Men and women are different. That is obvious. The Bible asserts their equal value before God, but also recognises their differences, and makes various requirements based upon those distinctions. One of those requirements relates to clothing. God requires men and women, and boys and girls, to manifest their distinctiveness by wearing distinct clothing. There is male clothing which only men and boys must wear. And there is female clothing which only women and girls must wear. This distinction between male and female clothing is what Scripture requires.
“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 22:5).
However strange that may sound to the ears of this so-called “unisex” generation, it is God’s abiding Word upon the matter. And God’s people are ready to hear His voice, whatever He says.
There is so much ignorance and misunderstanding on the whole subject of clothing, that a review needs to be made of the origins and objectives of clothing, before dealing with the male/female differences in clothing.
1. The Origins of Clothing
No need for clothing at creation
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were clothed spiritually with the image of God and with original righteousness. There was no need for garments to cover their bodies physically. Not only did God consider this to be right and “very good” (Gen 1:31), but also Adam and Eve themselves felt no shame about it: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).
Need for clothing introduced by the entrance of sin
It was not until they sinned that Adam and Eve felt the need for clothing. This was an instantaneous outcome of their sin: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7). This need was felt before they heard the voice of the Lord God (Gen. 3:8), upon which they made the vain attempt to hide themselves among the trees of the garden. Their felt need for clothing their bodies was an outworking of their own guilty consciences, now that they had sinned. They had lost their original righteousness which had been clothing their souls, and now they felt the “shame of . . . nakedness” (Rev. 3:18). Therefore they felt their need for their bodies to be covered.
We learn two things from this:
- The brazen shamelessness of those who advocate no coverings for the body, the so-called “naturists”. Only by ignoring their shameful sin could they ever advocate such a concept. They are denying that our nature is not as it was when first created, but that it is fallen and corrupt nature. Man’s fallen “nature” now demands the body to be covered with clothes, and not left naked. Naturists glory in their shame.
- The folly of those who go to the opposite extreme, to glory in clothes and garments and all the latest fashions, as if these were things to be proud of. Clothes are the symbols of our shame, not reasons for pride! Clothes are a sad reminder to us that we are a fallen race. As our inward nature has been stripped of its original covering of righteousness and needs another covering, so does our body need a covering of garments to hide it. Those who make too much of their clothing are among those “whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:19). Many need to hear the rebuke issued to the Laodiceans: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Clothing speaks of what should humble us, not exalt us!
The difference between man’s way and God’s way of clothing
In Genesis 3:7 we have man’s way of trying to cover the shame of his nakedness, by sewing fig leaves together and making aprons from them. In Genesis 3:21, we have God’s way, by sacrificing beasts and making coats for them. There is a most instructive contrast here.
- Learn first the insufficiency of man’s ideas about covering his nakedness, from the very beginning. When their eyes were opened, they knew that they were naked, and “nature itself” taught them that they needed clothing. But what did they make? Out of fig leaves they made aprons. What did God, whose eyes behold all things and who knows all things and understands things, make for them? Out of the skins of animals He made coats. There is a distinction here: the coat is a larger covering than an apron. We can spiritualise of course about man’s fig leaves of self-righteousness being insufficient and our need of the divine righteousness of Christ. But there is another lesson here on a very practical level. There is a tendency among fallen men and women to underestimate the extent to which they need to be covered by their garments. In this degenerate age we have the wicked spectacle of insufficient clothing on every side, and that not only for females but also for males at times. It goes back to the fall. There was a difference of view between God and man about this from the very beginning! What is required for due modesty is oftentimes not properly discerned by fallen man. When men and women professing Christianity conform to worldly immodesty, they are taking fallen man’s side against God in a long-running argument.
- Learn second our need to consult with God, through His Word, as to what should be determined as appropriate covering. This is not something in which we are left to our own devices, but as God by His action in the beginning, so by His recorded Word ever since regulates what is appropriate attire for men and women. By substituting His coats of skins for their aprons of fig leaves, God manifested that it was His sovereign right to determine the appropriate clothing of men. Obedience to God includes obedience in what clothes we wear.
- Learn third, from the spiritual symbolism, that as sinners it is only by a God-given righteousness that the sinful nakedness of our souls might be covered, not by any fig-leaves righteousness of our own sewing, which are but filthy rags. The Saviour invited the Laodiceans: “I counsel thee to buy of Me . . . white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear” (Rev. 3:18). In the righteousness of Christ there is a sufficient and suitable and essential clothing for our souls. When we think of clothing, we should not confine our thoughts to the shame of our sin, but extend them to God’s grace by which He clothes believers with the garment of Christ’s righteousness – clothing is a reminder to us of both.
2. The Objectives of Clothing
1. To cover shame
Of this objective we have said much already. Suffice to say that whilst garments do cover in one sense, yet they are themselves symbols of that very shame.
2. To prevent uncleanness
“That the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety” (1 Tim. 2:9). Primarily clothes are functional, to perform various objectives. Thus both men and women are to manifest modesty in their clothing. They should not seek to rise above their station by means of their garments, nor to bedeck themselves in any gaudy fashion. 1 Peter 3:2-4 sets forth guidelines not only for women, but for all. Neither male nor female should think that true beauty consists in what one wears, but in what one is and does before God.
