Proper Attire

Modest Apparel

Therefore I desire that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. 

I Timothy 2:8-10

This commandment was specifically written for women, but principles taught in this passage can be applied to men as well as women. Christians are to be modestly attired. Few people dispute this. However, when we try to define what modesty is, we are faced with many different opinions. The Amish (a religious sect that wears clothing styles dating back to the late 1600s) debate whether suspenders are modest or immodest. Some say they are modest; some say they should not be worn; still others say that only suspenders that form a “Y” in the back are modest, the “X” style is immodest.

So how do we figure out what is modest? The latest fashions are constantly changing. In the late 1800’s it was immodest for a woman to show her ankles. Therefore, women wore long dresses and high top boots. Today, no one thinks twice if a woman’s ankles show. A woman wearing high top boots and a long full skirt would have many people staring at her as she walked down Main Street. Even if we restrict ourselves to the current fashions, there are some outfits that everyone would agree are definitely modest and others that are definitely immodest. However, we can’t rely on popular opinion to totally define modesty. It shifts too much and often allows things that would offend most of our tastes as Christians. What we need is an unchanging yardstick to learn if an outfit is modest. That yardstick will be the Bible.

The problem of modesty originated in Genesis 3. Before sin entered the world, both Adam and Eve were naked. This was neither wrong nor shameful because that is the way God created them (Genesis 2:25). Their nakedness expressed their innocence of sin. This state did not last. When Adam and Eve sinned, they became aware of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves (Genesis 3:7). Their first attempt was to sew fig leaves into coverings. The Hebrew word for the garment is chargorah, which means a garment that covers the mid-section of the body, tied about the waist. The same word is translated in other passages as a girdle or a belt. Adam and Eve’s attempt was unsuccessful because they still considered themselves naked. When God visited them in the Garden, they hid themselves because they were naked (Genesis 3:10). After God issued the punishments to Adam and Eve for their sin, he took animal skins and made tunics for the man and woman (Genesis 3:21). The Hebrew word for tunic is kethoneth, which describes a shirt that reaches to the knees.

We can now define nakedness. Nakedness is the exposure of sexual organs. Any clothing that allows a view of these parts is considered equivalent to being naked. In Job 22:6, the Bible talks about stripping the naked of their clothing. In other words, it is possible to be naked and clothed at the same time. The phrasing implies a person who is thinly clad (wearing clothing whose material is transparent), leaving people with no doubts about what exists underneath the clothing. Another way a person can be naked is by wearing clothing that does not completely cover in all situations. God told the Israelites not to place the altar up where the priest would have to climb steps to reach it (Exodus 20:26). As the priest walked up the steps, there would be the possibility of the worshiper at the base of the steps seeing underneath the priest’s garments. As an additional precaution, the priest’s garments included short trousers that went from the waist to the thighs to cover their nakedness (Exodus 28:42-43). For a woman, the exposure of her breasts or her groin region would be considered nakedness (Ezekiel 16:7).

Therefore, any clothing that does not cover your sexual organs in all positions would be improper for a Christian to wear. For women, this would mean the region from the shoulders to the thighs must be covered. String bikinis, bikini briefs and shorts that are split on the sides up to the waist would not be adequate coverage. Clothing made out of very thin material or loosely woven material, such as the fish net weave, would be improper material. If you are uncertain, place your hand behind the material. If you can “see” your hand, find another article of clothing. When you are trying on slacks, notice whether you can see the edge of your undergarments through the material. If you can, find something else to wear. In addition, clothing that is tight or form fitting would not be modest. Many articles of athletic clothing, like those made out of spandex, hug the body so closely that you can easily see every detail of a woman’s body. Very tight jeans can be a problem as well. Form fitting jeans can leave little doubt about what is underneath the pants.

Clothing that does not cover your nakedness is definitely not modest. However, clothing that does cover your sexual organs may still be considered immodest. For example, under the Old Law, a man was not allowed to wear women’s clothing and a woman could not wear men’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5). What is appropriate dress for a man and a woman varies greatly over time and between societies. Whatever is the current standard, that is the standard you must abide by.

Let’s look at I Timothy 2:9-10 again. The Greek word for modest is kosmious, which means orderly, well-arranged, seemly, or modest. In other words, “modest” refers to clothing that is neat and appropriate for the occasion. The Greek word that is translated shamefacedness is aidos, which means having a sense of shame, modesty, and reverence. A shamefaced person can blush when faced with things that are irreverent or immodest. The Greek word for sobriety is sophrosuna. This is a person of sound mind, with self-control, of good judgment, and moderate in all that he does.

