The following essay first appeared in the January 1897 edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine (Vol. 1, pg. 344)
The subject of dress is one that calls for attention in the times in which we live. It is admitted on many hands that society is at present on the down grade, and it is quite apparent that the downward movement is not confined to the region of the invisible, but appears openly in a variety of forms. One of these forms, we think, is excessive adornment in dress. So widely prevalent has excess in this direction become that not only are light and profane worldlings distinguished for the vanity of their attire, but also many people who are members of churches, and profess to follow Christ. Now, this ought not so to be. In fact, vain attire does not become the man or woman of common sense. How much less does it become those who profess to be dead to the world and its follies and alive unto God through Jesus Christ? Apart from all subordinate considerations, we direct attention to the explicit testimony of the Word of God in favour of the utmost sobriety of apparel. Observe first, the judgment which the Lord of hosts declares against the daughters of Zion for their sin and vanity in respect of dress and adornment.
Moreover, the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the head-bands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel [embroidered robes], and the mantles, and the wimples [cloaks], and the crisping pins, the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the veils. And it shall come to pass that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well-set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.” (Isa 3:16-24)
These are the words not of man, but of God, and we would do well to lay them to heart in these days lest the same judgment should descend upon us.
Again, in the New Testament there are positive and minute injunctions as to modesty of apparel. The apostle Paul says,
In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” (1 Tim 2: 9, 10)
The apostle here expressly forbids “costly array,” not to speak of that which is showy. It is evident, therefore, that they who expend much in dress, plain or otherwise, are disobeying the apostolic command. Further, the apostle Peter gives a similar injunction,
Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God, of great price; For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves.” (1 Peter 3: 4, 5)
Let us not forget that these are the words not merely of the apostles, but of the Holy Ghost, and therefore we are bound to respect them as possessing the authority of God.
Answers to Objections
Now, a word or two as to objections that are sometimes raised when plainness of dress is advocated. Some say, “Oh, if the heart is right, one’s dress does not make much difference. We should be engaged chiefly in examining our hearts.” To this it may be replied that it is invariably a sure proof the heart is wrong in important respects when vain attire is indulged in, and also, that in the large majority of cases it is a real sign that the heart is not right at all. No one can consistently claim credit for anxiety as to the state of his or her heart who is not equally anxious to cleanse and reform outward behaviour according to the directions of the Word of God. It is also clear that when people wilfully disobey the divine commands about apparel which may easily be got rid of, they are not endeavouring to get the heart put right, which is a much more difficult matter. It is by the outward bearing and demeanour that persons are known in the world, and in vain does the tongue speak of Christ and religion, when the head and the whole body speak of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Another objection sometimes brought forward is that some good people have been or are showy rather than plain in their dress. What we have, however, chiefly to attend to is not the example of men, but the precept of the Word of God. The best of people may err, and are therefore not infallible guides. But the fact is that in the past, the great body of people professing piety were exceedingly plain in their apparel. A distinction could be observed between the Church and the world. Now the distinction has to a large extent disappeared. It is told that on one occasion a girl went to a woman of eminent piety, professing concern for the state of her soul. The latter simply looked up to the girl’s head, and beholding it adorned, said, “Lassie, the devil is only making a fool of ye, speaking about religion and all these flowers on your head.” It may thus be seen how the holy women of old time regarded adornment in dress.
It is also affirmed by members of the female sex that it is exceedingly difficult to get the vast majority of dressmakers to make plain attire. But who is to reform the dressmaking if persons tamely submit to any kind of attire that is made? This objection only springs from a lack of moral courage on the part of the objectors.
Another, and last objection we shall mention is the common one, “Are we to dress differently from other people and make ourselves conspicuous?” Yes, if you are to follow Christ and to have that modesty which becomes His “peculiar people.” And you who make no profession of Christ be plain in your apparel that you may not grieve the Spirit of God, nor the hearts of those who desire that all things should be done decently and in order according to the rules of His Word.
In conclusion, it may be said that it is generally at times that people should clothe themselves with the utmost modesty that they are most vain and gaudy. We consider it to be nothing short of a desecration of the Sabbath, and a profanation of the house and worship of God for people on such a day, and in such circumstances, to appear in showy dress. This may seem strange doctrine to those who make the Lord’s day the time, and the house of God the stage, for exhibiting their flowers and finery. But it should be remembered that sackcloth and ashes would become sinners infinitely better in the presence of a holy God. It is further most shocking to see persons in light attire approach a communion table, where the death of the Son of God is showed forth, and where it would become sinners to mourn as one that mourneth for an only son, and be in bitterness as for a first-born. The Spirit of God is undoubtedly grieved by the vain attire of worshippers in the public assemblies of His Church. It is said that many years ago in the north of Scotland there was an awakening among a number of young people under the preaching of the late Rev. Peter Davidson, of Arran, who was at that time a missionary. One Sabbath a gaudily dressed young woman appeared in the congregation. Her appearance caught and fascinated the attention of the young. The awakening was sensibly checked, spiritual impressions declined, and the same hopeful signs were not to be seen.
