Who Wears the Pants around Here?


Should Adventist Women Wear Trousers?

“A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Deuteronomy 22:5, NKJV

It appears this question is still relevant. I must confess that having long come to a settled conclusion on this matter myself, it had lapsed into that region of subjects that one takes for granted as common sense, clearly understood by everyone and which evokes no interesting discussion. Needless to say, as I’ve engaged with young Christian women, it has been a recurring theme. What’s more, when they ask whether it is “right” or “proper” for women to wear trousers, they ask with a mix of passion, fear, and hope. Clearly the question is still relevant to them.

And so here is an answer. I have tried to do more than state my opinion on what the relevant Bible passages mean, but rather to address the core issues that have been raised in the debate, and then offer concrete biblical principles for resolving them. Once we have settled each issue involved, the answer to the overall question should naturally become apparent – autospill – like some friends of mine say.


First Some Boilerplate: The Basic Theology

Deuteronomy 22:5 says explicitly, “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

These are heavy words. The use of words like “shall not” puts the issue of dress on the level of command, and the word “abomination” places it squarely in the category of universally acknowledged high sins: homosexuality (Lev 18:22), idolatry (Deut 7:25), human sacrifice and witchcraft (Deut 18:10 – 12) are all designated as abominations.

What’s more, the phrasing of the command suggests that God takes it very seriously indeed. It is not based on a conditionality, but seems to define a universal moral truth that it is not right for men and women to wear each other’s clothing. These are called apodictic commands. Apodictic means “clearly established or beyond dispute.”[1] They are distinguished from casuistic commands which are only applicable under certain clearly stated circumstances.

Another example of an apodictic command is Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Exodus 21:26 gives a casuistic command: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye.”

Furthermore, the command is not particularly culturally limited. Men and women dress differently in most cultures. We do not have any strong reasons to believe that God was only interested in how Jewish men and women dressed.

Other cultures, Sodom and Gomorrah and later Canaanite peoples, for example, were punished by God for committing several of the “abominations” listed in Sinaitic and Deuteronomic law.

Clearly, in Deuteronomy 22:5 we are dealing with a directive that is universally binding across time and culture. Certainly the command will mean something different in each cultural context, but it will still be a command. Within the social norms of each culture, dress distinctions have to be maintained.

That is clear. All we need to establish in our present context is the difference between men’s clothing and women’s clothing. Once we’ve got that down, we are obliged to obey the command and dress accordingly.

That takes us to the specific case of trousers, or pants, as they are called in America.


Trousers and Dress Reform – The Beginning

Adventists generally take the advice of Ellen White seriously. She was clearly blessed with insights both present and prescient. Her commentary on Deuteronomy 22:5 has been a focal point for the dialogue among Adventists. She says:

“There is still another style of dress which will be adopted by a class of so-called dress reformers. They will imitate the opposite sex, as nearly as possible. They will wear the cap, pants, vest, coat, and boots, the last of which is the most sensible part of the costume… “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” This style of dress, God would not have his people adopt. It is not modest apparel, and is not at all fitting for modest, humble females who profess to be Christ’s followers. God’s prohibitions are lightly regarded by all who would advocate the doing away of the distinction of dress between males and females.”

Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 477

While these words read like clear English, we should not hasten to a conclusion. As a general rule we must never conclude on a passage until we have considered its context and situation in time.


Trousers and Dress Reform

Victorian era dressing

When Ellen White was alive, women’s fashion consisted predominantly of the hoop skirt or crinoline and tight-fitting corsets that went around the abdomen. It was a rather extravagant look, and many people were increasingly criticizing the fashion of the day on grounds of modesty and health. Corsets particularly, could be so tight that they significantly impeded breathing. The wide hoop skirts were so far from the legs that they afforded little warmth in the cold weather.

