Have you ever wondered where certain clothing guidelines come from? Most will point to culture and the time period in response to this question, which causes a follow up question as to whether there are timeless guidelines.
On more than one occasion, I have encountered someone making the argument in response to this question that a woman must dress a certain way according to Scripture.
After some research, it is worth clarifying that God did not explicitly reveal to us in Scripture any certain standard of garment “A woman must wear…at all times” (length or style). In His desire for the Church to welcome all cultures and to last beyond a particular era, when clothing is mentioned in Scripture, it is in reference to putting on virtue. This emphasis on inner beauty is not a condemnation of external beauty which we know by the call to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:20).
When we speak of Scripture and clothing in the same sentence, the verses that often comes to mind are:
“Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works” (1 Tim 2:9-10).
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
Quick research of the theological and historical context of these verses will quickly clear up that God is not condemning or forbidding a type of dress or jewelry. We know from various points in Scripture in which jewelry is utilized to emphasize God’s delight in us or used as a means to honor God. There is no clear historical evidence to say that jewelry in itself is innately pagan or despised by Judeo-Christian culture. Read more here and here.
When Paul gives guidelines to the church in Corinth regarding proper head coverings, we must recognize the cultural background. There was a misunderstanding of stewardship of the body and sexual immorality in Corinth out of the assumption that the soul was already preserved by Christ, so they could do whatever they want with their bodies (Dr. James Prothro, professor of theology at the Augustine Institute). The church in Corinth is noted for specifically struggling with competition, in which Paul encouraged them to dress modestly (meaning to dress in a way that does not flaunt one’s status like the Romans).
We can embrace the sense of modesty Paul encourages by dressing for the occasion in a way that highlights our purpose, intention, and why we are there (ex: not the best decision to wear a ballgown or flashy flapper dress to Mass). To claim that all must dress in a bland and similar way when approaching the sacraments is a disregard of the role of beauty in Christianity.
We do not strip our churches of sacred art out of fear of distraction during the Mass, but rather we appreciate the aid of the beautiful painted ceilings that elevate our focus to Christ. Similarly, when we dress with intentionality for Mass, we are reorienting our souls to prayer through our bodies which we adorn as fitting vessels for Christ’s presence. It is good to delight in what we are wearing. To honor our bodies through personal style gives glory to God because we are responding to the gift He has given us: the ability to reflect Him through creativity.
What guidelines might we take up? Intentionality in what we wear and the desire to grow in virtue. May our heart’s disposition overflow to our outward expression.