Girdles are used to close a cassock in Christian denominations, including the Anglican Communion, Catholic Church, Methodist Church and Lutheran Church. The girdle, in the 8th or 9th century, was said to resemble an ancient Levitical Jewish vestment, and in that era, was not visible. In 800 AD, the girdle began to be worn by Christian deacons in the Eastern Church.
The girdle, for men, symbolizes preparation and readiness to serve, and for women, represents chastity and protection; it was also worn by laypersons in the Middle Ages, as attested in literature. For example, the hagiographical account of Saint George and the Dragon mentions the evildoer being tamed with the sign of the cross and a girdle handed to Saint George by a virgin.
The men among the Greeks and Romans wore the girdle upon the loins, and it served them to confine the tunic, and hold the purse, instead of pockets, which were unknown; girls and women wore it under the bosom. The Strophium, Taenia, or Mitra occurs in many figures. In the small bronze Pallas of the Villa Albani, and in figures on the Hamilton Vases, are three cordons with a knot, detached from two ends of the girdle, which is fixed under the bosom. This girdle forms under the breast a knot of ribbon, sometimes in the form of a rose, as occur on the two handsomest daughters of Niobe. Upon the youngest the ends of the girdle pass over the shoulders, and upon the back, as they do upon four Caryatides found at Monte Portio. This part of the dress the ancients called, at least in the time of Isidore, Succinctorium or Bracile. The girdle was omitted by both sexes in mourning. Often when the tunic was very long, and would otherwise be entangled by the feet, it was drawn over the girdle in such a way as to conceal the latter entirely underneath its folds. It is not uncommon to see two girdles of different widths worn together, one very high up, the other very low down, so as to form between the two in the tunic, a puckered interval; but this fashion was mostly applied to short tunics. The tunic of the Greek males was almost always confined by a girdle.
Girdles of iron, to prevent obesity, were worn by some of the Britons. From the Druidical eras the cure of diseases, especially those of difficult parturition, were ascribed to wearing certain girdles. Among the Anglo-Saxons, it was used by both sexes; by the men to confine their tunic, and support the sword. We find it richly embroidered, and of white leather. The leather strap was chiefly worn by monks.
Vestment and iconography
As a Christian liturgical vestment, the girdle is a long, rope-like cord tied around the waist over the alb or cassock. The Parson's Handbook describes the girdle as being made "generally of white linen rope, and may have a tassel at each end. About 12 ft. 6 in. long is a very convenient size if it is used double, one end being then turned into a noose and the tasselled ends slipped through. The girdle, however, may be coloured." Christian monastics would often hang religious texts, such as the Bible or Breviary, from their girdles and these became known as girdle books. In addition, they would often knot the ends of the girdle thrice, in order to represent the "vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience." As such, within the Christian Church, the girdle, in some contexts, represents chastity and within the Hebrew Bible, "Proverbs 31 provides biblical reference to the ancient practice of girdle making by virtuous chaste women". In the New Testament, "Christ referred to the girdle as a symbol of preparation and readiness for service (Luke 12:35–38)":
Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.
Saint Paul, in Ephesians 6:14 also references the term, stating "Stand therefore, first fastening round you the girdle of truth and putting on the breastplate of uprightness", further buttressing the concept of the girdle as a symbol of readiness. Many Christian clergy, such as Anglican priests and Methodist ministers, use the following prayer when wearing the girdle:
By the 8th century AD, the girdle became established as a liturgical vestment "in the strict sense of the word." Although the general word "cincture" is sometimes used as a synonym for the girdle, liturgical manuals distinguish between the two, as the "girdle is a long cord or rope while the cincture is a wide sash. Generally an alb is closed with a girdle, an Anglican-style double-breasted cassock is closed with a cincture, and a Roman cassock is closed with either one."
In the medieval and early modern period there are also accounts of girdles being used as a mnemonic. These would be tied or decorated with bead so that, like a rosary, each notch would remind the wearer of a particular psalm or book.
A gartel is a belt worn by Jewish males, predominantly (but not exclusively) Hasidim, during prayer. "Gartel" is Yiddish for "belt" and is cognate with the English word "girdle". Gartels are generally very modest in appearance. Most are black, but some gartels are white. Hasidic custom requires that there be a physical divide between the heart and the genitalia during any mention of God's name. It is commonly explained that separating the upper and lower parts of the body manifests a control of the animal instincts of the person by the distinctly human intellect.
In the Vajrayana iconography of the Hevajra Tantra, the 'girdle' (Tib.: ske rags), one of the 'Five Bone Ornaments' (aṣṭhiamudrā) symbolizes Amoghasiddhi and the 'accomplishing pristine awareness' (Kṛty-anuṣṭhāna-jñāna), one of the 'Five Wisdoms' (pañca-jñāna). The iconography of the girdle (or bone apron and belt ) in Vajrayana iconography developed from one of the items of vestment adorning the Mahasiddha of the charnel grounds.
Beer (1999: p. 318) describes the bone girdle as the 'netted bone apron and belt' as vesture of the Dakinis and Heruka of the Cham Dance and Gar Dance of Tibetan Buddhism sacred ritual dance performances:
The bone ornaments worn in these ritual dances are exquisitely carved – especially the netted bone apron and belt, which are commonly adorned with intricately carved images of dakinis.
Girdle in literature
In literature, girdles are often portrayed as magical, giving power and strength if worn by men, and protection if worn by women. Several scriptures in the Bible make use of the girdle as a symbol for readiness and preparation. Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, wore a fertility girdle, which, when it was removed, rendered the universe barren. Hercules wrestled with the Amazon queen for her girdle in his Greek myth. Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, also wore girdles associated with lechery in later poetry.
