Clothing in Biblical Times

Merchants bringing silk and finely woven fabrics would travel in caravans over vast distances from as far away as India. Fine linen was imported from Egypt. In Palestine, clothing was frequently made of linen from locally grown flax. Everyday clothes were made from an ordinary quality linen; priests wore more expensive linen (Exod. 39:27). Wool could easily be made into clothing by semi-nomadic people, but flax for linen could be cultivated only by a settled community.

The poor often wore coarse clothing made from goat or camel hair, which was rough and very uncomfortable. Also known as sackcloth, it was often worn as a sign of penitence. It also served as a blanket for warding off the cold at night. Cotton was known in Egypt and elsewhere and in Roman times a form of local wild silk was obtainable. Fine gold wire gave luxury to garments, while different colors were obtained from plant or animal sources: red from an insect, yellow from a flower, saffron from the stigma of a crocus, and purple from the Murex mollusk. Purple dye from Tyre (Ezek. 27:16); renowned for its color, became a symbol of royalty and wealth.

The clothing of most people was simple in style. The loin cloth was worn by men of all social levels from an early period, with the later addition of an outer and inner garment. The inner garment of wool or linen had an opening for the neck and arms, and generally had long sleeves. Often belted at the waist, it fell either to the knees or ankles. The outer garment, cloak or mantle, generally made of animal skin or wool, was almost square, with openings for the arms, and was worn draped over one or both shoulders. As a man was considered naked unless he was wearing his cloak, he was forbidden to lend or pledge it. At night he removed it for use as a blanket (Exod. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:13). Jesus’ undergarment was woven without seam (John 19:23) and would have been worthless if cut into pieces. That was why Roman soldiers at his crucifixion decided to cast lots to see who should have it.

Fine linen with elaborate embroidery was used for outer clothing by the wealthy. Kings sometimes wore an additional garment similar to the priest’s vest-like tunic or ephod. Both kings and priests wore an elaborate headdress to symbolize their status. The adornment of such garments contrasted sharply with the simplicity of most people’s dress.

Most women in biblical times wore simple white clothing, although blue or black homespun was sometimes seen. Wealthy women wore garments of brightly dyed fine linen, often in scarlet or purple, and elaborately decorated with embroidery, jewels, and gold or silver detail (II Sam. 13:18). Such garments were also worn on festive occasions and at weddings (II Sam. 1:24; Ezek. 16:10, 13). The undergarment worn by a woman was similar to a man’s except that it was higher at the neck and normally fell to the ankles. Headwear, although rarely mentioned in the Bible, was probably like the prayer-shawl sometimes seen today, and was held in place by a cord. Women often wore a veil that was held in place by a circlet of coins that may have formed part of their dowry. Jewelry was normally designed in gold, sometimes with semi-precious stones inset. As early as 2700 B.C. the royal graves at Ur give evidence of a high quality of design and craftsmanship in jewelry. Gold chains were popular, as were circlets, anklets, bracelets, and pins for clothing or hair. Footwear generally consisted of open leather sandals.