Biblical clothing

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In a rare depiction of Hebrew clothing, King Jehu, or possibly Jehu's ambassador, kneels at the feet of Shalmaneser III on the Black Obelisk, circa 850 BC.

The clothing of the people in Biblical times was made from wool, linen, animal skins, and perhaps silk. Most events in the Old and New Testament take place in ancient Israel, and thus most Biblical clothing is ancient Hebrew clothing. They wore underwear and cloth skirts.

Complete descriptions of the styles of dress among the people of the Bible is impossible because the material at hand is insufficient.[1] Assyrian and Egyptian artists portrayed what is believed to be the clothing of the time, but there are few depictions of Israelite garb. One of the few available sources on Israelite clothing is the Bible.[2]

Israelite men[edit]

The clothing of earliest of Hebrews, such as Abraham, Sarah, and Joseph, may have been similar that of these near contemporaneous Western Asiatics, shown with an outer garment as a wrap that leaves one shoulder and both arms free.[3] It is an Egyptian depiction from the tomb of 12th dynasty official Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan, circa 1900 BC.


'ezor, ḥagor

The earliest and most basic garment was the 'ezor (/ˈzɔːr/ ay-ZOR, all pronunciations are approximate)[4] or ḥagor (/xəˈɡɔːr/ khə-GOR),[5] an apron around the hips or loins,[3] that in primitive times was made from the skins of animals.[1] It was a simple piece of cloth worn in various modifications, but always worn next to the skin.[3] Priests wore an 'ezor of linen known as a 'ephodh.[3] If worn for mourning, it was called a saḳ.[3]

Semitic visitor to Egypt, described as a Hyksos leading a group of Aamu, in the painting of a group of foreigners in the Tomb of Khnumhotep II, c. 1900 BC. Howard Vos has suggested that the "coat of many colors" said to have been worn by Joseph could be similar to the colorful foreign garments seen in the painting.[6]

When garments were held together by a belt or girdle, the cloth was also called an 'ezor or ḥagor.[1]


The 'ezor later became displaced among the Hebrews by the kethōneth (/kɛˈtɔːnɛt/ ket-AW-net,[7] translated into Greek as chitōn[8]) an under-tunic,[1][3] corresponding most nearly to our long shirt.[8] The kethōneth appears in Assyrian art as a tight-fitting undergarment, sometimes reaching only to the knee, sometimes to the ankle.[3] In its early form the kethōneth was without sleeves and even left the left shoulder uncovered.[9] In time men of leisure wore kethōneth with sleeves.[9] In later times, anyone dressed only in the kethōneth was described as naked[1] (1Samuel 19:24, Isaiah 20:2, 2Kings 6:30, John 21:7); deprived of it he would be absolutely naked.


The well-off might also wear a ṣādhı̄n (/sɑːˈdn/ sah-DEEN)[10] under the kethōneth. This rather long under garment had sleeves[8] and was of fine linen.[3]

Outer garments[edit]


The simlāh (שִׂמְלָה /sɪmˈlɑː/ sim-LAH),[11][12] was the heavy outer garment or shawl of various forms.[3] It consisted of a large rectangular piece of rough, heavy woolen material, crudely sewed together so that the front was unstitched and with two openings left for the arms.[1][3] Flax is another possible material.[1] It is translated into Koine Greek as "himation" (ἱμάτιον, /hɪˈmæti.ɒn/ hi-MAT-ee-on),[13] and the ISBE concludes that it "closely resembled, if it was not identical with, the himation of the Greeks."[8]

In the day it was protection from rain and cold, and at night when traveling Israelites could wrap themselves in this garment for warmth on their journey to Temple for the feast three times a year. They are required to gather from around the world to his holy land as scripture says in Deuteronomy 16:16.[1][3] (see Deuteronomy 24:13). The front of the simlāh also could be arranged in wide folds (see Exodus 4:6) and all kinds of products could be carried in it[1][3] (See 2Kings 4:39, Exodus 12:34).

