Religion and Dress

veiled woman

The interaction between religion, culture, and dress is fascinating. Dress can be a window into the social world, which is bound by a tacit set of rules, customs, conventions, and rituals that guide face-to-face interaction. To many religious organizations, clothing is an important symbol of religious identification. However, for most groups, the regulation of personal appearance goes beyond clothing. The term dress as it is used here includes clothing, grooming, and all forms of body adornment. Dress also includes behaviors related to the control of the body, such as dieting, plastic surgery, and cosmetics. Holistically, then, dress functions as an effective means of nonverbal communication. Ideas, concepts, and categories fundamental to a group, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and religion, help to define a person's identity that is then expressed outwardly through a person's appearance. Both individual and group identity is projected through dress because people use self-presentation and self-promotion to visually present identity that is congruent with their belief systems.

The Sacred and the Secular

Where religion is concerned, clothing can be divided into two categories often referred to as the sacred and the secular (or profane). In some instances, what is treated as sacred is merely a garment that has important cultural implications with regard to gendered power. In patriarchal religions where the perception is that males are given the responsibility of seeing to the enforcement of religious rules, some garments become associated with the sacred primarily through the prescription and enforcement of a dress code. The most recent example of the conflation of gendered power and dress is the prescription that women in Afghanistan in the early 2000s were required to wear the burqa (or chadaree).

While secular dress is not exclusively associated with religious activities, secular dress is used in ritual or is worn by certain religious practitioners such as the clergy. Dress used for religious ceremonies and rituals is referred to as ecclesiastical dress; modern dress for Roman Catholic priests resembles dress from the early days of the Christian church when the clergy were not distinguished from other male members of the church by their dress. However, in the sixth century as fashion changed, the clergy did not adopt the new fashions and continued to wear the older styles. Ecclesiastical dress has become a form of fossilized fashion, a phenomenon where the garments worn seem frozen in time and continues to be worn even as other forms of dress evolved.

A common theme with regard to liturgical garments worn by male clergy is the demasculinization of sacred dress. For many religions, sacred dress for male clergy commonly avoids pants in favor of loose, flowing robes. Because hair is symbolic of sexuality, it is controlled in many religions. Some orders of priests, nuns, and monks shave their heads, remove a lock of hair, or cut their hair to symbolize their turning away from the pleasures of the world.

Mormon sacred undergarments
Mormon sacred undergarments

Interestingly, everyday dress for certain ethno-religious subcultures, such as Hasidic Jews, Amish, and conservative Mennonites, is considered sacred, especially in the symbolic separation of the ethno-religious subculture from a dominant culture. As religious groups encounter social change, dress often symbolically becomes important as certain items of a religious group's clothing may be classified as sacred in contrast to what is considered secular. Generally the most symbolic dress features of Amish and Mennonites (hats, beards, head coverings, bonnets, aprons) are considered sacred. Similarly, among conservative Muslim women, very fashionable clothing may be worn underneath the veils (sacred garments), known as chador, chadaree, or burqa, that are seen by outsiders. Sacred dress worn externally then becomes used intentionally to visually separate these religious groups from the larger culture. Often, the rules as to dress codes are imposed by male clergy on female members of the community, and in doing so, these patriarchal religious societies intentionally use dress codes to maintain a gendered imbalance of power.

Some religions have sacred garments that are not visible to outsiders. Mormons who have been to temple wear sacred undergarments beneath otherwise ordinary clothing. The sacred undergarments reinforce their commitment to their religion.

Religious Ideologies

Organized religion has used dress in two related ways: to maintain the customs and traditions of the organization, thereby establishing a visual identity for the religion; and to simultaneously control the individual identities of its members by symbolically denoting dress as inneed of control. Religions create dress codes to overtly define morality and modesty while covertly controlling sexuality. Fundamentally, dress codes are less about clothing than about the control of the body by the more powerful church members who enforce their groups' ideologies. Religious dress codes express group identity and simultaneously function as a means of reinforcing male patriarchal control.

When a religion uses dress to reinforce tradition, it will usually be seen in opposition to fashion, which by its very nature is dynamic. Religious dress will change slowly as organized religions often reject fashion as an attempt to focus on individuality rather than salvation.

