Should Christian Women Wear Trousers? Ellen White to Date
Ellen White and the Reform Dress
“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.”
The quotation from Ellen White above came within the context of dress reform in the public sphere. It was a social movement that was gaining ground, and becoming a fashion trend in its own right. Adventist women had started to wear the new American Costume. Bear in mind that the costume used men’s trousers, not specially designed trousers for women.
We must understand, then, that Ellen White’s comments are highly contextual. The list she gives: cap, pants, vest, coat, and boots, is the set of items that made up the Reform Dress. She was not categorically declaring each item evil in itself, but rather she was describing a general dressing scheme that was in vogue in her day, and that was not respecting the biblical injunction that women should not wear men’s clothing.
She acknowledged the possible improvement in the healthiness of the new dressing over the old stifling form, but she cautioned against extremes.
“Those who adopt and advocate this style of dress, are carrying the so-called dress reform to very objectionable lengths. Confusion will be the result. Some who adopt this costume may be correct in their views in general upon the health question, and they could be instrumental in accomplishing vastly more good if they did not carry the matter of dress to such extremes.”
She also cautioned Adventist women against dressing like this because they may be confused with “spiritualists”. This is likely an allusion to several spiritualist women, such as Mary Tillotson, who were famously adopting the new style. Tillotson was a chapter president of the National Dress Reform Association. She founded the American Free Dress League to encourage a dress reform that was a part of a broader spiritualist reform agenda.
The Search for Balance
Ellen White tried to help Adventist women find the right balance between the traditional extravagant, unhealthy dress and the new, in-vogue masculine fashion.
These statements address the traditional fashion:
“We do not think it in accordance with our faith to dress in the American costume, to wear hoops, or to go to an extreme in wearing long dresses which sweep the sidewalks and streets. If women would wear their dresses so as to clear the filth of the streets an inch or two, their dresses would be modest, and they could be kept clean much more easily, and would wear longer. Such a dress would be in accordance with our faith.”—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 424.
As we have said, the trailing skirts especially were so long that they dragged along the ground as women walked. Ellen White advised that dresses should “clear the filth of the streets an inch or two”. This is old Victorian era English meaning that dresses should be clear of or distant from the filth on the ground by an inch or two. That is, a little bit above the ankles. She also addressed the prevailing health concern:
“My sisters, there is need of a dress reform among us. There are many errors in the present style of female dress. It is injurious to health, and, therefore, sin for females to wear tight corsets, or whalebones, or to compress the waist. These have a depressing influence upon the heart, liver, and lungs. The health of the entire system depends upon the healthy action of the respiratory organs. Thousands of females have ruined their constitutions, and brought upon themselves various diseases, in their efforts to make a healthy and natural form unhealthy and unnatural”
But she also had to address the new extreme masculine form. She visited a sanatorium called Our Home, where many of the female staff wore the new reform dress.
“We shall never imitate Miss Dr. Austin or Mrs. Dr. York [both of ‘Our Home’]. They dress very much like men. We shall imitate or follow no fashion we have ever yet seen. We shall institute a fashion which will be both economical and healthy.” (Letter la, 1864.)
Clearly, she was concerned that Adventist women should find a balance between the concerns of health and biblical propriety. She said,
“There is a medium position in these things. Oh that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.’”
The Hippie Revolution of the 1960s
The 1960s was the beginning of a period of tremendous change in American and global culture. The resounding theme was liberation – from almost everything considered to be a trapping of society. It saw a clamoring for civil rights, LGBT or gay rights, the sexual revolution and freer expression in fashion, music and the arts in general.
Mary Quaint invented the mini-skirt, the bikini became popular through the movies, haircuts and dress came to be used to as protest tools against gender differences. Both sexes wore jeans trousers, long hair and hairstyles. The goal was to erase the notion of social gender distinction. Therefore the clothing was as similar as possible, and many times even the same. This was the birth of unisex fashion, which lives on today.
Today’s Adventist young lady, and any Christian young lady, for that matter, needs to make an informed, biblical decision on the current modes of fashion. I am no expert on fashion, but I know that here is a defined style of trousers suited to women and another men. While women’s trousers is often called unisex clothing, the truth is that many female trousers are made intentionally and apparently feminine.
Since the Bible itself says absolutely nothing about whether or not women should wear trousers, we must guard against the temptation to impose old ideas of fashion on the present. Today, women do not normally wear men’s trousers, whether beneath skirts or on their own. To my knowledge, the reverse is not normal either.