Every respectable man generally wore the simlāh over the kethōneth (See Isaiah 20:2–3), but since the simlāh hindered work, it was either left home or removed when working.[1][3] (See Matthew 24:18). From this simple item of the common people developed the richly ornamented mantle of the well-off, which reached from the neck to the knees and had short sleeves.[3]

The modern abaya, similar to the Biblical me'īl, worn with a keffiyeh head dress.

The me'īl (/məˈl/ mə-EEL,[14] translated into Greek as stolḗ[15][8]) stands for a variety of garments worn over the undergarment like a cloak[1] (1Samuel 2:19, 1Samuel 15:27), but used only by men of rank or of the priestly order[8] (Mark 12:38, Luke 20:46, Luke 15:22). The me'ı̄l was a costly wrap (1Samuel 2:19, 1Samuel 18:4, 1Samuel 24:5, 1Samuel 24:11) and the description of the priest's me'ı̄l was similar to the sleeveless abaya[3] (Exodus 28:31; Antiquities, III. vii. 4). This, like the me'ı̄l of the high priest, may have reached only to the knees, but it is commonly supposed to have been a long-sleeved garment made of a light fabric.[1]

'addereth, ma'aṭafah

At a later period the nobles wore over the simlāh, or in place of it, a wide, many-folded mantle of state (adderet, /əˈdɛrɛt/ ə-DERR-et[16] or ma'aṭafah) made of rich material (See Isaiah 3:22), imported from Babylon (Joshua 7:21).[1] The leather garment worn by the prophets was called by the same name because of its width.[3]

Religious accessories[edit]


The Torah commanded that Israelites wear tassels or fringes (ṣiṣit, /tsˈtst/ tsee-TSEET[17]) attached to the corners of garments (see Deuteronomy 22:12, Numbers 15:38–39).[1] Numbers 15:39 records that the tassels were to serve as reminders to keep the Lord's commandments.


Phylacteries or tefillin (Hebrew: תְפִלִּין) are boxes containing biblical verses attached to the forehead and arm by leather straps,[18] and were in use by New Testament times (see Matthew 23:5).


Depictions show some Hebrews and Syrians bareheaded or wearing merely a band to hold the hair together.[3] Hebrew people undoubtedly also wore head coverings similar to the modern keffiyeh, a large square piece of woolen cloth folded diagonally in half into a triangle.[3] The fold is worn across the forehead, with the keffiyeh loosely draped around the back and shoulders, often held in place by a cord circlet. Men and women of the upper classes wore a kind of turban, cloth wound about the head. The shape varied greatly.[3]



Sandals (na'alayim) of leather were worn to protect the feet from burning sand and dampness.[1] Sandals might also be of wood, with leather straps (Genesis 14:23, Isaiah 5:27).[3] Sandals were not worn in the house nor in the sanctuary[1][3] (see (Exodus 3:5), Joshua 5:15). To walk about without sandals was otherwise a sign of great poverty (Deuteronomy 25:9) or of mourning (2Samuel 15:30, Ezekiel 24:17,23).[1][3]

Symbolism of clothing in the New Testament[edit]

Clothing may represent a character's development, inner nature, or spiritual state in the New Testament. In the Lucan version of the Exorcism of the Demoniac, the possessed man appears stark naked (Luke 8:27); after his exorcism he is "clothed, and in his right mind" (Luke 8:35). "Clothing marks the man's transition from a feral, mad state to a human, rational one."[19] In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son is given the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his feet (Luke 15:23), emblematic of his reconciliation with the father and his figurative resurrection ("was dead and is alive," Luke 15:24). Sometimes clothing functions in a MacGuffin-like fashion.[20] The apparel is important to move the plot forward and something the characters care about (or should care about), but its significance is a mystery. One example is a man who arrives at a wedding feast for the king's son in the Gospel of Matthew without a wedding garment (Matt. 22:11–14). The king is incredulous that he was allowed into the banquet without a wedding robe (Matt. 22:12) and sends him into outer darkness "where there [is] weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 22:13). The wedding garment is important for the plot and says something about the guest's inner state or character. But in a MacGuffin-like fashion, it remains unexplained.