For men a girdle was often used to hold weapons. It also gave them freedom to move in a fight, unlike other types of clothing. Both of these are thought to carry the connection of power to the man's girdle in literature. For example, Odysseus wears a girdle which allows him to swim for three days straight, and a girdle worn by Thor doubles his strength.
Later, for women, the girdle became a sign of virginity, and was often considered to have magical properties. Monsters and all types of evil are recorded as being subdued by girdles in literature, a famous one being the dragon slain by Saint George. Marriage ceremonies continued this tradition of girdles symbolizing virginity by having the husband take the wife's girdle, and prostitutes were forbidden to wear them by law in historic France. Often in literature, women are portrayed as safe from sexual or other attack when wearing a girdle, but suddenly vulnerable if it is missing or stolen.
Non-clothing uses in literature include Tolkien's "Girdle of Melian", a magical, protective "wall" surrounding an elven kingdom.
The 20th century women's girdle attracts various references in literature, often in a disparaging way. For example, Marilyn French in her classic book, The Women's Room, is very critical not only of the girdle itself, but also of the virtual compulsion to wear one, a compulsion which existed until the late 1960s. In John Masters's Bhowani Junction, once the mixed-race Victoria Jones decides to opt for an Indian rather than British persona, she rejects her girdle as a "western garment".
For information on the girdle as a modern undergarment, see Girdle (undergarment)
In American football, a girdle is worn under the football player's pants to keep the hip, thigh, and tailbone pads in place, making the process of putting on the tight football pants easier. Older girdles resembled chaps, in that they covered only the front of the leg with pads, that snapped on. Modern girdles are essentially a tight pair of compression shorts with pockets for the pads. The girdle was also used in the Mesoamerican ballgame and is used in hockey (National Hockey League).
Some designs are made specifically for use in the sport of ringette.
- Moore, Stephen E. (1996). Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement Publications. p. 53. ISBN 9780880281720.
Generally an alb is closed with a girdle, an Anglican-style double-breasted cassock is closed with a cincture, and a Roman cassock is closed with either one.
- Marriot, Wharton Booth (1868). Vestiarium Christianum; the Origin and Gradual Development of the Dress of Holy Ministry in the Church. Rivingtons. p. 213. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
Till, in the eighth or ninth century, the idea of an intended resemblance in detail between the Christian and Levitical vestments was first broached, the Girdle, naturally was either not worn at all (with the tunica talaris it was not necessary), or, when worn, was not visible, and was thought of only as a matter of convenience. In none of the early monuments of the West before A.D. 800, is any trace of it to be seen. But in the East we have mention of a Girdle as worn by deacons, early in the eighth century.
- Moore, Stephen E. (1996). Church Words: Origins and Meanings. Forward Movement Publications. p. 54. ISBN 9780880281720.
Christ referred to the girdle as a symbol of preparation and readiness for service (Luke 12:35-38). St. Paul referred to it as a symbol of truth (Ephesians 6:14). The girdle of the monastic habit, knotted three times at the ends, symbolizes the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The girdle became a Christian symbol of chastity, possibly derived from the ancient Jewish custom of women wearing ornate girdles symbolic of their virtue (Proverbs 31). Some traditional clergy still use an old vesting prayer when putting on the girdle which says, "Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and quench in me the fire of concupiscence that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me."
- Indick, William (18 May 2012). Ancient Symbology in Fantasy Literature: A Psychological Study. McFarland. p. 124. ISBN 9780786492336.
The hero uses the power of Christianity, the Sign of the Cross, to wound the dragon. Then, in an interesting twist, he calls to the virgin to toss her girdle round the dragon's neck. Upon being leashed by the virgin's girdle, the once impressible dragon is tamed. It follows the princess like a meek puppy-dog. St. George and the princess lead the dragon back to the village where it terrifies the townspeople. St. George promises to slay the beast, but only if the townspeople convert to Christianity, which they quickly do.
- Rev. Thomas D. Fosbroke (1843). Encyclopaedia of Antiquities and Elements of Archaeology, Volume 2. London: M. A. Nattali. p. 942.
- Dearmer, Percy (1907). The Parson's Handbook. Oxford University Press. p. 141. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- Bershad, David; Mangone, Caroline (27 December 2011). The Christian Travelers Guide to Italy. Zondervan. ISBN 9780310315759.
- Pink, Arthur W. (1 January 2013). Practical Christianity. Prisbrary. p. 281. ISBN 9788997762446.
- Smith, Sir William; Cheetham, Samuel (1880). Dictionary of Christian Antiquitics. J.B. Burr Publishing Company. p. 728. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
It has been said that it was not till the 8th century that we meet with the girdle as an ecclesiastical vestment in the strict sense of the word.
- Hinde, William (1641). A faithfull remonstrance of the holy life and happy death of John Bruen. p. 55–59.
- Kongtrul, Jamgön (author); (English translators: Guarisco, Elio; McLeod, Ingrid) (2005). The Treasury of Knowledge (shes bya kun la khyab pa'i mdzod). Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra, The Indestructibe Way of Secret Mantra. Bolder, Colorado, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-210-X (alk.paper) p.493
- Beer, Robert (1999). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-416-X. Source:  (accessed: December 28, 2008) p.318
- Friedman, Albert B., and Richard H. Osberg. "Gawain's Girdle as Traditional Symbol." The Journal of American Folklore 90.357 (1977): 301-15.
- Media related to Girdles at Wikimedia Commons