian women to become crude or wild in their appearance, or squalid or slovenly, Tertullian exhorted them to limit or hide much of their beauty.
Tertullian’s major concern was that Christian women not excite lust. Book 2 Chapter 2 of On the Apparel of Women asks:
Are we to paint ourselves out that our neighbours may perish? Where, then, is the command “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?” “Care not merely about your own (things) but about your neighbour’s?”
And shortly answers the question with:
Since, therefore, both our own interest and that of others is implicated in the studious pursuit of most perilous (outward) comeliness, it is time for you to know that not merely must the pageantry of fictitious and elaborate beauty be rejected by you; but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of the beholder’s eyes.
In the same chapter, he wrote:
in the eye of perfect (that is, Christian) modesty, carnal desire of one’s self on the part of others is not only not to be desired, but even execrated, by you: first, because the study of making personal grace (which we know to be naturally the inviter of lust) a means of pleasing does not spring from a sound conscience: why therefore excite toward yourself that evil passion? Why invite that to which you profess yourself a stranger? Secondly, because we ought not to open a way to temptations, which, by their instancy, sometimes achieve a wickedness which God expels from them who are His; (or,) at all events, put the spirit into a thorough tumult by presenting a stumbling-block to it. We ought indeed to walk so holily, and with so entire substantiality of faith, as to be confident and secure in regard of our own conscience, desiring that that gift may abide in us to the end, yet not presuming that it will. For he who presumes feels less apprehension; he who feels less apprehension takes less precaution; he who takes less precaution runs more risk
The purposes of all this were to mark off the handmaids of God from those of Satan, and to enable Christian women to set an example to the unsaved, to edify them, and to glorify God in their bodies and attire.
Tertullian also addressed the assertion or excuse that some ladies raised to the effect that inner modesty is enough, and outer adornment is immaterial in God’s eyes:
Perhaps some woman will say: “To me it is not necessary to be approved by men; for I do not require the testimony of men: God is the inspector of the heart.” That we all know; provided, however, we remember what the same God has said through the apostle: “Let your probity appear before men.” For what purpose, except that malice may have no access at all to you, or that you may be an example and testimony to the evil? Else, what is: “Let your works shine?” Why, moreover, does the Lord call us the light of the world; why has He compared us to a city built upon a mountain; if we do not shine in the midst of darkness, and stand eminent amid them who are sunk down? If you hide your lamp beneath a bushel, you must necessarily be left quite in darkness, and be run against by many. The things which make us luminaries of the world are these—our good works. What is good, moreover, provided it be true and full, loves not darkness: it joys in being seen, and exults over the very pointings which are made at it. To Christian modesty it is not enough to be so, but to seem so too.
Although mostly about female believers, On the Apparel of Women does not forget Christian men. In agreement with Clement and the Didascalia he stated that it is forbidden
to cut the beard too sharply; to pluck it out here and there; to shave round about (the mouth); to arrange the hair, and disguise its hoariness by dyes; to remove all the incipient down all over the body; to fix each particular hair in its place with some womanly pigment; to smooth all the rest of the body by the aid of some rough powder or other: then, further, to take every opportunity for consulting the mirror; to gaze anxiously into it:—while yet, when once the knowledge of God has put an end to all wish to please by means of voluptuous attraction, all these things are rejected as frivolous, as hostile to modesty.
This would apply to the twenty-first century fad of men removing their chest and torso hair by waxing and similar painful procedures.
Around A.D. 210 Tertullian wrote On the Pallium, in which he exhorted Christian males against dressing the hair, cultivating the skin, consulting the mirror, gaudily dressing the neck, and effeminating the ear by piercing it.
As Christian teachers, both Clement and Tertullian specifically condemned the wearing of gold and other jewelry (including that made of glass instead of precious stones), rouge, the ancient equivalent of mascara, and bleaching or dyeing the hair or clothing. Paedagogus, Stromata and On the Apparel of Women all forbade enhancing personal attractiveness by the use of ointments (the beauty creams of Christian antiquity). The Paedagogus conceded God permitted unguents for medicinal purposes, but prohibited perfume.
