The phrase “in modest apparel” appears in I Tim.2:9 in a discussion Paul had about the adorning of Christian women. Likewise, Peter in I Pet.3 speaks of the adorning of chaste women, saying that which adorns such women is not what is worn on the outside, but rather the meek and quiet spirit that a woman wears “is in the sight of God of great price.” (I Pet.3:4)
Fashions come and go. Both mens’ and womens’ dress tastes have radically changed over the years. If “sobriety” is one of the standards (I Tim.2:9) in dress mentioned by Paul (i.e., soundness of mind, thought) then one wonders what message the “dress of the day” is signaling.
Interestingly, I clipped a newspaper article from the Wichita Eagle and Beacon when I pastored there in the early to mid-70’s. The headline read, “Miniskirts Out in Moscow.” The first sentence of the article read, “The teenager in her miniskirt is out as a trend setter in Soviet fashions.” The article quoted a leading Soviet fashion designer in that atheistic, communist regime as bemoaning “French designers (who) now offer the image on woman with somewhat vulgarizing decadence.” Evidently, fashion designers in America missed that evaluation in their 70’s, 80’s and onwards creations. I do not know how long miniskirts remained on the “banned” list in Russia, but I remember in 1989, just after the iron curtain was beginning to crack open, when I was in Moscow on a missions trip with Ed Nelson and Natasha Vins, seeing women dressed in fashionable business suits with skirts well below the knee-line standing on busy streets hitch-hiking a ride home from work as an alternative to riding the Moscow subway!
Both Paul and Timothy wrote about modesty in the 1st century Roman world that believers were coping with, a world the fashions of which one writer characterized this way: “There were many ways of dressing the hair. The hair was waved and dyed, sometimes black but more often auburn. Wigs were worn, especially blond wigs, which were found even in the Christian catacombs; and hair to manufacture was imported from Germany, and even as far away as India…purple was the favorite color for clothes; one pound weight of the best Tyrian purple wool stained through twice, cost 1,000 denarii which was more than three year’s wages. In one year, huge quantities of silks, pearls, scents and jewelry were imported from Arabia and India. Diamonds, emeralds, topazes, opals and sardonyx were favorite stones. Earrings were made of pearls and Seneca spoke of women with two or three fortunes in their ears. Slippers were encrusted with them. Nero had a room whose walls were encrusted with them. Christianity came into a world of luxury and decadence. Peter pleads for the graces which adorn the heart….” **
As to fashions before the time of Christ, Kiel and Delitzsch, writing on the Minor Prophets, said, “The prophets did not care for the externals of this kind, but it was evident to them that ‘as the dress, so is the heart.’ That is to say, the clothes were witnesses, in their esteem, of the foreign inclinations of the heart.” This was a commentary on Zeph.1:8 where God through the prophet is explaining the severity of His judgment on “the day of the Lord” because of the “strange apparel,” apparently worn in the worship of idols and false gods. Isaiah prophesied in Isa.3:19ff. that when God judged Israel He would take away from the daughters of Jerusalem “The chains, and bracelets, and mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and…earrings, the rings, and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles and the wimples, and the crisping pins, the glasses, and fine linen and the hoods and the vails.” Evidently their lavishness in dress had become a substitute for their love of God and the inward beauty that only He could give.
So, what does the New Testament say about “modest apparel?” Well, in I Peter and I Timothy the apostles direct their remarks to, much like the prophets of old, the lavish 1st century fashions that were accentuating the externals as that which made a woman attractive. Paul argues that modesty must dictate what is beautiful about a woman. Braided hair, gold, jewels or costly array should not be the first thing that speaks out of a godly woman’s presence, but rather, as Peter writes, “the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit….” (I Pet.3:4). And, in I Timothy 2:9 when Paul speaks of a woman’s clothing, he uses the word kosmio(cosmos) which hearkens to that which has order, purpose, arrangement, precision and decorum as in the cosmos (universe) which God created with all of the above and more. Whether male or female then, in our dress, our apparel, our comportment, we should evoke order, appropriateness, modesty (shame facedness) and decorum. Dress should be proper and for the occasion. For instance, it would, except in rare instances, be inappropriate to dress up like a clown to attend a funeral; or come to church wearing a baseball uniform, etc. Good sense and common sense should prevail and always, sobriety, accentuating one’s inward character rather than his/her outward costume. Peter and Paul both raise concerns about abusing outward adornment, such as hair-do’s, gold jewelry and certain kinds of apparel; not that wearing jewelry or having one’s hair done up neatly or wearing clothing that is attractive is wrong, but that these outward adornments should not be what makes a woman beautiful but rather the heart and spirit of a person whose first characteristic is godliness.
In summary, modest apparel is always approved of God; nakedness is a sign of shame, outward trappings such as jewelry and make-up and hair-do’s are not bad in and of themselves but in everything a follower of Jesus wants to glorify Him and attract others to him through a right spirit that exudes from our heart rather than through outward adorning that may be worn to wow people with what we wear and how we wear it.
“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies…she maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple…strength and honor are her clothing.” (Provs 31:10,22,25)
**I failed to document this lengthy direct quote as to its source; if any reader can identify its author please let me know.