Cognitively-challenged Christians are eager to invoke Deuteronomy 22:5—in judgment of women as well as of men—that “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.” Some denominations read this as requiring women to wear dresses (or, in the contrapositive, as prohibiting women from wearing pants). Likewise, Deuteronomy 22:5 has been invoked to condemn and deny skirts as menswear. This was certainly my experience when I “saw the light” and “converted” to skirts in 2016, but it has taken me three years to get around to publishing this formal rebuttal.
I don’t image that Deuteronomy 22:5 is spouted quite so judgmentally in the United Kingdom as prohibiting men from wearing kilts—presumably because kilts are regarded as menswear (or more precisely, because kilts are societally regarded as menswear, albeit with a undertone of occasion rather than daily wear). It should not go without notice, though, that while Western society long recognizes the kilt as menswear, Western society fails to comprehend that kilts culturally predate the bifurcated pant.
Anthropologically speaking, the bifurcated pant is actually a fairly recent invention of Western culture. Some anthropologists suggest that textile cultures (Greeks, Romans, etc) were technologically predisposed to create non-bifurcated garments as a consequence of production efficiency while animal hide cultures (most notably North American Indians) were technologically predisposed to creating bifurcated garments as a function of materials conservation. Textile cultures, however, developed bifurcated lower garments as part of the agrarian and industrial revolutions where the former tunic-stockings-codpiece ensemble evolved to a more pragmatic pant. Even so, well into the 1800s boys still wore skirts and dresses until reaching some arbitrary age of familial maturity at which point they were “breeched” with pants.
By the time of the twentieth century, non-bifurcated attire had become the exclusive domain of femininity while bifurcated garments were the exclusive domain of masculinity. In this very line, David Hall astutely observed several decades ago that the post-war American business suit was hardly more than an anthropological tweak of the military uniform. It follows that since women were not allowed in the physical combat of war, women were not (socioculturally) to be allowed in the simulated combat of business (or of sport, or of religion, etc, etc). But in modern times, the woman who dons the powerful “uniform” of the combatant raises her cultural standing from weak to strong; on the other hand, the man who dons the weak “uniform” of the non-combatant reduces his cultural standing from strong to weak. In Biblical times, the symbol of strength was not the garment but rather the staff and the sword. Both of these are phallic symbols, the possession or wielding of which was verboten to females.
There is no Bible passage that defines the characteristics of masculine and feminine garments, though it goes without saying that at the time of Deuteronomy’s promulgation, women and men wore the same type of clothing, but not necessarily the same style of clothing. So while their clothing shared the same structural characteristics, it probably differed in decoration, coloration, trim, accessories, etc. Traditional Bible commentaries overwhelmingly contextualize Deuteronomy 22:5 as constructing an extension or representation of the inner self where men wearing feminine styles implicitly telegraphed inner weakness and where women wearing masculine styles showed defiance and insubordination. (But then again, this was also a dominant European trope common to Shakespearean dramas and Greek tragedies so it might be warranted to admit that even long respected commentators of yesteryear could have been unwittingly influenced by Western anthropological encodings.)
Design characteristics, however, are not the exclusive means by which cultures, ancient and modern, convey style. While long hair is traditionally held to symbolize femininity, both Samson and Absalom are strongly associated with luxuriously long locks! Cosmetics are another aesthetic associated with femininity, but priests also applied sacrificial blood to the faces and bodies of penitents and Levites. As for garment design, the prophet Elijah is recorded as hiking up his tunic and running a marathon (1 Kings 18:46) so it stands to reason that his robe was sufficiently restrictive as to impede vigorous striding but sufficiently flowing to require cinching when gathered to his waist.