Even under the bracket of clothing commonly called unisex, clothing items are either styled for a specific gender (trousers, shorts, T-shirts, Lacoste) or are entirely gender-neutral in style (eg. T-shirts, Lacoste).
Women should, therefore, choose trousers that reflect the distinctions between the male and female form.
Today, the argument that women should not wear trousers is sustained mainly by the following arguments:
- It blurs the division between male and female identity and gender role
- It supports the ongoing feminist agenda
- It promotes sexual temptation and impurity
Let’s address each briefly.
Trousers and Gender Roles: Who Wears the Pants?
As we have discussed, the Bible does not claim that trousers are inherently evil. Indeed, it does not even say that they are meant for men. The question of appropriate Christian dressing as it relates to trousers cannot be addressed through a purely exegetical approach to any Bible text. In other words, exegesis is certainly necessary foundation for our teaching in this regard, but we must appeal to some common sense and a knowledge of culture and dress history in the application.
If some trousers pertain specifically to women, then is there a possibility that gender identity and roles can become confused? Well, female trousers tend to look female. They are shaped with reference to the female contour. Men’s trousers likewise conform to the straighter male outline. I have never been confused about a person’s identity solely because of the trousers they were wearing.
The danger of a blurring gender roles stems more from self than it does from shelf. Ego and pride are more relevant to how a man-woman relationship plays out in a marriage or family situation than a pair of trousers is. Also, powerful social factors can have a say. It is becoming increasingly unpopular to claim that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. I am doubtless there are many men who would never say it but nonetheless believe so in their inmost parts. They are likely to allow (even this word is problematic) their wives to have professional careers even though they would prefer otherwise. So society can also have a role. But trousers?
Women who wear trousers as a means of gender equalization or androgyny within society must disobey the command in Deuteronomy 22:5 to be successful. They must appear as closely as possible, like Dr. Mary Walker, like men. No doubt, there are women who do so. The old American expression “Who wears the pants around here” is often used to refer to the authority of men, who traditionally wear trousers, or pants.
Certainly some women wear pants so they can equalize the authority structure in the home between themselves and their husbands. For example, some parents raise their children “gender aschematically”. This means that they behave and make themselves appear so similar, and treat their children so similarly that they grow up without knowing that they are gendered at all.
Men may also dress like women to help this equalization process. They too will necessarily dress like women. This also violates the biblical command.
Laurel Damsgeet and Hedwig Jemison wisely advise in a compilation by Samuele Bachiocchi, that Christians should ask themselves when choosing clothes, “Does this article of clothing affirm my gender identity, or does it make me look as though I belong to the opposite sex? Whenever you feel that a certain type of clothing does not belong to your gender, follow your conscience: Don’t buy it, even if it is fashionable.”
Trousers and Contemporary Feminism
It is true that clothing can become a symbol of social movements and trends. Bandanas in the 1990s symbolized American rap culture. Cross-dressing and transvestism represent counter-cultures in gender and sexuality. Trousers symbolized female empowerment and liberation for feminists in the 19th Century. No doubt they still do for some today. But the use of women’s trousers today has reached such a scale that is not particularly associate with feminism. No doubt millions of women wear them who have never heard of feminism.
Women who wear trousers as a symbol of their involvement in feminist movements must be fully aware of the range of statements (philosophical, ethical and religious) they are making, and be prepared to defend them in light of Scripture. Men who support them must do likewise.
Any brand of feminism that promotes the disintegration of gender distinctions outlined in the Bible cannot be conscientiously supported by Christians.
Trousers and Sexual Purity
Certainly a stronger argument is the one concerning sexual temptation and purity. The argument is that trousers worn by women are often overly revealing of the feminine frame, making their dressing appear seductive and presenting great temptation to men who see them.
It is certainly the case that many women dress seductively in trousers, and many of them with the deliberate intent to appear as such.
Women who dress this way deliberately have more issues than just their choice of clothing. Indeed that is only the symptom of an unconverted heart. The problem must be addressed as a need for spiritual conversion.
Women who wear female trousers need to be mindful of this potential to be a snare to others, and pick their trousers with fear and trembling. Jesus warned in Luke 17:1, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!”
Trousers and Women’s Health
As Ellen White observed of the tight corsets of her day, it would be sinful for women to willfully wear anything that they knew endangered their health. Many doctors and health workers are concerned about the health risks posed particularly by tight jeans to women’s health.
