Biblical Studies Clothing
Alicia Batten, Antonios Finitsis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0154


Clothing refers to skins or garments made from the manipulation of fibers or threads (i.e. woven, knitted, sprang, etc.) that cover the body in some manner. Adornment is another relevant term and refers to the temporary ornamentation of the body for a given occasion or event. It thus calls attention primarily to aesthetic qualities. The terms clothing and adornment almost inevitably introduce personal or social values. Hence, recently, scholars have opted for the broader term Dress. Clothing is more specific than dress, which includes bodily coverings, but also jewelry, cosmetics, hairstyles, tattoos, or other manipulations of the bodily surface such as scarification. Dress is both noun and verb, or, put differently, both product and process. Dress as a noun is what is done to the body, and dress as a verb is how it is done. This article includes studies that address all three areas. The study of clothing has developed considerably in a number of disciplines. For historians, it began as a history of costume but has since evolved to include insights from social scientific fields such as anthropology and sociology. The latter two areas as well as other disciplines now boast a significant number of theoretical approaches to clothing and dress, examining them in light of identity (gender, religious, ethnic, cultural, political), power, embodiment, and how it functions as a communicator of subjective and social values, including notions of the self. Beyond its importance as a material artifact, dress has also been recognized as a reflection of mentifacts (values and beliefs that shape culture) and sociofacts (institutions and norms that direct human behavior). Moreover, the study of fashion and its significance for the study of contemporary culture, especially in light of Western commoditization, has emerged as major area of interdisciplinary research. In Classics, analysis of dress has also witnessed a considerable upsurge in the last decade and deems it important for the study of societies, such as ancient Rome, in which “the gaze” is so important. Given the highly ideological nature of much of the ancient writing about clothing, archaeological studies and examinations of artistic remains are requisite. Such work must also remember, however, that art can be rhetorical, just as texts are. Of fundamental importance is the observation that items of clothing and ornamentation held tremendous material value in the ancient world, whether it is the Ancient Near East or the Greco-Roman context, and thus their economic, technological, trade, and social dimensions must be highlighted. The study of clothing in the Bible, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity is in its early stages. In biblical literature, symbolic and literal references to clothing, and dress in general, abound. Items of clothing take on legal, ritual, technical, and theological meanings in some biblical texts, while in others they serve as literary markers or motifs that underscore larger shifts within various narratives. In the New Testament and other early Christian literature, clothing imagery continues to convey theological and political meanings; it can function as a means of vilifying characters by associating them with luxurious dress, and it can assist in creating and maintaining identity.

Encyclopedia and General Resources

The analysis of clothing and dress has a long history such that encyclopedias, websites, and databases are increasingly available. Fashion studies in contemporary society have also burgeoned as they bear significance for all sorts of issues such as identity, economics, gender, ethnicity, notions of the self, and so on. The Berg Fashion Library is a goldmine of images and resources on many dimensions of fashion, both historically and today. Oxbow Books is publishing the Ancient Textile Series that focus primarily on historical and archaeological approaches that cover a wide range from prehistory all the way to post medieval times. McNeil 2009 is an overview of critical and primary sources writing about fashion from the late medieval period—when many think that fashion was “born”—to today. Steele 2010 is a good source for finding out about a term or name quickly and can point researchers to a broader list of references. Arthur 1999 provides a collection of essays on contemporary dress in a variety of religious contexts, as does Hume 2013, although the latter includes particular attention to the significance of the feeling of clothes on the body in various religious traditions. Jones 1987 is important because a definition of dress can also include any sort of bodily modification, such as tattooing and branding. Articles directly relevant to the study of the Bible and early Christianity are Edwards 1992, which integrates many archaeological findings; King and Stager 2001, which focuses on the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East; Maier 2004, which covers a wide range of texts in Antiquity, biblical and otherwise; and Batten 2010, which offers a survey for the general reader. Similarly Batten and Olson 2021 is a volume that brings together different types of scholarship over a wide range of geographic areas.

  • Arthur, Linda B., ed. Religion, Dress, and the Body. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

    This edited collection focuses upon dress and social control, especially of women. The essays address a broad range of contemporary religious contexts, including Anabaptists, Mormons, Hasidic Jews, Afghan women, and African American churches.

  • Batten, Alicia J. “Clothing and Adornment.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 40.3 (2010): 148–159.