Modest dress doesn’t call attention to the wearer. This is a reason why clothing that exposes your nakedness is immodest. Costly jewelry or elaborate hair styles can also be immodest. People should notice a Christian because of who she is and not because of what she is wearing. Therefore, the clothing that I wear should fit the occasion so that my attire does not outshine my Lord, whom I represent. When going among farmers, you shouldn’t wear a formal gown; a flannel shirt and jeans or a cotton dress would be more appropriate. If you need to teach someone of the Amish faith, you should wear a dark dress with no metal buttons.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

 I Corinthians 9:19-23

We should always be modestly attired because we represent Jesus to those around us at every moment of our lives.

Before we leave the topic of clothing, I would like to mention one more thing. Right or wrong, people judge us by the clothes that we wear. If we dress as if we are going to dig ditches, but we are not, people will conclude that we don’t care. If we greatly overdress for the occasion, people will conclude that we are stuck up and aloof. When you begin searching for a job, notice what the administrative people are wearing before you apply for the job. When you go in for an interview, dress at least as well as the person you will be talking to. When you are formally stopping by to teach the gospel, recognize that people have certain expectations about what a Christian should look like. Don’t place a stumbling block in front of your message by dressing so that you lose credibility with people.

Hair Length

You may have difficulty believing this but God told us very plainly about how men and women ought to wear their hair. In I Corinthians 11:14-15, Paul tells us that it is natural for a man to wear short hair and for a woman to wear long hair. Short hair on a woman is a dishonor to that woman. The context of these verses shows that this is a statement of fact. It is not optional; it is not a suggestion; it is a fact that can be readily observed in the world.

If it is so natural, why do some women wear their hair short? The short hair is a symbol of their rebellion – rebellion against their parents, against society, against religion, or against everything. Until the feminist movement, women wore their hair long. When women rebelled against society, they cut their hair short. God is not pleased with people who rebel against things that are right. As Christians, we need to be more mature in our attitudes. Wrong things happen all the time in this world, but you cannot correct a wrong with another wrong.

Of course, the question then is how short is too short? Deuteronomy 22:5 stated that clothing between men and women was to be distinctive. It seems reasonable that hair lengths between men and women should also be distinctive.

Study Questions

  1. Since fashions change constantly, how can we determine what is appropriate to wear?
  2. Using Genesis 2 and 3, what kind of clothing is definitely inadequate? What kind of clothing is definitely adequate?
  3. It is possible to be clothed and naked at the same time. Explain how this is so. List examples of this from current fashions.
  4. What is modest dress?
  5. Write out I Corinthians 11:14-15. What does it teach us?

Class Discussion

  • Does a Christian have the right to wear anything she wants?
  • Would tattoos be acceptable?
  • Would body piercing be acceptable?
  • How long can your hair be and still be considered short?
  • Can a male Christian go shirtless in public?
  • Can a Christian wear a bathing suit in public?
  • Should boys and girls swim together?

The following questions were presented to a teenage Bible study class in Pennsylvania. I think you will find their answers interesting. Those in the left column are the boys’ answers. Those in the right column are the girls’ answers to a similar question.

