St. Clement of Alexandria: Nerd!

I’ve been reading Book 2 of The Paedagogos/The Instructor/The Tutor. And I think I’ve figured out why St. Clement isn’t quoted much by the “dress modestly” crowd.

“I say, then, that man requires clothes for nothing else than the covering of the body, for defense against excess of cold and intensity of heat, lest the inclemency of the air injure us. And if this is the object of clothing, see that one kind be not assigned to men and another to women.

For it is common to both to be covered, as it is to eat and drink. The necessity, then, being common, we judge that the provision ought to be similar. For as it is common to both to require things to cover them, so also their coverings ought to be similar….”


St. Clement goes on to advocate that Christians should have simple clothes that are completely undyed, and that Christian women should not desire anything else, because it’s just weak. He does say that maybe women’s clothes can be softer to the touch.

He also says that he thinks that having clothes that are moderately soft to the touch is much more beautiful than any color could be (sensory issues?), and he even thinks that dyes destroy cloth faster. (Which might have been the case, if Alexandrians were using harsh dyes.)

“And if such must be woven for the women, let us weave apparel pleasant and soft to the touch, not flowered, like pictures, to delight the eye. For the picture fades in course of time, and the washing and steeping in the medicated juices of the dye wear away the wool, and render the fabrics of the garments weak; and this is not favourable to economy.”

And then he says that having different kinds of garments is just too expensive. And he expressly condemned hems that hung down over the feet as “impeding the activity of walking, the garment sweeping the dirt off the street like a broom….”

And he says that an outfit should make it clear that the thing covered is better than its covering… which is kind of an interesting fashion goal. (Philosophers make me laugh.) But it was leading up to another comment about not buying expensive fabrics and dyes.

Now, as was typical for a Hellene of his time, he saw female modesty as meaning that the body was covered from ankle to neck, and that the head was covered outdoors. But it still cracks me up that he was advocating for a much more unisex fashion spectrum.

The chapter on shoes (Book 2, Chapter 12) is equally hilarious. He allows as how women have tender feet and shouldn’t go barefoot (he’s a city man), but he does think that men should go barefoot most of the time, except when in the military! (In the stinky city of Alexandria!!!) I mean, yes, barefoot is a healthier way to go, but practicality forbids!

And there’s a chapter on jewelry, where he says that piercing ears for earrings is contrary to Nature, and that unpierced ears represent a readiness to listen to God’s Word.

Ha! He is so nerdy. I’m going to have to remember some of this, when I want to tease people.

Piety is easy to turn into tyranny, you see, which is why we are supposed to use prudence as well as freedom. The things that are fitting or unfitting do tend to shift back and forth, whereas what is morally lawful and unlawful doesn’t change.

I’m a natural frump, myself, so I sympathize with St. Clement, and with Tertullian’s longing to throw away all togas. But a prudent man or woman can be stylish without being a moneywaster or an advertisement for vice… which is why we have a French Doctor of the Church like St. Francis de Sales!

Moderation in all things but virtue. But also, don’t badmouth what is good and normal.

(* Mind you, he means this in the sense of the same styles of robe. He also saw adult women as having hems that covered the ankle at best, or at least the knee at worst….)

(** Breaking news! Apparently St. Clement didn’t talk about headcoverings in this part of the clothing section!! It was a reference quote, talking about how the dying Polyxena still concealed “what must be concealed from the eyes of men.” So the proper translation would be, “But also [concealing] what of females ought to be concealed from the eyes”, with the implication being, “from the eyes of men.”)

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Filed under Dress code, Humor, Patristics, Pre-Vatican II Hats

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