One of the more severe problems faced by Bible translators is the instance where the cultural distance between the original and the target is so great that the target language simply does not have the words required to accept an accurate translation. This is the situation they faced when translating matters of clothing into the English language. The result is that on many occasions the clothing described in the Bible has been translated inconsistently and even misleadingly. The aim of this brief paper is to describe Biblical clothing as it actually appeared in the hope that the Bible reader will thus be able to 'map back' from the Biblical description to what actually happened. Unfortunately the confusion felt by the translators appears to have been equally prevalent amongst the lexicographers who are unanimous that the translators were wrong but entirely divided with regard to what would have been correct. In what follows I aim to piece together those comments made which have the strongest Biblical support.
Starting closest to the skin ISBE believes that the first article encountered would be the loin-cloth (Easton places this at least one layer further out). They state that in early times this would have been the only undergarment and often was so for many of the prophets; 2Ki 1:8, Mat 3:4, Isa 20:2, Jer 13:1 are cited in support of this. In later times this was replaced for most people with an under tunic. This was a fairly close fitting 'dress' usually without sleeves that went down to the knees. This is probably the article of clothing without seam that the Roman soldiers took from the Lord. It was still considered 'underwear' and thus Wight, Easton and Fausset show that to be wearing only the under tunic was considered 'being naked'. In order to show distress or grief it was common to replace this garment with sackcloth.
Outside of the underwear would be the upper tunic; this resembled the inner tunic except that it was longer and for the wealthy it could have long sleeves trailing to the ground and for the priests the sleeves would be tied into the tunic. The commentators generally believe that this is the garment which the Authorized Version refers to as a coat and that the trailing sleeves was a feature of Joseph's 'coat of many colors'. This garment was significantly looser than the underwear and for practicality was strapped into place using a girdle. The girdle, according to Wight, was three to six inches broad and made either of linen or leather. Between the folds created in the tunic by wrapping and the space under the belt this outfit allowed for storage of food (2Sam 18:11) or tools (Mark 6:8).
The outer garment was the mantle or cloak. This could simply be a square of cloth or it could be somewhat more shaped. The purpose was to go over the outside of the tunic and to be worn out of doors. It would generally be made of heavy wool or goats' hair and was of a dull brown color. Somewhat surprisingly Wight narrates that it would be worn in hot weather as well as cold; apparently the blocking of direct light from the sun is a reasonable trade for the added weight and heat retention. The mantle was also used as a blanket at night; the commentators surmise that this was the logic behind the law that a mantle taken in pledge had to be returned before sun-down. Wight observes that the mantle was even more flowing than the outer tunic and was thus capable of significant storage; he observes that Ruth was able to store six measures of barley in hers (Ruth 3:15). Outside travel would also necessitate shoes which were usually a strip of wood or leather strapped onto the feed using leather thongs.
Due, at least in part, to the heat of the sun it would have been common for both men and women to wear a head covering. For the males this would have been a turban; a piece of linen wrapped around a secured to the head using a strap under the chin. In contrast it was customary for a woman of any stature to wear a veil. This was essentially a piece of cloth which would cover the majority of the face and would be worn during most public occasions. Wight observes however that Hebrew women did appear to be granted some degree of latitude as Egyptian's saw Sarah's face and Eli was able to see the mouth of Hannah. Wight also notes that the headgear of women from Bethlehem had an additional piece; a cap of coins. This is described in greater detail in Wilson C, Peasant Life in the Holy Land.The cap was a string of seven to ten coins for a married woman; up to twenty for a single woman. The central coin is designed to be the largest and most valuable. Wight suggests that this head cap would be part of the dowry for a woman and that the cap was considered a reflection of her character. Thus he believes that the woman of Luke 15:8-10 that had lost a coin had not simply lost an item of money but rather that she had lost part of her head-gear and that she would suffer shame as well as financial loss were it to remain missing.
Wight notes that whilst it was strictly forbidden for men and women to wear each others clothes (Deut 22:5) the differences between the genders were represented more in detail and ornamentation rather than substance. Thus a woman's mantle may be rather more flowing and she may have adorned it with rather more needlework but essentially the articles of her clothing would have been similar to her husband's; with the exception of the veil. The difference in ornamentation can most easily be characterized by the observation that the men didn't. They might carry a walking staff and they might wear a signet ring to act as a legal seal but other than that they did not ornament. In contrast a woman might take time to elaborately braid her hair, she may have earrings usually or a long and dangling variety (somewhat similar to a Christmas tree ornament). We know that Rebekah was presented with bracelets. By the time of Isaiah (Isa 3:16-23) there was a long list of ways that women adorned themselves; although the prophet clearly did not approve of these extravagances.
As with many aspects of Biblical life we see both variety and progression. Starting with a leather loin-cloth and wrapping with a blanket when required the Hebrews progressed to wearing multiple tunics and mantles. The women had their faces covered and over time developed more and more elaborate jewelry with which to bedeck themselves. The attire of the prophets and language of scripture both tended to hark back to older and simpler times. It is notable that the Lord told his disciples that one coat was enough to travel and that people with two should share one; we can therefore state that from a Godly perspective clothing was designed for function and not form. I wonder what Isaiah would state if he turned up at a church today?