What’s more, they were held up by a cage of whalebone, cane or later, steel. There was also the trailing skirt, which used copious amounts of fabric that swept the ground as the wearer walked about.

victorian corset
The Victorian corset
trailing skirt
The trailing skirt
crinoline cage
Inner cage of hoop skirt or crinoline was made of steel, whalebone or other hard material

Concerned persons in the clergy and in medicine began to speak up against the unhealthy fashion of the day. Here are some quotes from the period:

“Every lady who has any experience in domestic life, must understand the abundant inconvenience attendant upon a style of dress, the dimensions of whose superfluities may be adduced in yards and pounds. The utility of skirts for sweeping floors and sidewalks, and for mopping stairways and passages, has become a proverb.”—

Mrs. M. Angeline Merritt, Dress Reform Practically and Physiologically Considered, pp. 48, 49, p. 79. (Italics hers)

“Viewed in any aspect, the common style of dress for women is one of the greatest barbarisms ever known, especially considering the age in which we live. Only think of the women of the nineteenth century wearing apparel incompatible with the laws of their being—with health, comfort, and convenience, protection and neatness, disproportioned to the body, awkward and burdensome! What are we, indeed, that we should be rigged off like a ship of war?—encased in iron, wood, whalebone, and steel; encoiled in cording, ropes, and sails; and freighted with a useless cargo of dry goods?

Ellen Beard Harman. Dress Reform: Its Physiological and Moral Bearings, p. 26. (Italics hers)

“The objections to the common style of dress are numerous, among which the following are a few: 1. The feet and limbs of the females are imperfectly clad, having generally only thin stockings and shoes to protect them. 2. The modern hoop skirt throws the clothes far away from the limbs and then exposes them still more. 3. Hence the feet and limbs often become chilly and cold. This prevents a proper circulation of blood in those parts.”

D. M. Canright in Review and Herald, June 18, 1867, p. 9

These objections led many to call for and introduce dress reform. Dress Reform as a movement then is not specifically an Adventist phenomenon. It was a response of general society to the ills of contemporary fashion.

Among other things, advocates championed smaller dress sizes, less structural support form metal and whalebone, looser fitting upper clothes and closer fitting lower clothes such as skirts and trousers.


Trousers and Dress Reform – A Feminist Twist

As reform advanced, dress became more modest, using less material, and also healthier. As with many reforms however, what started well was soon taken to the extreme. Many leading female reformers began to dress almost to the point that they started to resemble men.

To protect the feet, they started to wear trousers underneath the skirt. These trousers were tailored very similarly to those worn by men. Indeed, some of the most extreme reformers deliberately began to dress almost, if not exactly, like men. This was a feminist element that planted itself, for better or worse, in the discussion.

Dr. Mary Ann Walker, an American surgeon and feminist, dressed so much like a man that she was arrested on several occasions for impersonating a man. Dr. Ellen Beard Harman, her close friend, was also a leading feminist supporter of the cause.

It was Dr. Walker, however, who really took things very far. She started wearing men’s trousers underneath a skirt, along with men’s suit. She was mocked, teased and derided by friends, colleagues and patients, but she persisted, and advocated strongly for dress freedom for women. When asked why she wore men’s clothes she said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

Dr Mary E. Walker

Dr Mary Walker’s dress progressively became more masculine

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-8-22-54-amDr Walker became quite the champion of a new feminist agenda to break down social categories around dress culture as it related to gender. Certainly, she was a revolutionary. She was one of the first female medical doctors in America, and served in the Civil War. To date, she is the only American woman to have received the Medal of Honor. She set out to show that women too, could “wear the pants”, as the cover of this 2013 book  depicts.

The trousers-beneath-skirt style came to be known as the American Costume, or the Reform Dress.

Many women began to dress like this. Some people started to get concerned that what had began as a legitimate call to improve women’s fashion was quickly getting out of hand. Could the revolution in dress culture, though it first began as a health reform, finally end as powerful new avenue to social gender revolution? What would happen if women everywhere started to “wear the pants?” Conservative Christian observers were worried. Enter Ellen White.

You can now read:

Part II: Ellen White to Date



[1] Oxford Dictionaries

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.