For example, the Daily Mail reported about a 35 year-old woman who was hospitalized after her tight jeans blocked circulation to her legs, causing her to collapse. She had developed compartment syndrome, where excessive pressure on the muscles causes swelling, bleeding and pain. In extreme cases, blood flow to vital organs like the kidneys and liver can be hampered, causing permanent damage. Skinny jeans have also been implicated in a condition known as Meralgia paresthetica, which causes pain and tingling in the thighs.
Tight trousers have also been implicated in urinary tract infections. They can block air flow around the genitals, and create an ideal conditions for the growth of bacteria and other microbes that can cause infection.
We are led then to ask whether trousers are inherently unhealthy for women. According to Dr. Nicholas Morrissey, a vascular surgeon, “Clothing isn’t designed to give us a shape that we don’t have, and that’s where people get in trouble.” Unfortunately, many women are led by a desire to appear thin to wear skinny jeans as a means of forcing a certain shape.
Being aware of the health issues involved with wearing trousers can help women decide whether to avid them altogether, or to choose trousers that do not endanger their health. It will also inform women what hygiene regime they should employ. For example, it may not be wise to wear the same pair of trousers for a week without washing them.
We should note that many of the health issues associated with trousers affect men too. Men who wear tight trousers are at risk of infections on their testicles. They are also more likely to suffer twisted testicles, low sperm count and bladder weakness as well as fungal other infections.
Clearly, both men and women need to think carefully about their clothing choices and habits when it comes to trousers, but also for clothing in general. The problem is not with the trousers as a clothing item in itself, but with the pairing of trousers and body.
Many people have opted to avoid all the risks by giving up wearing trousers altogether. While that is a sensible decision, it is by no means the only option. Carefully choosing your clothing and using them appropriately can also ensure your health. On the other hand, bad dressing habits will lead to poor health outcomes whatever the clothing item involved.
On Practicality, Culture
Noting the predominant association of trousers with men in Western culture, Laurel Damsgeet and Hedwig explain that in the western world, trousers are still seen as a female adaptation of men’s clothing, claiming that “pants still have a masculine connotation and do not affirm the gender distinctions.” They therefore advise that women should not wear trousers to formal places and occasions like church service.
While it is well-reasoned advice, the premise is more true in some places than in others, and the overall cultural trend is certainly towards greater normalization of the concept of female trousers. Certainly culture has moved very far along since they wrote in 1995. Women should be aware of their own socio-cultural environment and dress accordingly.
In Africa, where both male and female trousers is largely an importation, these cultural trappings may not be significant. The evolution of the female trousers and its attendant social debate did not transpire in Africa. An Adventist lady in Africa can in most cases wear descent female trousers without inciting western gender debates. She will, however, have to deal with African questions regarding her dressing. These will tend to revolve around modesty and decency.
As Damsgeet and Jemison explain,
“The Bible does not tell us what style of clothing men and women should wear. It recognizes that the style of clothing is dictated by climate and culture. What the Bible does teach us, however, is to respect the gender distinctions in clothing as they are known within any given culture.”
They urge that women should be guided by practical necessity:
“There are circumstances in which it is more practical and convenient for Christian women to wear pants. This may be true, for example, during cold winter days, when working around the house, on a family outing, when riding a bicycle or playing sports. In these circumstances pants can provide more comfort and protection than skirts, without necessarily endangering the gender distinction.”
We can say therefore that Ellen White did not categorically prohibit the wearing of trousers. She however was staunchly against attempts to use dress style to undermine the difference between the genders. We can also say that there are several common-sense considerations to be made by women who want to wear trousers. Some of them concern health, others concern sexual purity and propriety, and others involve the contribution our dressing can make to the cultural trends and movements of the day.
Yet do all these common-sense considerations hold any water biblically? At the end of the day we cannot determine doctrine on the basis of culture alone. Indeed it cannot even be the primary basis of doctrine. The question now has moved to its final level: is what we have learned from science, culture and history supported by the text in question? Or have we been completely thrown off on a tangent?
To answer that question, stay tuned for the final installment of the series:
Part III – Finally, an Exegetical Solution
To catch up on the beginning of our discussion. You can also read Part I here
 Anne Braude. 2001. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America. P. 153. Indiana University Press
Samuele Bachiocchi (Editor) Christian Dress and Adornment.Essays by Laurel Damsgeet and Hedwig Jemison. 1995. Biblical Perspectives, Michigan.