To understand how dress is expressive of religious ideologies, it is helpful to understand how each of the world's major religions perceives the role of dress as a means of identity expression. In a later section, more detail will be given as to how particular religious groups use dress to establish sectarian identities.

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion encompassing a holistic view of life in which the inner self is highly valued, and life in the world is seen as temporary. Reincarnation is a belief at the base of both the caste system and religious expression. The individual works through levels of moral development that are indicated by caste. It is believed that the higher the person's caste, the closer the individual is to the spiritual world. Since the focus in Hinduism is on the inner self, dress, an expression of the external self, is less important. Dress is tradition bound, and slow to change by comparison to costume found in other religious groups. Dress and adornment in Hindu society does show a person's caste, level of piety, or the specific god to which the individual is devoted.

Islam is the newest of the major religions and its followers are commonly referred to as Muslims. This religion emphasizes the group over the individual, and Islamic ideology focuses on male power and the separation of the sexes through both physical and visual means. Dress codes for Muslims have great impact on daily life, which involves frequent religious expressions and rituals. Among Muslims, codes of modesty go beyond the covering of women's bodies to include restriction of women's behavior. The Koran requires women to dress modestly, but does not specifically state that they must wear veils. Dress codes regarding veiling vary among Islamic families and cultures; however, among the most conservative Islamic groups the requirements for women to wear veils are seriously enforced. In addition to their ostensible function to protect gender segregation, these rules also are intended to slow down assimilation that began after World War II when westernization started in Islamic societies. As western dress became common, the Islamic fundamentalist movement began pushing for a return to tradition. Modest dress and veils became symbolic of both the acceptance of patriarchal power and nationalism. Throughout the larger cities in Iran, posters announced the specifics of the dress code requiring women to dress in chadors that cover all but the face. In Afghanistan under Taliban control, women were killed if they did not wear the all-enveloping burqa or chadaree.

Judaism, the oldest of the major monotheistic religions, is based on the concept that people exist to glorify God; to be appropriately dressed, then, is a religious duty. Historically, the ancient Jews had customs that indicated dress was seen as symbolic. Since the upper body was seen as pure, but the lower body was perceived as impure, Jews wore girdles to make the division between pure and impure visibly clear. Morality was connected with dress early on; Moses forbade nudity. Similarly, he forbade Jews from wearing the clothing of non-Jews in an attempt to keep his people separate from influences that might lead to assimilation. In recent times, levels of Judaic conservatism are denoted by dress where the most assimilated Jews dress like non-Jews. However orthodox and Hasidic Jews wear specific garments to visibly show their religious conservatism.

Christianity is less clear about values pertaining to dress than is Judaism. Values in Christian theology relating to the body are conflicting; women's bodies are seen as the site of temptation, in that male sexual guilt is projected onto the female body. Adam's fall from grace is attributed to Eve's sexuality. Christian women are required to dress modestly, but this standard is not equally applied to Christian men. Modesty with regard to body exposure is an important value that is a key indicator of religious conservatism.

During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, early leaders used dress as a symbol of piety. Fashionable, colorful dress and adornment were equated with sensuality and pride, while somber dress showed the Christian's focus on salvation. For fundamentalist Christians (who evolved out of the Reformation) such as the Anabaptist groups (such as Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites) who believe themselves to be uniquely separate from the larger society, dress is used to show that separation. In these groups, dress is often hyperconservative or may even be a form of fossilized fashion.

Sectarian Dress

Amish family
Amish family

Some of America's sectarian ethno-religious groups use fossilized fashion to separate themselves from the outside world. Notable among these are the Shakers, Amish, Hasidic Jews, Hutterites, and several conservative Mennonite groups. Fossilized fashion has been explained as a sudden "freezing" of fashion whereby a group continues to wear certain clothing long after it has gone out of style for the general population. This phenomenon has been explained as expressing dignity and high social status or the group's religious, old-fashioned, sectarian identity. Within certain ethno-religious groups, fossilized fashion is used in contemporary settings as a visual symbol of traditional gender roles for women; this generally occurs in societies that find change to be a threat.