Israelite priests[edit]

The Jewish high priest and Levite. The depictions of the menorah, table of showbread and trumpets are inspired by the Arch of Titus.

The Torah provided for specific vestments to be worn by the priests when ministering. These unique vestments prescribed for Israelite priests when approaching altars or entering sanctuaries underwrote their status as privileged intermediaries between God and humanity.[21]

These garments are described in detail in Exodus 28, Exodus 39, and Leviticus 8. All priests would minister barefoot in the temple.

The Priest

Those vestments which were common to all priests were:

  • Priestly undergarments (Hebrew michnasayim), breeches: linen pants reaching from the waist to the knees (Exodus 28:42).
  • Priestly tunic (Hebrew ketonet), tunic: made of pure linen, covering the entire body from the neck to the feet, with sleeves reaching to the wrists. Those of the priests were plain (Exodus 28:40), while that of the High Priest was embroidered (Exodus 28:39).
  • Priestly sash (Hebrew avnet) (sash): Those worn by the priests were of white twined linen, while that of the High Priest was of fine linen with embroidered work in blue and purple and scarlet (Exodus 28:39 39:29).
  • Priestly turban (Hebrew mitznefet): Those for priests were wound so that it formed a cone-shaped turban, called a migbahat. That of the High Priest was much larger than that of the priests and wound so that it formed a broad, flat-topped turban.
The High Priest

The high priest wore eight holy garments (bigdei kodesh). Of these, four were of the same type worn by all priests, and four were unique to him. The unique vestments were:

  • Priestly robe (me'il) ("Robe of the ephod"): a sleeveless, blue robe, the lower hem of which was fringed with small golden bells alternating with pomegranate-shaped tassels in blue, purple, and scarlet—tekhelet,[22] argaman, tolaat shani.
  • Ephod: a richly embroidered vest or apron with two onyx gemstones on the shoulders, on which were engraved the names of the tribes of Israel.
  • Priestly breastplate (Hebrew hoshen): with twelve gems, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes; a pouch in which he probably carried the Urim and Thummim. It was fastened to the ephod.
  • On the front of the turban was a golden plate inscribed with the words: "Holiness unto YHWH".

The High Priest had two sets of holy garments: the "golden garments" detailed above, and a set of white "linen garments" (bigdei ha-bad) which he wore only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Leviticus 16:4).

Israelite women[edit]

simlāh, kethōneth, sādhı̄n

While a woman's garments mostly corresponded to those of men: they wore simlāh and kethōneth, they also evidently differed in some ways from those of men[1][3] (see Deuteronomy 22:5). Women's garments were probably longer (compare Nahum 3:5, Jeremiah 13:22, Jeremiah 13:26, Isaiah 47:2), had sleeves (2Samuel 13:19), presumably were brighter colors and more ornamented, and also may have been of finer material.[1][3] Also worn by women was the sadin, the finer linen underdress (see Isaiah 3:23, Proverbs 22:24).[3]


Furthermore, mention is made of the mițpaḥath (tichel), a kind of veil or shawl (Ruth 3:15). This was ordinarily just a woman's neckcloth. Other than the use by a bride or bride to be (Genesis 24:65), prostitutes (Genesis 38:14) and possibly others (Ruth 3:3), a woman did not go veiled (Genesis 12:14, Genesis 24:15). The present custom in the Middle East to veil the face originates with Islam. According to ancient laws, it reached from the forehead, over the back of the head to the hips or lower, and was like the neckerchief of the Palestinian woman in Palestine and Israel today.[3]

Egyptian men and women[edit]

The clothing of men and women of several social levels of ancient Egypt are depicted in this tomb mural from the fifteenth century BC.

