Clothing: Clothing and Religion in the West

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Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have individual forms of dress that visibly identify members of the religion and that help maintain the traditions, customs, and hierarchies of the religion. Dress is defined, and will be discussed here in relation to religious clothing, as an assemblage of modifications or supplements to the body (Eicher and Roach-Higgins, 1992). This definition includes a long list of modifications to the body, including hair, body art (piercing and tattooing), scents, and plastic surgery. Jewelry, accessories, and other categories of items added to the body as supplements are also included as dress. When examining religious dress, the cultural, economic, historical, and political context must be understood and analyzed to gain an appreciation of the meaning of dress within each religion. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have dominant ideologies that guide decisions about dress. For example, beliefs about dress within Christianity are influenced by the biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; therefore modesty is a goal, particularly for women. This double standard may reflect the patriarchal nature of the European cultures in which Christianity evolved (Renbourn, 1972). A woman's head or hair was thought to be provocative, and by the third century ce the church required women to cover their heads when attending church (Storm, 1987).

Judaism is based on the philosophy that individuals exist to glorify God; to be appropriately well dressed is therefore a religious duty, not one of personal preference. Ancient Jews divided the "pure" upper body from the "impure" lower body by wearing a girdle (Storm, 1987). Islamic philosophy emphasizes the group over the individual and promotes the separation of the sexes. Women's bodies should be covered and their movements within society restricted in the public sphere. The Islamic fundamentalist movement reflects a concern over the westernization of dress and promotes a return to traditional dress and behavior.

In Dress, Drinks, and Drums (1931), Ernest Crawley provides a historical perspective by segregating clothing into two categories: sacred and profane. Profane dress is that which is not related to religion or religious matters, while sacred dress involves religion. Crawley identified four kinds of sacred dress: sanctified, priestly, godly, and sacrificial. In terms of Western religions, sacrificial and godly dress is nonexistent. Priestly dress includes that of Roman Catholic priests or monks whose dress indicates the diminished importance of "maleness" and shows their rejection of worldly desires and goods. For example, most priests wear no facial hair, which symbolizes their voluntary departure from sexual relationships (Storm, 1987). The shaven head of a Roman Catholic nun prior to the dress reforms of Vatican II in 1962 (and of some nuns who are members of cloistered orders) demonstrates her turning away from worldly pleasures for a life of celibacy and spiritual pursuit. Dress can also reflect a priest's or a nun's life of poverty. Ironically, some vestments in high-church status can be highly elaborate rather than humble and can symbolize the priest's divine character.

Dress of sanctity differentiates the wearer from the profane. This is usually accomplished by using different colors or forms that are different from the secular. One of the most familiar dresses of sanctity is that of the worshiper or "churchgoer." In the United States, church dress is frequently a person's newest, and perhaps most elegant, but it otherwise is like secular dress. Until the mid-1960s, women wore hats and gloves to church, but this tradition has vanished. In the West, symbols of dress are consistently worn in the Jewish synagogue. The yarmulke worn by most Jewish men indicates their reverence to God. Muslim worshipers remove shoes before entering a mosque so as to not soil the holy place. Consequently, slipper-type shoes are frequently worn (Storm, 1987). The fez allows the men to cover their heads and touch their heads to the floor in prayer.

Sacred Dress

There are many examples of articles of dress that are considered sacred by their wearers. For Orthodox Jews, the halakhah (traditional Jewish law) governs daily and ritual acts. It separates the sacred from the profane. In terms of halakhic law, the Bible contains a prohibition on cross-sex dressing and forbids the mixing of flax and wool (shaʾatnez ) in the construction of fabrics for clothing (Baizerman, 1992). There are specifications about tying tzitzit (corner tassels) on the prayer shawl, or tallith. Women cover their hair and heads based on custom. To some this is an expression of modesty, while to others, "exposed hair equals nudity, and seeing it would therefore be sexually provocative to men" (Schneider, 1984, p. 236).