Most of the conservative ethno-religious groups who wear fossilized fashion continue to wear clothing styles that were in use for the general population during the time their sect originated. For instance, the Amish separated from the larger Mennonite movement in the beginning of the seventeenth century; their garments in the early 2000s include full-fall trousers for men, and for women, dresses, bonnets, capes, aprons, and head coverings like their forebearers. Like the Amish, Shakers and the most conservative Mennonites in the United States continue to wear long dresses with aprons that provide an additional covering of the bust and stomach, again, like their forebearers. Other Mennonites dress in styles that were popular when their sect broke off from the larger Mennonite movement. Hasidic Jews have retained a complex code of dress for men that indicates a man's level of religiosity; these garments include particular hats, shoes, socks, and coats that are identifiable by members of their community. For Hasidic Jewish women, wigs are worn to cover their natural hair.

Modesty and Female Sexuality in Dress

Among all of the major religions, modesty in women's dress is associated with gender norms; this is a major issue to religious groups. Gender issues are paramount in the dress codes of conservative religious groups since the control of female sexuality is often of great importance in patriarchal religious groups. The dress codes generally relate to modesty and require clothing to cover the contours of the female body. Additionally, some religious groups, particularly the most conservative Islamic, Anabaptist, and Jewish sects, also require that women's hair be covered as well.

As used by religious groups, the issue of modesty goes beyond the covering of the body in order to disguise female curves and secondary sexual characteristics; in the conservative strains of all of the major religions, dress codes also deal with the care and covering of women's hair as it is associated with women's sexuality (Scott, p. 33). Further complicating matters, dress codes are conflated with gender and power issues in religious groups. At the root of this issue is the control of female sexuality that is perceived to be necessary by some religious groups as a means to maintain social order.

An understanding of how dress works within religious groups calls attention to the complexity of meanings surrounding visible symbols such as dress, and sheds light on the ways that bodies can communicate social and religious values. The dress of religious groups can be used to facilitate social and ideological agendas. Clothing and personal adornment are used for establishing and maintaining personal and social identities, social hierarchies, definitions of deviance, and systems of control and power. As a consequence, then, dress within conservative religious groups is a symbol of the individual's commitment to the group while it also symbolizes the group's control over individual lives. For America's fundamentalist Christian groups, and the Anabaptist groups in particular, dress is particularly important with regard to its role in social control and in social change.

Dress and Social Control

 orthodox Hasdim Jewish man
Orthodox Hasdim Jewish man

Dress is an immediate and visible indicator of how a person fits into his/her religious system. As a marker of identity, dress can be used to gauge the person's commitment to the group and to the religious value system. In many conservative groups, suppression of individuality is expected, in obedience to the rules of the religious organization. Several religious groups are also ethnically homogenous; these are referred to as ethno-religious groups (In the United States, some of these groups are the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Hasidic Jews, Sikhs, and certain Islamic groups.) The conservative branches of ethno-religious groups frequently use clothing to simultaneously express ethnicity, gender norms, and level of religious involvement (religiosity). Through conformance to a strict religious value system, the most conservative of the religious social bodies exert control over their members' physical bodies. Since strict conformity is often equated with religiosity, compliance to strict codes of behavior is demanded. The internal body is subject to control by the religious culture, especially with regard to food and sex. The external body, however, is much more visibly restrained. Strict dress codes are enforced because dress is considered symbolic of religiosity. Clothing becomes a symbol of social control as it controls the external body. While a person's level of religiosity cannot be objectively perceived, symbols such as clothing are used as evidence that the member of the religious group is on the "right and true path."

Normative social control begins with personal social control through self-regulation, followed by informal social control. The member wants to fit into the group, and expresses role commitment by following the social norms, visibly expressed in the group's dress code. When the individual begins to offend, for example by wearing a garment that is too revealing of body contours, peers may disapprove and use subtle methods of informal control to pressure the individual to conform to the group norms. Finally, the threat that an offender introduces to the social order is managed through formal social control measures, such as disciplinary measures and expulsion administered by specialized agents, including ministers, rabbis, and other moral arbiters. Thus, norms are managed through social control to inhibit deviation and insure conformity to social norms at even the most-minute level.