An unending discussion could easily be had in futilely classifying attributes of masculinity and femininity, but I think it appropriate to pause and reference 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT) where even the great prophet Samuel allowed his human proclivities to override his intellectual faculties: “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” Christ extended this rebuke to the pharisees thusly: “[y]ou strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24 NLT; see 23-26 for broader context). This is also why Christ condemned those who fixated upon “the speck of sawdust in [their] brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in [their] own eye […. F]irst take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 NLT)
But why do I digress to the speck and the plank of the New Testament? Well, at least here in the United States, it seems that Christians are the ones most obsessed with their neighbor’s attire (to say nothing of their neighbor’s coitus, child rearing, and prosperity). As I stated earlier, I can’t imagine Deuteronomy 22:5 being thrown at kilt-wearers in the United Kingdom (and the Scots are not the only wearers of kilts within the UK). So herein lies a hard contradiction for the neighbor-obsessed Christian: the Apostle Paul himself wrote that upon salvation, “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14 NKJV). Paul is merely restating Christ’s assault on the legalist conduct of the pharisees. Elsewhere Paul continued, “[l]et me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.” (Galatians 3:24-25 NLT)
Based on the doctrine that Christ fulfilled (or amended) Judaic law, Deuteronomy 22:5 should be irrelevant. For example, rather than animal sacrifice for the expiation of sin, Christ serves as that enduring sacrifice. The principle that sin is punishable by death still holds, but stands eternally abated (this is to say, where Adam introduced the death penalty by disobedience, Christ commuted the death penalty through obedience. Romans 5:12-21) However, this inversion creates a logical discordance because Adam’s character is primarily bellicose and Christ’s character is primarily pacific. That Adam defies while Christ submits is indeed an inversion of the masculine/feminine affect. But had Christ not presented himself with adequate masculinity, he would not have been allowed to teach in the synagogues. Yet in the context of the Roman occupation that valued mind as much as might, Christ took advantage of that paradigmatic construct to engage the eternal intellect with his teachings as much as he did the ephemeral body with his miracles. Christ’s intellectual engagement of the soul set the stage for the Apostle Paul to author two-thirds of the New Testament.
The expansion of Christianity from Jews to gentiles provoked a strong doctrinal rift within the early church. Messianic Jews, by virtue of their Jewish heritage, followed Judaic law as a matter of culture while gentiles did not. Some claimed that conversion and salvation were predicated and conditioned upon fulfillment of the Jewish law—particularly as it related to circumcision. In addressing this specific issue, Paul wrote that “there is no gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” and “[w]atch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Col 3:11 NIV, Phil 3:2-3 NIV, respectively) The takeaway is that arbitrary regulations of the Old Testament are meaningless under the new covenant. When asked “‘which is the greatest commandment in the Law?‘, Christ replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:36-40 NIV)
Christ’s logic is sublimely simple. Rather than hundreds of micro-commandments, those who love God will strive to act lovingly toward others because “God is love” (1 John 4:8 NIV). The man who loves his neighbor will not murder his neighbor; the woman who loves her neighbor will not shag her neighbor’s husband; the warriors who love their neighbors will fight to defend their neighbors’ lives and property, but will maliciously attack neither countryman nor foreigner. In short, the Mosaic association of appearance with righteousness is subsumed by New Testament alloying of sincerity with salvation. In contrast to the “religious” leaders of the day who avoided untoward appearances, Christ welcomed the pharisees and politicians just as sincerely as the sailors, shysters, and sex workers. Had bifurcated garments prevailed in his day, Christ certainly would have welcomed women in pants as much as men in tunics.
Given the physical construction of garments in the time of Deuteronomy, it is unsound to conclude that Deuteronomy 22:5 endeavored to prohibit women from wearing pants any more than it sought to bar men from wearing robes. At most, this Old Testament passage speaks to cultural norms as they existed then (and perhaps as they exist now). Over time, modern translations—both literal and paraphrastic—have come to render Deuteronomy 22:5 in overly simple words (“[a] woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing“) that obscure the complexity of the Hebrew text. The New International Version quoted here affords remarkable deconstructability. Not only does the Hebrew source of Deuteronomy 22:5 use two different verbs, neither narrowly means “to wear.” Likewise, both instances of “clothing” derive from different nouns, neither of which has that simplistic meaning.