Within the Roman Catholic Church, vestments of both priests and nuns are considered sacred. For example, the chasuble is the chief garment of a priest celebrating Mass. It is worn outside the other vestments. In the West all who celebrate Mass wear the same chasuble. In France, Ireland, the United States, and frequently England, a cross is marked on the back. Protestant clergy dress more to emphasize their role as pastor (meaning shepherd) or minister (one who serves), so their clothing tends to be similar to that of the congregation. However, among some denominations, such as Lutherans or Presbyterians, the dress of the clergy may be more formal, including a surplice and cassock.

Dress, Hierarchy, and Group Membership

Dress is an important way of marking the hierarchy and group membership within religious organizations. The history of the Catholic priesthood shows that religious garb was in opposition to the lay dress. With the vestment the priest establishes a persona of divinity. "The changing of vestments has a powerful psychical appeal. The dress is a material link between his person and the supernatural; it absorbs, as it were, the rays of Deity, and thus at the same time inspires the human wearer" (Crawley, 1931, p. 164).

Clothing of contemporary Hasidic Jews is considered identical to the traditional Jewish garments that were once the apparel of all Jews. The type of Hasidic clothing and the way of looking Hasidic varies from class to classthat is, the extent of affiliation within Hasidism determines the particular type of garments worn, and these garments serve as an identifier of social rank (Poll, 1962). Garments vary from zehr Hasidish (extremely Hasidic) to modernish (modern). When a person wears clothing symbolizing a higher status, the frequency and intensity of his or her religious behavior should be consistent with the type of garment he or she wears. Wearing a garment symbolizing a higher status creates a chain reaction of more and more intensified religious observance. Items of dress include shich and zocken (slipper-like shoes and white kneesocks), shtreimel and bekecher (fur hat and long silk coat), kapote (overcoat), biber hat (large brimmed hat), and bord and payes (beard and side locks) (Carrel, 1999, p. 164).

Jewish women who strictly observe halakhah (Jewish law) frequently wear wigs to cover their hair, which, according to the Talmud, exudes sensual energy. However, there is nothing to say that these wigs cannot be stylish. In New York the most fashionable hairdressers create wigs for Orthodox women. They work to make them modest, not matronly, and definitely not "wiggy," the word Orthodox women use to describe the heavy appearance of wigs (Hayt, 1997). Covering real hair with a wig (whether the wig is made of the woman's own hair or not) is perfectly modest to these Jewish women who follow the laws of the Torah. As frequently happens in cultures throughout the world, what might seem an illogical contradiction to outsiders is completely sensible to an insider of the religious group.

Dress and Religious Traditions

Religious dress can be separated from secular dress by using different colors or forms. Dress is frequently associated with the Christian sacraments of baptism, communion, marriage, and ordination, which symbolize the individual's religious development. For a first communion, for example, girls frequently wear an ornate white dress with a white veil or hair covering, and boys wear a blue or white suit. Dress for marriage is designed to symbolize the virtue of the two individuals being "eternally" united (Storm, 1987).

Dress acts as a visible symbol for the precepts of Protestant fundamentalism, including the facts that religious principles govern all aspects of their lives (including dress) and that women's roles are frequently more "traditional," with individual needs and beliefs relinquished to the greater good of the family and religious group. In 1986, Concerned Women of America, a group of female religious advocates drawn from both the fundamentalist and the evangelical movements, wrote of the "supernaturalism" inherent in a woman's beauty and its potential for good or evil in the workplace (Edwards, 1993). However, since the 1980s fundamentalist Protestant women have had to adapt to the new economic realities of entering corporate America. For example, at Bob Jones University, a conservative Protestant college in South Carolina, classes begin with prayer, but young women are also taught to be Christian, competitive, and fashionable. Since the 1980s these women have successfully entered the more competitive business world and have learned how to dress fashionably to both fit in and move ahead. This trend encompasses a broad swath of society and is having an increasingly influential impact on consumer America, including the market for more modest fashions in retail settings.