    DOI: 10.1177/0146107910375547

    This article is an accessible bibliographic survey. It covers some primary and secondary sources for the Hebrew Bible, Judean contexts, Greco-Roman sources, and early Christianity. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Batten, Alicia J., and Kelly Olson, eds. Dress in Mediterranean Antiquity: Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians. London: Bloomsbury/T & T Clark, 2021.

    This edited volume spans ancient Greece, Rome, Rabbinic Judaism, New Testament and Christian Apocrypha, and even Persia and Egypt. It has three sections: Methods (Religious Studies, Classical Studies, Anthropology, Sociology), Materials (Textiles, Jewelry, Art and Mosaics, Sculpture, Mummy Portraits, Color), and Meanings (examines a variety of texts and ideas from Greece, Rome, Persia, Rabbinic Judaism, and New Testament and Christian Apocrypha).

  • Berg Fashion Library.

    This new online searchable resource features access to images and resources, including e-books and referencing system, museum directory, the Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (edited by Joanne B. Eicher, 10 vols. [Oxford: Berg, 2010–]), which is updated annually, as well as other resources and tools.

  • Edwards, Douglas R. “Dress and Ornamentation.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2, D–G. Edited by David N. Freedman, 232–238. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Offers an overview of what sorts of clothes (outer garments, undergarments, headgear) and ornaments (including hairstyles) were worn in Antiquity based on archaeological and literary sources. Some attention to manufacture and trade in the 1st-century Roman context is provided.

  • Hume, Lynne. The Religious Life of Dress: Global Fashion and Faith. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    DOI: 10.2752/9781474290326

    Hume divides the book between Western monotheistic religions, Eastern religions, and what she calls the “mystical and magical.” The book thus provides a very good overview of dress in a range of traditions, and pays particular attention to the physical experience of wearing particular items of dress.

  • Jones, C. P. “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 139–155.

    DOI: 10.2307/300578

    One of the few recent articles to focus specifically on tattooing and branding, this study covers a wide range of evidence and argues that stigma almost always refers to tattoos and only rarely to branding, which was not often practiced on humans. Jones also addresses the functions of tattoos. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. “Culture and the Expressive Life.” In Life in Biblical Israel. By Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, 259–318. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

    This chapter offers a thorough discussion of terms for clothing throughout the Hebrew Bible, discussions of jewelry as well as of perfume and aromatics. Helpful illustrations of archaeological evidence are included. In particular, see subchapter “Dress and Adornments” (pp. 259–284).

  • Lester-Makin, Alexandra. The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: The Sacred and Secular Power of Embroidery. Ancient Textiles Series 35. Oxford: Oxbow, 2019.

    This is a monograph-length historiography of early medieval embroideries and their context within the British Isles. The author analyzes producers and their techniques as well as the material and metaphorical meanings of embroidery. She demonstrates that embroideries were used decoratively but also enacted different meaning between different parts of society.

  • Maier, Harry O. “Kleidung II (Bedeutung).” Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 21 (2004): 1–59.

    This article works through a variety of ancient Greek and Roman sources on clothing and surveys references to clothing throughout the Hebrew Bible, Hellenistic Judaism, Qumran, Philo, Josephus, Rabbinic Judaism, the New Testament, Gnostic texts, and the early Church Fathers.

  • McNeil, Peter, ed. Fashion: Critical and Primary Sources. 4 vols. Oxford: Berg, 2009.

    These edited volumes contain writings on fashion—some primary, some critical—from the late medieval period up to today. Most of the selections are excerpts from longer sources, and, as to be expected, each volume is highly interdisciplinary.

  • Schier, Wolfram, and Susan Pollock, eds. The Competition of Fibres: Early Textile Production in Western Asia, Southeast and Central Europe, 10,000–500BC. Ancient Textiles Series 36. Oxford: Oxbow, 2020.

    This edited volume explores the relationship between fiber resources and availability, on the one hand, and the ways in which those resources were exploited to produce textiles, on the other. It covers topics ranging from origins of fiber technology to sheep husbandry in the ancient Near East.

  • Steele, Valerie, ed. The Berg Companion to Fashion. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

    This one-volume encyclopedia-like book contains references to terms, names, and concepts in fashion written by experts from a variety of disciplines. Each entry contains a brief bibliography. An excellent quick reference source.

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