QWhat does a man feel and think about when he allows himself to look at a young woman in enticing dress?
AThis can lead to immoral thoughts, lust, which is sinful. The man, if he persists in such behavior has spiritual issues and it can lead him further down the road to more immoral sinful thoughts and behavior
 All kinds of evil thoughts. Some men imagine morbid things. Men imagine having sex with women and what they look like naked. Men imagine what women look like in certain sexual positions, etc. Enticing dress appeals to the lust of a man’s flesh and leads to all kinds of evil thought.
 Makes you want to look further or want more.
 Perhaps, at times, it is simply an admiration of beauty. However, having been in the world and among the worldly, having been involved in numerous “guy conversations” about women, the norm is thinking about sexual things to do to her.
QIn your judgment, avoiding such thoughts is a [daily, weekly, monthly, rare] struggle for most men.
QDo even Christian women sometimes make it difficult for you to keep your mind pure by the way they choose to dress? Do they make it difficult for you to keep your mind pure by the way they dress when they come to assemble with the saints?
AYes. A very few Christian women come dressed in an inappropriate manner making it difficult to keep my mind totally focused on worship.
 Yes. Yes.
 I notice more with Christian young people, rather than adults. Things that are common, such as tight pants and shirts, short skirts, and low-cut shirts.
 Yes on both accounts. Revealed cleavage, tight-fitting shirts and pants, skirts revealing the thighs all make it difficult to think about God instead of sex, even during the worship assemblies.
QWhich of the following do you consider enticing dress on a female?Which of the following do you consider inappropriate dress for a female seeking to be pure and seeking to help her male acquaintances to be pure?
 Low neckline revealing some breast curve or cleavage
AAll answered “yes”Most answered “yes”
 Open back
AyesAll answered “no”
 not really
 Sleeveless shirt
AyesAll answered “no”
 not for me
 Must watch for bra showing under arm
 I have seen a few that I could say are modest, but most leave too much ability to see inside the shirt from various angles. However, I would prefer women not wear them at all.
 Spaghetti strap shirt or dress
AyesMost answered “no”
 yes — Very
 Depends on how the dress is cut, how tight, just spaghetti straps — no
 Strapless shirt or dress (nothing covering the shoulders)
AyesAll answered “no”
 yes — Very
 Depends on how the dress is cut, how tight, just spaghetti straps — no
 Midriff showing
AnoMost answered “no”
 yes — Very
 On a teenage girl or young woman it is enticing.
 Pants that reveal waistband of panties
AEnticingAll answered “yes”
 Form-fitting shirt or pants
AyesMost answered “no”
 Short shorts (how short?)
AnoMost answered “yes”
 I consider hot pants style shorts enticing. Shorts around mid-thigh or just above are not a problem.
 yes — Showing thighs
 yes — A little more lenient here than with the skirts; but not much. Typically, if it is close to the knee while standing, I view it as modest.
 Undergarments visible through the outer garments
AEnticingAll answered “yes”
 yes — Over knee and above.
 One-piece swimsuit
AyesAll answered “no”
 Depends on the cut of the suit. If it is somewhat modest cut, no problem. I have seen one piece suits that cover little.
QAdditions to the list?
AMen are visually stimulated creatures. That is why advertising shows women wearing little or creatively hiding their bodies with the product they are trying to sell.
 Under garments visible through arm holes
 Shirts with provocative messages on them. Clothes with symbols, pictures, or messages that necessitates looking at sexual areas of the body in order to read them.
QAssuming you are unmarried, are you more attracted to a young woman who is careful to dress modestly or to a young woman whose dress excites you? Explain.
AI prefer a woman who dresses well but is dressed modestly. I would not want my wife or girlfriend flaunting herself to others by showing too much of herself.
 More attracted in an honorable way to the modestly dressed. More attracted in a dishonorable and sexual way to the immodest dresser — MEN ARE EVIL.
 More attracted to a woman who is dressed less modest because there is more skin showing which makes you want to see more.
 I am somewhat unclear on this question. However, regarding sexual stimulation — that is clearly greater regarding one who is immodest. That is why you say “dress excites you.” But …
QWhich woman from the previous question would you rather have as your fiancee or wife? Why?
AModestly dressed. Again, she is my wife. I want to be proud of her. Someone who will walk with me through life as a Christian mate and not be influenced by the evils of this world, conforming to the dress and culture. I want a modest wife who can stand by my side and assist me in getting to heaven.
 The modest dresser. This is indicative of what is on the inside of a woman and whether this potential mate is very spiritually minded.
 I would rather have the modestly dressed woman for a wife. I would have it this way because I know how guys think and what they are looking at.
 I would rather have a modest woman as a fiancee or wife. Why? Because I do not want other men stimulated sexually by my wife or fiancee. Secondly, modest says something about what kind of woman she is. Immodesty demonstrates, at best, weak spirituality. At worst, rebellion for God’s order and plan in the home.
QIs there anything yet unsaid that you would like Christian women to know to help them keep their male acquaintances pure?
AMales are visually stimulated. If you attract your boyfriend or husband by wearing provocative dress or by provocative behavior, what makes you think that down the road another woman cannot do the same? Read Proverbs 31; this is the kind of woman Christian men want.
 Be modest in your heart, and it will show in your actions and dress. Flee fornication. Don’t do anything with a guy more than simple kissing before marriage. Keep yourself pure for the sake of your future mate.
 I think in today’s society you will really have to work to dress modestly. The styles are tight, low cut, and short. So it will take some commitment to do the right thing.
 Just some Bible passages: I Peter 3:1-6Matthew 18:6-9I Thessalonians 4:7. Do not let the world be your standard. Let God be your standard: Romans 12:1-2.
 Some of the surveys included advice about kissing. Summarizing those responses: If you are going to kiss on a date, keep it short. Long kissing can cause lust and can lead to other actions. The more you touch, the more you will want to touch and the harder it will be to stay pure.