Religious Dress, Social Control, and Morality

Religious dress can provide social control and is an important method to structure behavior, particularly as it relates to morality. Christianity has historically handed down a code of morals, including strict rules about clothing. Early Christian teachings stress the link between the outward appearance of the body and the state of the person's soul (Ribeiro, 1986). An important example of this is the process of becoming a nun, in which dress symbolizes the transition from secular life to spiritual. This involves relinquishing the individuality of dress choice by deferring to the uniform appearance of the habit. At each stage before taking final vows, women are encouraged to give up their prior self-images, accompanied by a commitment to learn to conform to the demands of the new religious life. Postulancy is the first stage, where they receive black uniforms and give up personal possessions. The postulant's uniform varies slightly from order to order but mainly consists of a short white veil, blouse, and black skirt.

Upon successful completion of this initial period, the postulant proceeds to become a novitiate, a year spent isolated from everyone except other novices. In a ceremonial rite of passage, a novice receives the habit, a religious name, and a new identity as a "bride of Christ." As stated in the Ceremonial for the Reception of Novices of the Sisters of Providence, each component of the habit is symbolically linked to the vows. The habit symbolizes an enduring state of humility; the cincture is a sign of chastity and temperance; the tunic is a sign of gravity and modesty; and the white veil is a sign of innocence. During the final period the woman takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and retains limited access to the outside world. Heads are shaved prior to making final vows as a symbolic gesture related to the vow of chastity. In the 1960s and 1970s many nuns in noncloistered orders relinquished habits for secular dress as part of larger reforms dictated by Vatican II in 1962. Women religious in non-cloistered orders and their transition to secular clothing provide a model for understanding how religious dress can identify social role as well as personal identity (Michelman, 1998).

Traditional practices for Muslim men making the pilgrimage to Mecca call for the wearing of no other garment other than the irām, which consists of two seamless wrappers, one passed around the legs, the other over the shoulder, with the head left uncovered. The ceremony of putting them on at a pilgrims' station is al-irām, "the making unlawful" (of ordinary clothing, behavior, and occupations). The ceremony of taking them off is al-ihlal, "the making lawful." The pilgrim shaves his head when the pilgrimage is over. The irām is the shroud prepared in the event of the pilgrim's death. More likely it is preserved and used as a shroud when he dies (Crawley, 1931).

Some fundamental religious groups believe that female sexuality is dangerous if left uncontrolled. This belief leads to the religious practice of prescribing modest and proper dress for female members. Modesty is generally understood to be the covering of certain parts of the body that, according to the belief system of individuals, have a sexual connotation if exposed in public. J. C. Flugel, in The Psychology of Clothes (1930), suggests that dress serves three main purposesdecoration, modesty, and protection. James Laver (1969) contends that until the late twentieth century it was almost universally agreed that the fundamental reason for wearing clothing was modesty. The Book of Genesis in the Bible recounts that Adam and Eve, having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, "knew that they were naked" and made themselves "aprons" of fig leaves.

Modesty is culturally relative. Research on dress of the Kalabari people of Nigeria in West Africa shows that dress for women became much more modest after Christian missionaries from Europe introduced the concept of sin and shame associated with the nude body (Michelman and Erekosima, 1992). Previously, young girls had exposed and drawn attention to their developing breasts and buttocks as part of the cultural norms of dress. Although now done only for ceremonial reenactment, this was a stage of dress that exhibited a girl's ability to move to a higher social status through the process of physical maturation and her potential for bearing children. This example demonstrates that, at least from an anthropological perspective, exposure of body parts is not inherently shameful.

