Modest women, modest dress

Today’s epistle reading for morning prayer (Anglican BCP) was in 1 Timothy, Paul’s pastoral advice to his student: “Similarly, women are to wear suitable clothes and to dress quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold or jewellry or expensive clothes; their adornment is to do the good works that are proper for women who claim to be religious.”

And Paul goes on to say that he does not give the women in Timothy’s congregation permission to teach or have authority over men, that they are to remember that they are to be quiet and meek, and that their work of salvation shall be in raising Christian families. Well, that is not the attitude to make Paul popular, but so be it, it’s what he said. Yes, I know that some scholars consider these pastorals doubtful, but I believe them to be Paul’s own, very personal letters, hence the difference in style. Maybe Timothy’s congregation was getting rowdy or boastful, and the women were beginning to take on the attitude of pagan priestesses, so they got a reprimand. But that’s not really my point. Paul supported the ministry of other women in other places, so I don’t think we can generalize too much from his private advice to Timothy.

Christians at the time were beginning to evolve a distinct way of life that was even less cultural than Judaism. They were already running various charitable outlets, and both men and women were told to look and act like followers of Christ in public. Women were to avoid vain dress and action, spending their time in family life, and public good works. They were not to be sitting around, having their hair cut, dyed and braided or curled (yes, they did those things then), and gadding about from jewelry shop to clothing store. Their modesty in covering their heads and bodies, their modest demeanour in the streets, and their dedication to God and family were the distinguishing marks of faith.

My husband and I were on the bus last week, early evening, headed home from our church in the West End. He remarked as he looked out the window, “Hey, Charlie’s Angels,” as three young women strolled past in low-cut, short skirted dresses, hair fashionably lacquered into place, and faces like masks. They were a bit over the top – and they must have been shivering in the cold autumn wind. Yes, I rolled my eyes, but inside I felt sorry for them. They yearn for excitement and attention, but they are going to get lewdness and disrespect. That kind of excitement is like finding a python in your bedroom, and the attention like finding out that it is hungry. There isn’t really a good outcome unless you can run.

Anabaptist writers have mentioned that Plain women get more attention publically than Plain men, since their dress is so distinctive and counter-cultural. Maybe this is our own special witness as women, to be a sort of lighthouse in the dark world. It isn’t enough that we don’t look like other people, but we can’t act like other people.

Plain can’t be just another fashion statement.