The Jews visited Egypt in the Bible from the earliest patriarchs (beginning in Genesis 12:10–20), to the flight into Egypt by Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus (in Matthew 2:13–23). The most notable example is the long stay from Joseph's (son of Jacob) being sold into slavery in Genesis 29, to the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 14, during the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom. A large number of Jews (such as Jeremiah) also began permanent residence in Egypt upon the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, during the Third Intermediate Period.

In Egypt, flax (linen) was the textile in almost exclusive use. The wool worn by Israelites was known, but considered impure as animal fibres were considered taboo. Wool could only be used for coats (they were forbidden in temples and sanctuaries). Egyptian fashion was created to keep cool while in the hot desert. People of lower class wore only the loincloth (or schenti) that was common to all. Slaves often worked naked. Sandals were braided with leather or, particularly for the bureaucratic and priestly classes, papyrus. Egyptians were usually barefoot. The most common headdress was the klafta or nemes, a striped fabric square worn by men.

Certain clothing was common to both genders, such as the tunic and the robe. Around 1425 to 1405 BC, a light tunic or short-sleeved shirt was popular, as well as a pleated skirt. Women often wore simple sheath dresses, and female clothing remained unchanged over several millennia, save for small details. Draped clothes, with very large rolls, gave the impression of wearing several items. Clothing of the royal family, such as the crowns of the pharaohs, was well documented. The pardalide (made of a leopard skin) was traditionally used as the clothing for priests.

Wigs, common to both genders, were worn by wealthy people of society. Made from real human and horse hair, they had ornaments incorporated into them.[23] Heads were shaved. Usually children were represented with one lock of hair remaining on the sides of their heads.

Heavy and rather voluminous jewelry was very popular, regardless of social class. It was made from turquoise, metals like gold and silver, and small beads. Both men and women adorned themselves with earrings, bracelets, rings, necklaces and neck collars that were brightly colored.

Greek men and women[edit]

A caryatid from the Erechtheion wearing a chiton.

Greeks and Greek culture enters the Israelite world beginning with First Maccabees. Likewise the narrative of the New Testament (which was written in Greek) entered the Greek world beginning about Acts 13.

Clothing in ancient Greece primarily consisted of the chiton, peplos, himation, and chlamys. Despite popular imagination and media depictions of all-white clothing, elaborate design and bright colors were favored.[24] Greek clothing consisted of lengths of linen or wool fabric, which generally was rectangular. Clothes were secured with ornamental clasps or pins and a belt, sash, or girdle might secure the waist.

Peplos, Chitons

The inner tunic was a peplos or chiton. The peplos was worn by women. It was usually a heavier woollen garment, more distinctively Greek, with its shoulder clasps. The upper part of the peplos was folded down to the waist to form an apoptygma. The chiton was a simple tunic garment of lighter linen, worn by both genders and all ages. Men's chitons hung to the knees, whereas women's chitons fell to their ankles. Often the chiton is shown as pleated.

Chlamys, Himation

The chlamys was made from a seamless rectangle of woolen material worn by men as a cloak. The basic outer garment during winter was the himation, a larger cloak worn over the peplos or chiton. The himation has been most influential perhaps on later fashion.

Roman men and women[edit]

The tunic was adapted into many styles and was the basic garment of men.

The Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem in 37 BC, ending Jewish national independence. During the New Testament narrative, Judea was ruled by either local client kings to the Roman Empire or as a Roman province under Roman officials.


Probably the most significant item in the ancient Roman wardrobe was the toga, a one-piece woolen garment that draped loosely around the shoulders and down the body. Togas could be wrapped in different ways, and they became larger and more voluminous over the centuries. Some innovations were purely fashionable. Because it was not easy to wear a toga without tripping over it or trailing drapery, some variations in wrapping served a practical function. Other styles were required, for instance, for covering the head during ceremonies.

Magistrates and high priests wore a special kind of toga with a reddish-purple band on the lower edge, called the toga praetexta as an indication of their status. The toga candida, an especially whitened toga, was worn by political candidates. Prostitutes wore the toga muliebris, rather than the tunics worn by most women. The toga pulla was dark-colored and worn for mourning, while the toga purpurea, of purple-dyed wool, was worn in times of triumph and by the Roman emperor.