Modesty is also frequently related to the religious beliefs of a group of people and is associated with holiness. For example, many Muslim women cover their heads, necks, arms, legs, and even faces in public, believing that it is proper for a woman to show these "sexual" parts of her body only within the confines of her home. Worldwide attention was focused on the proscribed attire for men and women under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the downfall of the Taliban, these restrictions have lessened. Much of the publicity, particularly regarding Afghani women, who were required to wear a complete covering of the body in public, have raised concerns among non-Muslims of oppression of women, particularly as it regards the political control of their bodies.

Mennonites have many religious proscriptions about women's dress that relate to their belief that clothing is "a mirror of the soul," reflecting their inner attitudes and values. In contrast, there is much immodesty in American movies, television, and music. In the United States there is an increasing "backlash" to immodesty, particularly among the more fundamental religious groups that are developing a wider influence on the broader American culture.

Dress, Social Change, and Class Difference

Although changes in religious dress occur with much less frequency than changes in the dress of the general population, forces of social, economic, and political change do influence sacred dress. For example, in Iran some Islamic women wear Chanel-style suits (secular dress) under a chador (sacred dress) (Sciolino, 1997). These women are described as the cultural elite, women who have both a Western education and growing political influence in their country. Education and wealth provide social agency to individuals, so limits on movement and role-taking in society may seem more problematic to women in the cultural elite than to poorer women who lack access to political and social power.

Religions have used sumptuary laws to regulate the conduct of members as well as to designate social class. Sumptuary laws include regulations restricting extravagance in food, drink, and dress, usually on religious or moral grounds. Muslim sumptuary rules followed those of Jewish tradition and proscribed against tattooing, nudity, and the potential idolatry of representing the human form in pictures. Dress dictated by religion means the individual does not make complicated decisions over current fashion and can devote time to his or her social identity, in particular his or her religious life.

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism use dress to perpetuate their beliefs and organizations by maintaining their traditions and customs. Dress can be considered sacred by the religion's members and is separated from the profane or secular. Hierarchy and group membership can be expressed within religious organizations through dress. Religious traditions, morality, and modesty are frequently prescribed through dress. "While dress is commonplace, it is not ephemeral, vacuous or meaningless. We wear our identities on our bodies and our bodies are used by religions to visually communicate world views" (Arthur, 1999, p. 6).

See Also



Arthur, Linda B. "Dress and Social Control of the Body." In Religion, Dress, and the Body. New York, 1999, pp. 17.

Baizerman, Suzanne. "The Jewish Kippa Sruga and the Social Construction of Gender in Israel." In Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, pp. 92105, edited by Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher. New York, 1992.

Crawley, Ernest. Dress, Drinks, and Drums: Further Studies of Savages and Sex. London, 1931.

Edwards, Lynda. "Worldly Lessons." New York Times, May 30, 1993, pp. C1, C9.

Eicher, Joanne B., and Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins. "Definition and Classification of Dress." In Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, edited by Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, pp. 828. New York, 1992.

Flugel, John Carl. The Psychology of Clothes. London, 1930.

Hayt, Elizabeth. "For Stylish Orthodox Women, Wigs That Aren't Wiggy." New York Times, April 27, 1997, pp. 43, 48.

Laver, James. Modesty in Dress: An Inquiry into the Fundamentals of Fashion. Boston, 1969.

Michelman, Susan O. "Breaking Habits: Fashion and Identity of Women Religious." Fashion Theory 2, no. 2 (1998): 165192.

Michelman, Susan O., and Tonye Victor Erekosima. "Kalabari Dress in Nigeria: Visual Analysis and Gender Implications." In Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, edited by Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, pp. 164182. New York, 1992.

Poll, Solomon. The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg. New York, 1962.

Renbourn, E. T. Materials and Clothing in Health and Disease. London, 1972.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress and Morality. London, 1986.

Schneider, Susan Weidman. Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today. New York, 1984.

Sciolino, Elaine. "The Chanel under the Chador." New York Times Magazine, May 4, 1997, pp. 4651.

Storm, Penny. Functions of Dress: Tool of Culture and the Individual. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1987.

Susan O. Michelman (2005)

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Clothing: Clothing and Religion in the West

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