Jeri, the old school Doctor Who fan who runs a support group for victims of abuse from (mostly Protestant) church pastors, has a post on the history of women wearing pants. (She also has one on Huckabee making a morally dubious visit, which I haven’t heard about from anyone else.)
We get a lot of people on the “traditional” side of Catholicism who blithely throw around shoulds and musts in connection to dresses and pants. It’s silly, but it’s also dangerous. Jeri deals with people who’ve seen what happens when should and must become a stick to beat people. It is no part of the tradition of the Church to be oppressive.
If you want to know about the context of New Testament pronouncements on clothes, I’ve been reading a very good book. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (by Bruce Winter. Eerdsmans, 2003.) explains the social context in which our little Christian fishies swam.
So if you long to blindly imitate the mores of that very moment… all married women should wear a fairly substantial marriage veil (palla) at all times when they are outside their own house. This “veil” is really more of a cloak; they were to draw the folds over their heads for modesty. The Emperor Augustus added the additional legal obligation for all respectable women to wear a bulky overdress (stola). Un-respectable women were legally forced to wear different clothing than the stola and palla. (Here are some pictures of respectable female Roman clothing — relatively respectable except for the colors — and some unrespectable clothes here.)
As a respectable and industrious woman instead of a layabout, all your respectable clothing should not only be made by you and the free women of your household, but woven by you, too. Naturally, you should spend every spare moment spinning and weaving; otherwise you will have far too much time on your hands!
No respectable woman should wear a dress with any color to it (or any tailoring to it, for that matter), but especially not orange (scarlet), red (purple), or flower designs. No respectable woman should wear gold or (horrors!) pearls. In fact, wearing colors and gold is the legal and literary sign that you’re a prostitute! (In a married woman, it makes people assume that you’re being given gifts by your adulterous partner, and that your husband is either a wimp or a pimp.) Anything transparent or gauzy or small, like a tiny little lace veil, would be interpreted by an ancient Roman man as a blatant advertisement.
Big hair, braids, curls — all hairstyles of any complication whatsoever are signs that you are some kind of flaunting party woman. Shame on you for wearing pigtails.
Women weren’t supposed to speak out in the Christian assembly because women weren’t supposed to speak out in the public assembly. Only the “new women” who slept around with everyone would do that. There is a connotation in the language, apparently, that said women speaking out were rudely arguing with their husbands or the leaders under the guise of prophecy, and that the kind of unveiling they did in the assembly was a very nasty comment in itself.
There is so much interesting material in this book that I haven’t finished it yet. (There’s a huge section on women patrons and benefactors, for example, that ties into the whole deaconess question, and some very interesting stuff about widows and their financial and social status — which explains why some widows were expected to remarry and others not.)
But it’s fairly clear that a good amount of Paul’s advice needs to be followed with good sense, not blindly and ignorantly. If you can’t tell which parts are which, you should look to the Church and the bishops. But you are not a Roman woman, and you aren’t expected to share her closet.
UPDATE: Corrected the name of the book above. Sorry. I keep trying to remember that I should only post while awake.