In the same era as Tertullian, a manual of Christian personal and community life, titled the Didascalia, was compiled in Syria. It decries some of the same practices in dress and bodily embellishment. Its main concern is that, by these means, women make themselves attractive to men other than their husbands, and men attractive to women other than their wives.
The general Christian attitude was also disclosed by Clement’s successor as principal or dean, Origen Adamantius. Origen became the leading Bible scholar, teacher, and preacher of the first half of the third century, and influenced the church for centuries afterwards. His writings are especially valuable to us because he traveled much throughout the eastern Mediterranean as an expert on the Faith at the request of local churches. In this way, he could observe and relate local views on modesty and immodesty and what was the Christian consensus on them.
People and things are often better known or explained by observing what is associated with them. Three of Origen’s Bible commentaries and sermons associate immodesty in the same class as fornication, uncontrolled rage, greed, and jealousy, which indicates the serious view Christians had of it. His Commentary on Romans categorized it with deceit, while his Commentary on Titus placed it in the same list as idolatry, witchcraft, and drunkenness. Modesty itself, he preached, is akin to chastity and piety.
A generation after Tertullian’s death, Cyprian became pastor or bishop of his city. Cyprian was the leading churchman in northern Africa from Libya to the Atlantic and his influence spread to Europe and Asia Minor. In A.D. 252 he wrote On Works and Alms, in which he stated that wealthy Christian ladies are to anoint their eyes with good works and character instead of eye-shadow.
Arnobius of Sicca, also a North African Christian, wrote Against the Heathen sometime between A.D. 304 and 311. Although there is no known connection between him and Clement, Tertullian, the Didascalia, or Cyprian, there is a remarkable unity with them. At Book 2 Chapter 41 Arnobius stated that cosmetics, piercing the ears, jewelry and other personal adornment abuse both body and soul. Arnobius particularly decried men who used eye makeup, curled their hair, and otherwise altered their appearances to resemble women. He believed that all such artificiality was contrary to nature and obscured the divine image in human beings. At Book 2 Chapter 41, Arnobius rhetorically asked:
Was it for this He sent souls, that, forgetting their importance and dignity as divine, they should acquire gems, precious stones, pearls, at the expense of their purity; should entwine their necks with these, pierce the tips of their ears, bind their foreheads with fillets, seek for cosmetics to deck their bodies, darken their eyes with henna; nor, though in the forms of men, blush to curl their hair with crisping-pins, to make the skin of the body smooth, to walk with bare knees, and with every other kind of wantonness, both to lay aside the strength of their manhood, and grow in effeminacy to a woman’s habits and luxury?
The forgoing were not the opinions only of self-appointed moralists who sought to impose a new practice on the church. Everyday laypeople incorporated the ethic into their lives, at least judging by the record of a martyrdom that took place in A.D. 202. Two Christian ladies were led into an arena to be mauled to death by a wild beast. Upon its first attack, one of them “fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering.”
In short, the teaching that Christians exercise modesty by dressing as unpretentiously as possible and refraining from artificial enhancements of physical beauty dates back a long way in Christianity, right to the first century. Its ancient advocates were in good standing in the mainstream church, not members of small sects.
Although Clement’ Paedagogus 2.12 and Tertullian’s On the Pallium 5 forbade men to wear shoes, a prohibition no denomination today has adopted, this restraint does not appear in the other six authors, nor even in Clement’s Stromata. Even The Paedagogus 2.12 permits shoes to men in some circumstances. The same chapter regards footwear as always mandatory for female Christians. Tertullian banned only some types of shoes in De Spectaculis 23, not all footwear. The Didascalia proscribed only certain styles, such as those that resembled those of prostitutes; here is another fashion that has reemerged in our own time. While shoes could be dispensed with in the Nile Delta, where Clement lived and wrote, it was impractical further north, where the others composed their books.