In the previous post, we looked at the word “modest” in the New Testament and walked through 1 Cor. 12:23 and 1 Tim. 2:9 and ended up closing the post with a little discussion of what “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” meant. The question arose as to what braided hair with gold and pearls indicated in ancient Roman culture, and the comment was made there is an evangelical myth that such things indicated that a woman was a prostitute. I suggested that such was not the case, and today’s post will be the first part of a two-part answer to that question. In this post we’ll take a look at women’s clothing in Roman culture, and the following post will take a look at women’s hairstyles. Hopefully the next two posts will lay to rest some evangelical myths about hair and clothes in the New Testament era.
In Roman culture, one didn’t find the same sort of wild variety in clothing, and little changes in style. Dr. Kelly Olson (expert on ancient Roman fashion and Professor of Classics at the University of Western Ontario) writes, ” Rome was a sartorially conservative society, and the basic shape of female clothing…did not change for centuries.” All people, men and women, had clothing that was some sort of long tunic, though “women’s clothing was recognizably female”.
Women had a fairly basic variety of wardrobe choices in ancient Rome. It seems common knowledge that typical Roman men wore (essentially) one thing: the toga.
This wasn’t the case of Roman women (or at least, respectable ones…but more on that in a moment).
Instead of the toga, Roman women typically wore a stola. Writing of female Roman clothing, Olson writes,
Matronae, the wives of Roman citizens, are said to wear the stola (a long slip-like garment worn over the underdress or tunic). The stola first and foremost indicated that the wearer was married in a iustum matrimonium (a legal marriage between two citizens) and it was therefore a mark of honor, a way to distinguish sexual and social rank in broad fashion. Literary sources also tell us that Roman women wore the palla or mantle, which was drawn over the head when out of doors, and bound their hair with woolen bands or fillets.
Though the core style of garment was relatively the same, Roman women could differentiate themselves from other women in various ways. The first way was in the fabric they used. Women would make their stolla and palla out of costly fabrics that dyed various colors. Women could also have their stolla or palla decorated with jewellery and other ornaments. The dying and decorating of the toga was an activity seen as unbefitting of men; Tertullian wrote that the “instrumental mean of womanly ostentation, the radiances of jewels wherewith necklaces are variegated, and the circlets of gold wherewith the arms are compressed” was peculiar to women.
Generally speaking, female clothing also was a way of displaying one’s recognition and embrace of a woman’s sexual and social status. Olson writes, “A woman muffled in certain kinds of all-enveloping clothing, for instance, showed herself chaste and upright.” Women could utilize their clothing to express their sexual and social status in a morally-virtuous way, but also in an immoral way. In fact, there was a very distinct way that a woman could advertise her penchant for immoral behavior. Again, Olson:
In Roman antiquity prostitutes and adulteresses too were presumably immediately identifiable from their clothing: both wore the toga. By this ‘exclusion’ from the sartorial distinctions of the chaste matronae, such women could ideally be identified as those who rejected the moral code bound up in those clothes.
As one reads through the literature, it becomes clear that the wearing of the toga was the most distinctive mark of a woman of low moral fiber. Some low-class prostitutes were known for various gradations of nudity, but that sort of nudity was seen as characteristic of barbarians. Roman culture was incredibly proud of its civilized nature; acting like a barbarian wasn’t what people of cultural refinement did. Prostitutes who worked in “more cultured” establishments (i.e. brothels) were women of means; they were known for having elaborate hairstyles, expensive clothes and jewelry. As is the case in modern times, a moral cesspool requires a lot of cosmetic whitewash, and the most whitewashed people were sadly considered “fashionable” and emulated.
In fact, some women of ill-repute became well known enough that they even influenced fashion trends. There are numerous citations in ancient literature of both young women and women of respectable status wearing revealing garments made of Coan silk, which was “diaphanous stuff that apparently left little to the viewer’s imagination.” It was a type of fabric that, due to its thin and transparent nature, was mostly utilized by prostitutes. Yet, some women copied the style established by prostitutes and were mistaken for prostitutes, much to their chagrin.
Mistaken identity is always a problem.
Though there are a few examples from ancient literature of women being wrongfully thought a prostitute due to the fact that they were wearing a Coan silk stola , the real mark of an adulteress or a prostitute was wearing a toga. No remotely respectable woman would do that. Alexandra Croom (ancient Roman cultural expert and Keeper of Archaeology: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums) writes, “There seems to be no evidence that prostitutes had to wear the toga, only that they were the only women who could.” This doesn’t mean that prostitutes and adulteresses only wore togas, but the only women who wore togas were prostitutes or adulteresses.
This lays a serious blow against the myth associated with the “modesty” passages in the New Testament that says specific hairstyles were the definitive mark of a prostitute. It’s hypothetically possible that such was the case in small geographic areas (i.e. the city of Corinth) due to cultural nuances. That being said, there’s no surviving information that I’ve been able to uncover that would suggest such was the case in the apostle Paul’s day. Also, the relevant experts in the field that I’ve consulted don’t mention such an idea anywhere.
Over the years, I’ve heard many a pastor or professor wax eloquent about how wearing “braided hair and gold or pearls” (1 Tim. 2:9) was clearly dressing like a prostitute, and that was the problem in Ephesus. My research into relevant historical sources shows that this idea is an evangelical myth: there is very little evidence to support it.
That leads to two obvious questions:
- What did ” braided hair and gold or pearls” indicate?
- What was going on in the early church if the problem wasn’t one of women dressing like prostitutes?
That takes us to the next post: gaining an understanding of the significance and meaning of ancient Roman female hairstyle.
 Kelly Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society (Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), 11.
 Ibid, 10
 Kelly Olson, “Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (ed. A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure; Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 189.
 Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 11.
 Ibid, 10
 Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum 1.2.1 [cited 3 January 2016]. Online: http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf04/anf04-06.htm
 Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 11.
 Olson, Matrona and Whore, 192.
 Ibid, 195.
 Ibid, 197.
 Olson provides a few citations and writes ” These passages indicate that matrons and whores were supposed to be satorially distinct from one another but also strongly imply that such was not always the case.” Ibid.
 Alexandra Croom, Roman Clothing and Fashion (The Hill, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2010), 48.
 Olson, Matrona and Whore, 195.