Sunday, 5 June 2011

Biblical and patristic writings on adornment

The subject of self-adornment recurs a number of times in the New Testament and the Fathers.

Consistent disapproval is expressed of women who dress in an ostentatious manner (though Clement and Tertullian condemn male self-adornment too).  This appears to be due partly, but not wholly, to the sexual aspect of such adornment.


1 Timothy 2.9-10

[T]he women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.


1 Peter 3.3-4

Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.


St Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus

But those women who beautify the outside, are unawares all waste in the inner depths.... [T]hose women who wear gold, occupying themselves in curling at their locks, and engaged in anointing their cheeks, painting their eyes, and dyeing their hair, and practising the other pernicious arts of luxury, decking the covering of flesh - in truth, imitate the Egyptians, in order to attract their infatuated lovers.... But if one withdraw the veil of the temple, I mean the head-dress, the dye, the clothes, the gold, the paint, the cosmetics... with the view of finding Within the true beauty, he will be disgusted, I know well. For he will not find the image of God dwelling within, as is meet; but instead of it a fornicator and adulteress has occupied the shrine of the soul.... For love of display is not for a lady, but a courtesan....

And if [Wealth] is blind, are not those women that are crazy about him, and have a fellow-feeling with him, blind too? Having, then, no limit to their lust, they push on to shamelessness. For the theatre, and pageants, and many spectators, and strolling in the temples, and loitering in the streets, that they may be seen conspicuously by all, are necessary to them. For those that glory in their looks, not in heart dress to please others. For as the brand shows the slave, so do gaudy colours the adulteress....


Tertullian, De cultu feminarum

Female habit carries with it a twofold idea — dress and ornament. By "dress" we mean what they call "womanly gracing;" by "ornament," what it is suitable should be called "womanly disgracing." The former is accounted [to consist] in gold, and silver, and gems, and garments; the latter in care of the hair, and of the skin, and of those parts of the body which attract the eye. Against the one we lay the charge of ambition, against the other of prostitution; so that even from this early stage you may look forward and see what, out of these, is suitable, handmaid of God, to your discipline, inasmuch as you are assessed on different principles [from other women] — those, namely, of humility and chastity....

[M]ost women... either from simple ignorance or else from dissimulation, have the hardihood so to walk as if modesty consisted only in the integrity of the flesh, and in turning away from fornication; and there were no need for anything extrinsic to boot — in the matter of the arrangement of dress and ornament, the studied graces of form and brilliance: — wearing in their gait the self-same appearance as the women of the nations, from whom the sense of true modesty is absent, because in those who know not God, the Guardian and Master of truth, there is nothing true....

You must know that in the eye of perfect, that is, Christian, modesty, desire of one's self [on the part of others] is not only not to be desired, but even execrated.... For [a man], as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed the deed which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes; and you have been made the sword which destroys him.... Are we to paint ourselves out that our neighbours may perish?... Since, therefore, both our own interest and that of others is implicated in the studious pursuit of most perilous comeliness, it is time for you to know that not merely must the pageantry of fictitious and elaborate beauty be rejected by you; but that of even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of eyes....

But how much more provocative of blasphemy is it that you, who are called modesty's priestesses, should appear in public decked and painted out after the manner of the immodest?... [E]ven the Scriptures suggest that meretricious attractivenesses of form are invariably conjoined with and appropriate to bodily prostitution.


St John Chrysostom, Homily 13 on Ephesians

The [female] sex is fond of ornament, and it has this failing.... But what is more, it is not so great a sin in a woman as in a man. Thou art ordained to regulate her; in every way thou claimest to have the pre-eminence. Show her then in this also, that thou takest no interest in this costliness of hers, by thine own apparel. It is more suitable for a woman to adorn herself, than for a man. If then thou escape not the temptation, how shall she escape it?