The directly obvious functions of clothing are to regulate body temperature and preserve digni-ty according to (varying) moral and social convention. Particular forms or styles of clothing can also serve to indicate membership or belonging, status, role, or inner state. The Bible pro-vides examples of all of these, and also uses clothing-related language metaphorically in talking about human character, the attributes of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Covered and uncovered

The biblical account of the origins of clothing

According to Genesis 2:25, the first humans were innocent and naked, only experiencing shame about their nudity as a consequence of deciding to disobey God (an event referred to as the Fall) (Genesis 3:7). Recognising their situation, God made clothing for them out of animal skins, to replace their makeshift fig-leaf ensembles Genesis 3:21.

Nakedness and dishonour

From this point onwards, to be uncovered is a sign of dishonour in the Bible. Thus:

Clothing demonstrating function



  • Kings and royals wear fine robes marking them out from the common people Esther 5:1
  • As part of the humiliation inflicted on Jesus before his crucifixion the soldiers dress him in a scarlet robe and crown of thorns – a parody of royal attire Matthew 27:27-31.


Clothing and status

Jacob and JosephFine clothing is a mark of wealth and distinction in the Bible, whilst poor clothing is associated with poverty and low status:

  • Jacob demonstrates his (detrimental) favouritism for one of his sons, Joseph with the lavish gift of a grand, multicoloured robe Genesis 37:3
  • Daniel is promised (and rewarded) with high status, and the associated clothing and jewellery, if he can interpret the words which have been mysteriously written on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast Daniel 5:16-17.

However, the Bible also cautions against judging by outward appearance:

  • As part of a broader critique of the pursuit of wealth and honour, Jesus stresses that ‘the body is more than clothing’ Matthew 6:25
  • James warns his readers not to discriminate on the basis of grand or shabby clothing James 2:1-4
  • Peter emphasises that a woman’s worth is not dependent on her outward appearance or dress 1 Peter 3:3-4.

Repentance and mourning

To dress simply or uncomfortably is seen as a public expression of mourning, anguish or penitence Job 16:15-17. Jacob mourns the (apparent) death of his favourite son Jo-seph by dressing in sackcloth Genesis 37:34. The king and inhabitants of Ninevah avert God’s punishment by repenting, outwardly signified by fasting and dressing in sack-cloth Jonah 3:4-6.

Metaphorical clothing

The Bible speaks of people being ‘clothed’ with all sorts of attributes, such as righteousness Job 29:14, humility 1 Peter 5:5, dishonour Psalms 35:26, violence Psalms 73:6, trembling Ezekiel 26:16. God is described as clothed in majesty Psalms 93:1, splen-dour and light Psalms 104:1-2. In the final book of the Bible, John’s vision sees Christ’s faithful followers clothed in white robes Revelation 7:9 which have been cleansed by Jesus’ blood Revelation 7:14, signifying their glory after suffering.

Humanity and incarnation 

Job describes himself (and, by extension, all human beings) as ‘clothed’ with skin and flesh Job 10:11. Christians talk about Jesus as God ‘clothed’ in human flesh; some translations of expressions used in (e.g.) 1 John 4:2 and John 1:14 draw directly on this imagery.

Just as Christ ‘put on’ flesh, so (suggest the New Testament letter writers) can humans ‘dress themselves’ in the Christian life Colossians 3:9-14, which ‘clothing’ will last beyond their earthly existence 1 Corinthians 15:53-55.

Clothing in literature

  • The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837) is a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale in which two weavers play a devious con trick on a vain emperor and his subjects. The ‘new clothes’ are (reportedly) invisible to the stupid and incompetent – only a young child dares to challenge their existence
  • Clothing plays an important part in many ‘rags to riches’ tales, such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838). When Mr. Brownlow first takes pity on the sick boy and brings him home, he is given a new set of clothes which contrast with his old rags and denote the hope of a new start
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) is about a woman who is obliged to dis-play a big red ‘A’ (for ‘adulteress’) on the front of her dress to advertise her guilt
  • In the play Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw, 1913) a professor of phonetics undertakes to transform a bedraggled cockney flower girl into a convincing duchess. One of his first in-structions is to have all her clothes burned and to ‘wrap her up in brown paper’ until new ones arrive
  • Jenny Joseph’s popular poem Warning (1961) describes the flamboyant clothing and be-haviour she plans to adopt in defiance of old age
  • In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Sethe, determined to mark the occasion of her wedding in some way, saves and scrounges scraps of cloth until she has enough to fashion a tempo-rary dress
  • Clothing is a theme in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (2014). Lila is proud to wash and mend what little she has and awkward about receiving gifts of new clothes as she adjusts to a settled town life. She herself shares clothes with those in need.


  • The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1600–02, attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger) is one of many in which the Queen displays massive wealth through her attire, which is also heavily symbolic.

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