There is a way of dressing which the Bible classes as “the attire of an harlot” (Prov. 7:10). This is clothing that incites uncleanness. This is the prevalent attire for many in our day, where when all modesty is cast to the wind, the harvest cannot but be an increase in uncleanness. Garments which not so long ago would have been the distinctive dress of harlots have now become normal clothing to wear to the office, or even to Church. Clothes that provoke the eyes or acts of lust involve the wearer in the participation of the beholder’s sin. Instead, even our clothing should reveal a “chaste conversation” (1 Pet. 3:2) – and that was written in the context of “adorning” (verse 3). Clothes should be worn which will preserve our own and other people’s chastity, not ones which will prove a temptation or allurement to defilement – even if only in thought.
3. To protect against the elements
After the fall, cast out of the garden of Eden, our first parents and their posterity faced for the first time greater extremes of weather: heat; cold; winds and so on. Clothing protects against these, whether the skin from the sun’s burning rays or the body from the cold. God in His mercy has provided us with materials from which clothes can be made. It is both sinful and foolish to fail to use them, and expose our bodies to danger, in the interests of wearing what is fashionable instead of what is functional.
4. To perform duty
Man is to work; woman is to work. Subject to the requirements of modesty and so on, their clothes should be conducive to the work that they have to do. In some occupations this means clothes that are deliberately fashioned for the work, such as the painter’s overalls, or the fireman’s helmet and so on. But at the very least, our clothes should fit us for our work
5. To distinguish persons
Clothes are one of the ways appointed by God by which superiors, inferiors and equals are to be distinguished, and thus are a way of preserving the honour belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as the Shorter Catechism explains the Fifth Commandment. Disintctions between male and female are included, dealt with below.
When clothing does not fulfil these objectives, it is clothing contrary to the Lord’s design in our being clothed, and is therefore abominable in His sight, however pleasing it may be to us and other worldly eyes – and is condemned by Him as “strange apparel” (Zeph. 1:8).
3. The male/female distinctions in clothing
God has reserved to Himself the right to regulate our clothing. When we turn to His Word, looking for guidance, what do we find? We find various things, but here we focus upon the demand for a male/female distinction in clothing. It is contained in Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.
Women must not wear men’s clothing. Men must not wear women’s clothing. That is the clear teaching of the text. Many today want to discard it as unimportant and irrelevant. That is a mistake.
1. The text sets forth God’s requirement.
This is not a human institution that may be dispensed with by other creatures. It is a divine one. God, who is not the author of confusion, and would have all things done decently and in order, requires the distinction between male and female to be manifested in the different garments they wear.
2. The text underlines the importance of this matter.
Some say, What does it matter what we wear? They think that because it is man who looks at the outward appearance whereas God looks upon the heart, therefore only the heart matters, and appearance and clothing is irrelevant. But no, for transgressors of these outward requirements “are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Abomination! That is strong language, and associates the transgressors of this rule with idolaters and sodomites (Lev. 18:22).
3. The text assumes that there will be a distinction.
As a matter of historical fact, it has in general been the case throughout the world, that male and female clothing has been different. From this almost universal testimony, we cannot but think that this was something placed in the human consciousness from the fall onwards, and no doubt more firmly established there by the example of the Lord in His clothing our first parents. “Nature itself” has taught their sons and daughters to distinguish their dress.
4. The text grounds the distinction in male and female distinctions of role and sphere.
This underlies the requirement. Distinct kinds of clothing are a means to preserving and manifesting the distinct roles of men and women. This may be seen by the meaning of the word used for pertaining. It could be, and often is, translated as vessel, or instrument or even weapon. Where such things would be worn about the body, the woman is not to wear them, for they especially belong and pertain to the man’s province, the man’s sphere and the man’s role, as tradesman, craftsman, hunter or soldier. For her to wear such things would be to impose herself into his province.
5. Thus the text sets forth a moral requirement, not a ceremonial or judicial one.
It is based, not upon typical arrangements only for the Old Testament period, nor upon civil arrangements just appropriate for Israel, but it is an outworking of the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments. It is an outworking of the Fifth Commandment in that it seeks to maintain the differences between male and female and the relationship that ought to exist between them in their various relations. It is an outworking of the Seventh Commandment in that it is designed to preserve chastity and to prevent any violation of chastity. What fearful uncleanness ensues from “cross-dressing” and other deliberate and extreme “trans-gender” sins against this requirement.
6. The text sets forth a permanent requirement, one which applies in all places at all times.
Because it is moral, it is therefore perpetual. It is argued by some that the text does not apply in our New Testament times, but it can be seen that this is not true. This is not like the animal sacrifices which were fulfilled when Christ came into the world and offered Himself the one and only sacrifice that really took away sin, thus bringing to an end all those typical ordinances. This requirement is grounded in the male/female distinction begun at creation. Have men ceased to be male, or have women ceased to be female because Christ has come into the world? Galatians 3:28 does not teach such a thing. Role distinctions continue as before; therefore garment distinctions also continue as before.