The subject may now be left to the serious consideration of our readers who, in their several places and stations, ought to set a good example in the matter treated of. We subjoin an excellent extract from a sermon by Dr. Thomas Manton, one of the eminent Puritan divines of England, and also a Modern Protest, which deals with this subject.
Thomas Manton on Dress
Dr. Manton in discoursing upon Titus 2:11-14 (Vol. 16) takes occasion to speak of sobriety in dress, and concludes with the following considerations:
- Consider, curiosity in clothes argues deformity of mind; a godly, serious, humble Christian is above these things. Therefore, how can we choose but think that a man or woman hath vanity in his heart that is so clothed with it upon his back? Look, as plasters argue a wound or sore, so do these exotic and vain attires argue a wound and blot in the soul; that there is pride, vanity, and levity there. Clemens Alexandrimus observes that the Lacedemonians (heathen) permitted only harlots, and infamous women, and common prostitutes to go in gorgeous attire. Clothes, then, are the flag and ensign which pride hangs out, and the nest of wantonness.
- To be proud of clothes is to be proud of our own shame. Before sin came in, man did not need a garment. Look, as the sun is adorned with light it needs no trimming and ornament, so man in innocency was adorned with grace, and needed no other robe; but when he sinned, he needed garments. So then, he that is proud of his clothes is but proud of the rags with which his wounds are bound up. Clothes are a memorial that we were once disobedient to God. Shall a thief be proud of his shackles, or a malefactor of his brand or mark on his forehead? This is a time of mourning, not of triumph; therefore, God at first clothed Adam with skins, a habit that becomes mourning. We shall not need these things in heaven; clothes are only there in use where sin is.
- Consider that habit (dress) makes not the man. A horse is not chosen by his trappings, but by his strength and swiftness; the trappings are things external that conduce nothing to his goodness, so man is not to be valued by his habit; it is but the excrement of silk worms, not by the ornaments of the body, but the endowments of the mind. And therefore, if you would excel others indeed, you should excel them in grace and virtue. Alas! many are but dung finely dressed; the hidden man of the heart, that is the man. Grace is the best dressing and that which is never out of fashion; by this men are valued. The more wise and excellent men are indeed, the less curious in their apparel. Cato, that had been consul at Rome, never wore apparel that exceeded one hundred pence. Let great ones be known by their modesty of apparel.
- Consider, when you are most gorgeous, the beasts excel you. Croesus, king of Lydia, being gorgeously arrayed, asked Solon if ever he had seen a more beautiful spectacle. He answered, “Yes, sir, I have seen peacocks, and pheasants, and other birds.” And in Matt 6:29, Christ takes notice of this, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of the lilies. The draughts [medicinal liquids] and colours of nature are more beautiful than art. Therefore, neither delight in bravery (finery) nor envy in it; when thou seest the bravery of others, thou hast a fairer flower in thy garden.
- Think often of Jesus Christ hanging naked upon the cross, who was stripped of His garments to satisfy for thy excess. Oh! shall we again put Him to an open shame, as if He died in vain? Say, shall pride live when Christ died to subdue it, and mortify it, and to expiate for it?
A Modern Protest (relating to dress on the Sabbath)
From “The Bulwark” [a.k.a “Reformation Journal”, by the Scottish Reformation Society]
The house of prayer is a poor place in which to exhibit beads, ribbons, gewgaws [i.e., worthless, showy things], and trinkets. The evils of such extravagances are many.
- It keeps people from meeting when they have not apparel as gorgeous as their neighbours.
- It loads the poor with burdens too heavy to be borne to procure fashionable clothing.
- It leads many into temptation, debt, dishonesty, and sin. It causes many a poor shop girl to work nearly all of Saturday night, that some customer’s fine clothes may be ready for the Sabbath show.
- It keeps people at home in cloudy or stormy weather, when, if they wore plain clothing, they could defy clouds and storms.
- It consumes the hours in dressing, crimping, and fussing, keeping people from worship, and wasting time, hindering the reading of the Scripture, and making Sabbath a day of folly.
- It makes the poor emulous, malicious, and envious, and plants many a bitter thought in the minds of children and others, when they see their neighbours decked in finery, often unpaid for, and feel that people are respected, not for the integrity of character, but for the vanity of their clothes.
- It causes many a frivolous, trifling mind, to forget God and Christ and the Gospel, and to spend the hour appointed for religious service in comparing garments, studying fashions, and arranging their own gay attire.
- It causes vanity in the rich and murmuring in the poor.
- It wastes the Lord’s money that is needed for more noble and important purposes.
- It leads the young in the path of pride, gratifying the lusts of the eye. It is forbidden in God’s Word.
And yet we seldom find a minister that dare open his mouth against this fashionable sin.
Let us dress plainly before the Lord, for example’s sake at home and abroad, for decency’s sake, and for the sake of Christ.