Updated: Apr 24, 2020
What did women wear in the days of Jesus? Did women have to keep their hair covered? How did women stay clean without modern soap and shampoo?
Join with me as we step into the shoes of a first-century woman who might have walked with the messiah!
This is the fourth lesson in our series on How to Live as a Woman in First-Century Israel, your how-to guide for the time-travel enthusiast. Take a look at our sources in our introductory post. Explore women at work in the Bible to discover the many trades you might be involved in. Learn how to manage your household, including child care and providing for servants. Prepare for your first-century marriage or divorce and learn what rights a wife might expect.
While we know that true beauty comes from within, in this post, we're going to take a look at your outward appearance.
What to Wear
The clothes of a first-century woman reflect her status and her occupation. As you prepare a wardrobe for life in the first century, you must carefully consider your daily life.
Clothes for the Poor Woman
A woman from a poor family will wear simple clothing made from undyed wool. (A crowd of poor people gathered on a grassy hillside might look very much like a flock of sheep!) You can create a tunic by sewing a tube of cloth up the sides, leaving holes for neck and arms. Your basic tunic will be layered with a belted cloak/coat/dress.
While working, your clothes need to be narrow and short enough in length to make it easy to move around in your duties while shielding your skin from the elements and providing modesty. If you work outside in the fields or garden, you will need something to protect your head from the heat, like a loose scarf or hat. Your shoes will need to be sturdy, with thick soles of wood or leather. (1)
Clothes for the Woman of Leisure
A wealthy woman in Israel might wear Greek-inspired clothing that drapes gracefully over her form, like a peplos or chiton (pronounced in ancient Greek as khee-tone'). A chiton is a tunic made of a large rectangle of cloth and is fastened at the shoulders with pins or broaches. You will layer a cloak called a himation (pronounced him-at'-ee-on) over the chiton or tunic when leaving the house or when it is cool. You can use the himation as a hood to cover your hair when out in public. Both a chiton and a himation are referenced in the Greek scriptures. χιτών for chiton and ἱμάτιον for himation, such as in Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29. (1)
There is also the traditional Roman style. In Rome, married women of means wear a stola, which is a woman's style toga (women do not wear togas). A stola is worn over simple tunics. This draped fashion might be dyed blue, green, red, or saffron yellow. There is some variety to how you might wear a Roman stola, such as belted twice under your breasts and at your waist, with long sleeves or short, or layered with a long-sleeved tunic. (2)
Roman undergarments are similar to a modern bra and girdle. To keep their figure, some athletic Roman women exercise in something similar to a bikini, believe it or not. (2)
A rich woman can afford fine linen, embroidered cloth, and expensive dyes to color her robes in brilliant hues of yellow, purple, red, or violet. (1) Silk is a new luxury being imported for those with coins to spend. (3) You might wear sparkling jewels or gold in your ears, nose, or around your neck, arms, or ankles. Because you don't have to walk all day, you can wear dainty shoes and sandals, but inside the house you will stay barefoot. You can wear delicate veils to cover your hair or shoulders.
What constitutes modesty seems to vary, so you will have to look at the women around you for influence. Women in art from this period are often quite exposed, but art is often life exaggerated. From a general consensus of art and fashion, it seems acceptable for a respectable woman such as yourself to expose arms, shoulders, and ankles.
How to Style Your Hair in Bible Times
Braids are very much in vogue right now. You can wear bands and ribbons in your hair. Curls can be fashioned and are favored by the young. If you are a busy woman, a single braid might be your best bet, but a wealthy woman might use many intricate braids to fashion an elegant style. You can find combs made of polished wood, stone, or bone. Hairnets are woven to be stretchy and can help gather your hair in a becoming style. (1)
You can make your hair darker by dying it, or bleach it to make it lighter. Be sure to buy from a reputable dye maker, otherwise you will have to visit a wig maker. Time-travellers beware, in Rome, yellow wigs or hair dyed yellow signifies a prostitute. (2)
You can check your reflection in a mirror made of polished metal, usually bronze, but sometimes silver. You will have a distorted reflection with these types of mirrors, so you might never be positive of what you really look like. (4)
Do You Have to Cover Your Hair in Public?
To a first-century Jew, this question might be considered more of a cultural question than a religious question, as there is nothing in the Old Testament scriptures that requires the covering of hair in women, and a woman covering herself can mean different things in the Old Testament as well.
With the Hellenization of Israel (the increase of Greek culture in the centuries before Jesus), the style might have been adopted from them. Greek women of marriageable age prior to the first century always covered their hair when going outdoors, either with their himation or with a special veil. (1) We are not sure if this practice continued into the first century. (5)
In the early Christian church, it seems this was a topic of some debate, as we see in 1 Corinthians 11.
Historical sources are unclear as to who covered their head, when, and with what. It is important to note that art depicting women with head coverings show it on the top of their heads, not draped to hide all the hair or part of the face.
How to Apply Make-up
If you are a wealthy woman (and have a circle of acquaintances who do not scorn cosmetics) you will have a variety of tinted creams that you can apply to your skin to make it paler, to add color to your cheeks or eyelids, to line your eyes, or to create eyebrows. Perfumed aloes and oils can be applied to soften your skin with a pleasing fragrance.
Make-up is made of chalk and white lead, and ashes or antimony for the eyes, and red ochre for the lips. A modern woman might find these cosmetics feel heavy or greasy. There are no industry standards or safety testing, so use make-up at your own risk. (2)
How to Bathe
A woman living in Galilee might wash in a stream or river, but more often you will do a sponge bath with a bowl of water or a raised pedestal. Some homes have hip baths made from terracotta, in the Greek style. You can sit in these or have water poured over you by a family member or servant. (1)
Public baths with heated water are spreading throughout Israel, so you might have access to a community bath where you can sit and relax. In the wider world, some are segregated by gender, but not all, so if you are shy be sure to check ahead for women's hours. (6)
The only soap available to you at this time is made of ashes and fat. Though it works well, it is generally not used on the skin. Instead of this lye soap, you will slather yourself with olive oil to loosen dirt and sweat and then scrape it off with a thin, curved wooden instrument called a strigil. If you are wealthy, you can soak in the hot public baths, have a servant scrape your body, and then enjoy a massage, all for a bit of coin. (6)
Instead of shampoo, you will use simple lye soap to wash your hair. Some women rinse their hair with vinegar after washing. You can condition your hair with olive or almond oil. Regular combing will carry the natural oils from your scalp down into your hair. Women's hair is generally left long, but you can trim with shears it to keep it healthy. (2)
Managing your Menstruation
During your menstruation, you can expect to sit still and on your own bed or chair. Some women simply bleed onto their clothes, but you can use folded cloths. Some have said that the Greek women wrap short sticks with soft wool and use them like tampons, but of course, it is difficult to find evidence to prove this. Egyptian women are said to use sponges. Whatever your method, expect to spend these days at rest and apart from the men in your household. Your dirtied cloths or clothing will need to be laundered, as it would be wasteful to throw them away. You can learn about ancient Jewish women's ritual purity in this post on Women, Periods, and the Bible.
What do you think? Would you enjoy wearing the fashions of the Bible era? How would you feel using a public bathhouse? Would you be brave enough to wear first-century cosmetics? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss the rest of the series!
1. Reader's Digest Everyday Life Through the Ages, Edited by Michael Worth Davison, MA page 77
2. Reader's Digest Everyday Life Through the Ages, Edited by Michael Worth Davison, MA page 89
3. Revelations 18:12
4. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 97
5. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson page 96
6. Reader's Digest Everyday Life Through the Ages, Edited by Michael Worth Davison, MA page 93