After the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire in c. 44 BC, only men who were citizens of Rome wore the toga. Women, slaves, foreigners, and others who were not citizens of Rome wore tunics and were forbidden from wearing the toga. By the same token, Roman citizens were required to wear the toga when conducting official business. Over time, the toga evolved from a national to a ceremonial costume. Different types of togas indicated age, profession, and social rank.

Tunic, etc.

Originally the toga was worn by all Romans; free citizens were required to wear togas.[25] because only slaves and children wore tunics.[26] By the 2nd century BC, however, it was worn over a tunic, and the tunic became the basic item of dress. Women wore an outer garment known as a stola, which was a long pleated dress similar to the Greek chitons.

Many other styles of clothing were worn and also are familiar in images seen in artwork from the period. Garments could be quite specialized, for instance, for warfare, specific occupations, or for sports. In ancient Rome women athletes wore leather briefs and brassiere for maximum coverage but the ability to compete.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s "Costume: In Biblical Times". Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk & Wagnalls. 1901. Archived from the original on 2013-04-16.
  2. ^ "Dress" . Encyclopaedia Biblica. The Macmillan Company. 1899.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z "Dress and Ornament, Hebrew". Schaff–Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Baker Book House. 1907. Archived from the original on 2014-12-13. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  4. ^ Hebrew lexicon: 'ezor; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  5. ^ Hebrew lexicon: chagowr; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  6. ^ Vos, Howard (1999). Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs: How the People of the Bible Really Lived. Thomas Nelson. p. 75. ISBN 978-1-4185-8569-3.
  7. ^ Hebrew lexicon: kethōneth; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  8. ^ a b c d e f Eager, George B. (1915). "Dress". International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Archived from the original on 2013-04-15.
  9. ^ a b "Coat". Jewish Encyclopedia. Funk & Wagnalls. 1901. Archived from the original on 16 April 2013.
  10. ^ Hebrew lexicon: ṣādhı̄n; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  11. ^ Hebrew lexicon: simlāh; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  12. ^ See also simlāh.
  13. ^ Greek lexicon: himation; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  14. ^ Hebrew lexicon: me'īl; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  15. ^ "Stole - New Testament Greek Lexicon - New American Standard". Bible Study Tools.
  16. ^ Hebrew lexicon: addereth; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon
  17. ^ Hebrew lexicon: ẓiẓit; The Hebrew lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon[permanent dead link]
  18. ^ Tefillin, "The Book of Jewish Knowledge", Nathan Ausubel, Crown Publishers, NY, 1964, p.458
  19. ^ James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 118.
  20. ^ Resseguie, "A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism with Illustrations," in Religions, 10 (3) 217), 30-31.
  21. ^ Eric Silverman, A Cultural History of Jewish Dress, A&C Black, 2013, ISBN 978-0-857-85209-0 pp.11-12: These generally consisted of four garments: the ke'tonet (a tunic); abne't (sash/girdle);, one of two types of headgear (migba'ah), and plain linen (bad) breeches (mikne'sê). The garb of the High Priest had four additional items: an ephod (apron); a ẖošen (breastplate) ; a me’el (ephod robe) and a tzitz (headplate or frontlet). Unlike the other priests, he also wore a mitznefet (turban) and his sash was either embroidered, checkered or plaited; the linen used in weaving his clothes was of a special variety known as šeš.
  22. ^ "Ptil Tekhelet - The common thread uniting our Jewish past, present and future". Ptil Tekhelet.
  23. ^ "Wigs facts, information, pictures - articles about Wigs".
  24. ^ Art, Author: Department of Greek and Roman. "Ancient Greek Dress - Essay - Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - The Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
  25. ^ Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 20
  26. ^ a b Steele,Philip. "Clothes and Crafts in Roman Times". Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000, p. 21


This entry incorporates text from the public domain International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, originally published in 1915.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Costume". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

External links[edit]