Through symbolic devices, the physical body exhibits the normative values of the social body. Symbols, such as dress, help delineate the social unit and visually define its boundaries because they give nonverbal information about the individual. Unique dress attached to specific religious and cultural groups, then, can function to insulate group members from outsiders, while bonding the members to each other. Normative behavior within the culture reaffirms loyalty to the group and can be evidenced by the wearing of a uniform type of attire.

Within American culture there are specific ethno-religious groups that intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society and attempt to reestablish the small, face-to-face community. Many originated in Europe and moved to America when religious freedom was promised to immigrants. Shakers (Scott, p. 54), Mennonites, Hutterites (Scott, p. 72), and Amish (Scott, p. 87) are such groups. These groups are often perceived by the outside world as quite unusual, but that derives more from their deviant behaviors, visually manifest in dress, than from their religious differences from mainstream Christianity. An essential factor in ethno-religious groups, social control is significant in terms of the survival prospects of the group. Among orthodox Jews (Scott, p. 57) in Williamsburg New York, social control was achieved in ways remarkably similar to those used by the Amish and conservative Mennonites. The most important features included isolation from the external society; emphasis on conformity with status related to religiosity, symbolized by clothing status markers; a powerful clergy and rigorous sanctions to insure conformity to norms.

Dress and Social Change

With changing social, political, and economic environments, even the most sectarian religious group has to contend with the impact of social change. Changes in dress often signal underlying changes in social roles as well as gender roles. Traditional gender roles can be marked by a particular form of dress where the roles are stable for long periods of time; when dress changes suddenly in these groups, we can expect to find a change in gender roles. A good example is that of the change in the dress of Roman Catholic priests and nuns following the changes instituted by Vatican II in the 1960s. The changes were more pronounced for nuns as their roles within the Church dramatically changed; so too did their dress. Additionally, when roles are restrictive, we can expect to see a restriction in women's dress, in the form of either dress codes or physically restrictive clothing.

With immigration and colonization, clothing figured into the power imbalance between people of different religious backgrounds. As American missionaries in the nineteenth century encountered indigenous people, clothing became an issue almost immediately. Christian missionaries advanced their own ethnocentric perceptions of appropriate behavior and dress and, often through subtle coercion, guided the acculturation of indigenous peoples. Missionaries have often taken on the role of introducing western clothing to indigenous people as a means of "civilizing the natives." In some cases the transformation to western-styled clothing was part of the need of a religious group to dominate an indigenous culture. In other cases, a religious group immigrating to another country might also voluntarily make changes to their dress to facilitate their assimilation into the new society. One such example is that of Hawaii where missionaries objected to the indigenous dress of kapa skirts with no covering of the breasts. The missionaries required Hawaiians to wear western dress when at the missions; a particular garment called the holoku was created for Hawaiian women to wear. As Christianized Hawaiians became missionaries to Oceania, they brought the holoku into the islands, but the garment was known by different names outside of Hawaii.

Occasionally a reciprocal relationship occurred, in which the indigenous group more willingly took on the dress of the more powerful religious group. Strategic shifts from traditional dress to western dress among the Dakota tribes in Minnesota were somewhat voluntary. Similarly, the immigration of European Jews to America led to many Jews using dress as a means of blending into the larger society. On the other hand, Hasidic Jews chose to reflect their ethnicity by retaining fossilized fashion to intentionally separate them from the larger American culture. At the end of the twentieth century, some Christian and Roman Catholic churches began to incorporate indigenous textiles in their liturgical garments used in religious ceremonies. While this practice is seen primarily in missionary work of churches establishing missions in Africa and other locations such as the Philippines and South America. The use of ethnic textiles in African American churches has been a long-standing tradition that honors African heritage.

In conclusion, many religious groups have developed cultural norms with regard to dress. Dress codes, both formal and informal, exist as a means of showing group identity. Members of religious groups actively construct their own lives and use dress symbolically to express religious beliefs, adaptation to social change, and the conformity to social norms and religious authority.

See also Ecclesiastical Dress; Contemporary Islamic Dress Jewish Dress.


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Religion and Dress