Top Ways in Which Religion has Shaped Fashion for Women Through Time

Religion has shaped the fashion of women as it may be used to distinguish the priestly from the lay members of a group

In theocratic traditions, such as Judaism and Islam, religious sanctions govern what may and may not be worn by members of the community. Religious dress embraces not only what is worn by a prayer leader but also what is worn by the congregation outside as well as inside a place of worship. In many traditions, religion has shaped the fashion for women, and habits serve to identify monastic groups. Indeed, in the latter case, the function of religious dress is more akin to heraldry as a form of symbolic identification than to liturgy with its ritualistic symbolic motifs.

The religion has shaped the fashion for women it may require that religious personage (e.g., priests, monks, nuns, shamans, priestesses, and others) garb themselves with appropriate types of religious dress at all times, whereas other religious communities may only request that religious dress be worn during rituals.


Early sacerdotal dress:

Jewish vesture, worn only by men, is an amalgam of ancient and modern religious dress. Originally, the sacerdotal dress was probably varied and complex, but, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the subsequent disappearance of the Temple offices, many garments associated with priestly functions passed into oblivion. Chief among these offices was that of the high priest. In addition to the usual Levitical garments (those of the priestly class), the high priest, while officiating, wore the meʿil (mantle), the ephod (an upper garment), a breastplate, and a headdress. The meʿil was a sleeveless robe of purple the lower hem of which had a fringe of small gold bells alternating with pomegranate tassels in red, scarlet, purple, and violet.

Later religious dress:

Later religion has shaped the fashion for women of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE reflects usages that predate that event but were continued in Judaism at the synagogue. Included among such garments are tefillin (phylacteries) and tzitzit (fringes), which have certain features in common. The name phylacteries are sometimes thought to point to a prophylactic origin, but the term is a translation of the Hebrew word for “frontlets” (ṭoṭafot). Phylacteries are worn in obedience to the commandment found in Deuteronomy.


In the pre-Constantinian church (before the early 4th century), no distinctive liturgical dress was worn, and the Eucharist (Holy Communion) was celebrated by priests whose dress did not differ from that worn by lay members of their congregations. Present liturgical vestments in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches derive from a common origin—i.e., the garments that were fashionable in the late Roman Empire. After the Schism of 1054, however, they each followed separate courses.

Roman Catholic religious dress:

A distinction is made between the insignia of ecclesiastical and sacerdotal office in the hierarchy and the functionally and symbolically significant liturgical robes. After the so-called barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire from the 4th century on, religion has shaped the fashion of women in secular dress changed, and thus the clergy became distinct in matters of dress from the laity. Certain robes indicate a position in the hierarchy, while others correspond to function and may be worn by the same individual at different times.

Eastern Orthodox religious dress:

The Middle Ages also witnessed the evolution of Eastern Orthodox vestments into approximately their present form. The eucharistic garment corresponding to the chasuble was the phelonion, with variant forms in the Greek and Russian churches. The sticharion, which is held by the zōnē, or girdle, corresponds to the alb. The cuffs, or epimanikia, which fit over the sticharion, bear little or no resemblance to the maniple. The epitrachelion is the Orthodox equivalent of the stole, but it hangs straight instead of being crossed over the chest, as is the case with the stole in Western churches.


Islam attaches less importance to liturgical vestments than do most religions, but the social emphasis of the Islamic faith finds expression in the universal application of the regulations governing dress—e.g., all who enter the mosque remove their footwear, and all going on pilgrimage must wear the same habit, the iḥrām, and thus appear in the holy places in the guise of a beggar.

Because Islam recognizes no priesthood in a sense of a class sacramentally set apart, “clerical” functions are discharged by the ʿulamāʾ, “the learned (in the Law),” whose insignia is the ʿimāmah (a scarf or turban). The garb of the ʿulamāʾ exhibits geographical variations, but the ʿimāmah is found everywhere.

Indian religions:

The distinction between ordinary dress and religion has shaped the fashion of women’s dress is difficult to delineate in India because the ordinary members of the various socio-religious groups may often be distinguished by their costumes. For example, Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian) women wear the sari (robe) on the right shoulder, not the left.

Hindu men frequently wear short coats (angarkha), and the women wear a long scarf, or robe (sari), whereas typical Muslim attire for men and women is a long white cotton shirt (kurtah) and trousers (pāʾijamah). Some Muslim women also wear a veil called the burka, which not only hides the face but also envelops the entire body.

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