7. The text does not state what that distinction should be; it leaves it undefined.
There is nothing in the whole Bible that demands that men wear trousers (pants, in American English) specifically and women wear skirts specifically. Indeed both men and women in Scripture wear skirts. Ruth said to Boaz, “Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman” (Ruth 3:9). David cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:4). Aaron had skirts to his garments (Ps. 133:2). It is thus not inherently wrong for women to wear trousers or for men to wear skirts. Why is it wrong then? It is wrong in a culture like ours where trousers have always been recognised as a man’s garment and the skirt a woman’s garment. In our culture, then, for a woman to wear trousers is for her to wear a garment that pertains to a man – and that is sinful. For a man to wear a skirt in our culture is for him to put on a woman’s garment – and that is sinful. This moral requirement then is culturally conditioned.
8. Nevertheless the text is insisting upon a distinction.
Male and female distinctions are to be worked out in differences of dress. To maintain this distinction in clothing is to maintain the male/female distinction itself. God, who has made male and female physiology different would have male and female clothing to be different too. To the extent that our minds are conformed to God’s mind in Scripture, we too will have a desire that the male/female distinction be worked out even in the clothes that we wear. The important questions will not be, How good do I look in this? or, How convenient is this to wear? Rather, the man will be asking, How masculine do I look? The woman will be asking, How feminine do I look? These should be the questions in our mind. It may be that we need to be transformed in our whole approach to clothing by the renewing of our minds, that they be no longer conformed to the pattern of this world, and that we might be able to prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God as to what we should wear and not wear (Rom. 12:1). To say that we cannot keep the command because it does not define what is meant by male and female garments is to impugn the wisdom of God who has so drafted His law.
9. The text is very wide in its breadth.
Anything that pertains to a man must not be worn by a woman. And no woman’s garment whatsoever should be worn by a man. Men’s garments must be masculine in appearance; women’s garments feminine. Thus not just the garments in and of themselves, but also their style and colour come under notice. This is relevant. In our day men are wearing colours that most definitely until very recently were held to pertain to a woman. Surely such a command should be of overriding concern to us in choosing and wearing our clothing. If our mind was with the Lord, surely we would seize upon those aspects of clothing that best manifest this distinction, whatever else we aimed at in our dress. And surely we would avoid by as great a distance as possible whatever tended to blur the distinction. The text prohibits any blurring of this distinction whatsoever, for any that do so are an abomination to Him.
How may it be blurred? In the following ways: transvestitism and other perversions; any other way with the purpose of uncleanness; pantomimes; the current trend for so-called “unisex” fashions; and the general relaxation of the distinctives in this area, which of course especially focusses around the use of trousers by women.
May women wear trousers (“pants” in American English)?
We come back to the question that currently causes most controversy. Should women wear trousers? May they wear trousers? In the light of all that has been said above, obviously not. We do not raise this because of any special desire to attack women. If the trend was for men to wear skirts, then we would have to focus upon that. It is just that in our day it is especially women who in general are seeking to break out of their God-given roles and therefore (for these things are far from unconnected) also away from their distinctive clothing.
In western society for many years until very recently, trousers were the sole province of the man. If any item of clothing could be described as “that which pertaineth to a man” it was certainly trousers. And skirts were the greatest distinguishing feature of female attire – “a woman’s garment” if any garment ever was. A proof of this is that the signs for public conveniences make the distinction solely on this basis: the man in trousers, the woman in a skirt. This is the key cultural male/female distinction in clothing. If trousers could not be assigned to the male and if the skirt could not be assigned to the female, then we are calling into question the wisdom of God, as if His commandment were altogether impossible to implement. The trousers/skirt distinction is what we inherit from our culture, and therefore this is what the commandment of God requires us to wear.
From where did the practice of women wearing trousers come? What introduced women to wearing that which pertains to a man? One of the main causes came from an actress who in 1933 started this new fashion for women of wearing men’s clothing. She caused an uproar when she arrived in Paris from Hollywood in a man’s suit – her painted lips and nails perfectly matching the colour of her tie. Indeed, there was even a law in Paris at that very time against a woman attracting attention to herself by wearing men’s attire (Chronicles of the 20th Century, 21/5/33). Thousands of worldly women began to follow the lead of this actress.
If only we could see how recent this innovation is, especially those who are young enough to be tempted to think that it is almost normal, objections to our stand on this matter would fall away. It is important to realise that this change is still in process; it has not arrived yet. Public conveniences in airports and other places still use signs which distinguish on this basis. Seeing this is the case, for a woman to wear trousers at the present time is to participate in the confusing of the male/female distinction that the text calls an abomination to the Lord – no less than it would be for a man to wear a skirt!
Therefore we think that God-fearing women would desire to please the Lord as much as may be, and that would prevent them from participating in this rebellion against His order. Let the godly woman with delight seize upon this God-given opportunity to manifest her female difference from the male! In our day and culture, there is still a way for her to dress that clearly distinguishes her from men. Let her do so, to please her God! Amidst all the male/female confusion, let her make a clear statement that she is on the Lord’s side, by wearing garments suitable for her womanhood, as distinct from manhood.
Rev Keith M Watkins