The first “wear” derives from the Hebrew “yih·yeh” (to fall out, come to pass, become, be) and the second “wear” comes from the Hebrew “yil·baš” (to wrap around, to put on, to clothe). Similarly, the first instance of “clothing” is “ḵə·lî-” (something prepared, any apparatus) while the second instance is “śim·laṯ” (a dress, a mantle). Read very literally, Deuteronomy 22:5 says A [woman, wife, female] must not [come to pass, become, be] [a valiant man, warrior]‘s [something prepared, any apparatus] and a [valiant man, warrior] must not [wrap around, put on, clothe] [woman, wife, female]‘s [dress, mantle]. More smoothly stated, Deuteronomy 22:5 literally says, “[t]he habiliments of a man are not on a woman, nor doth a man put on the garment of a woman” or “[a] woman shall not be clothed in a man’s cloak, neither a man shall use a woman’s cloak” (Young’s Literal Translation, Wycliffe Bible, respectively). Wycliffe’s translation is interesting in its own right for using “cloak” which is an accepted anthropological metaphor for disguising oneself, usually for deceptive purposes. A cloak is also a symbol of station or office. In similar manner, Young’s translation of man’s clothing as habiliments invites us to substitute words like trappings or adornments of a profession or station.
There is an enormous difference between putting on a single item and putting on a full costume. By way of example, putting on a helmet does not make the wearer a knight or a quarterback any more than mounting a horse makes one the Lone Ranger. Pulling on pants does not, in and of itself, cause a woman to be mistaken for a man any more than a skirt misrepresents the man as a woman. By extension—and I saved the best for last—the Contemporary English Version translates Deuteronomy 22:5 thusly: “[w]omen must not pretend to be men, and men must not pretend to be women.”
The conflation of ḵə·lî with śim·laṯ and yih·yeh with yil·baš is unjustified. Translated so simplistically, it could be read to prohibit men from wearing toupees insofar as toupees are wigs, and wigs are predominantly associated with women (commonwealth tribunals notwithstanding). Similarly, such simplistic interpretation would prohibit male actors from wearing stage makeup as well as ordinary men from using cosmetics to conceal disfiguring burn scars. After all, women wear cosmetics. Legalism, by its very nature, does not indulge exceptions.
By way of further example, women’s “boyshort” panties are styled after men’s trunks and boxerbriefs. And there is thong underwear for men—clearly made for men by virtue its pouch—but which some would argue simulates women’s panties. Those who reactively view different as deviant will probably also view men’s thongs as unmasculine and women’s pettipants as unfeminine. At the more extreme, humans are subject to a number of skin disorders such as textile dermatitis, anogenital pruritus, and genital dysaesthesia which could compel women to wear men’s boxershorts or men to wear a women’s half-slip to alleviate their physical agony. Then, too, there are questions of (matrimonial?) fetishism. Should Deuteronomy 22:5 be construed to deprive consenting adults from private indulgences?
In broader context, Deuteronomy 22 also (arbitrarily?) prohibits the wearing of blended wool/linen fabrics and mandates that unchaste females be stoned. If individuals must not wear any garment associated with the other sex, if females are to be chaste, and if males are to be circumcised, should every congregant be strip-searched at the door for penile mutilation, hymenal integrity, and undergarment conformity!?
The 1990s television comedy series Frasier styled the Drs. Crane in some very effeminate footwear. Should churches prohibit all such daintified eurostylings? For that matter, should churches ban women from wearing high heels? Though not well known, it is a fact that heeled footwear was originally designed for men. Period works of art clearly show American patriarchs and British aristocracy wearing elevated shoes (but in actuality the style was far older than that). Over time, women adopted and daintified the style with slender heels and open constructions. (Granted, feminists could argue that since cobblers were historically male, men forced those styles upon women, but no one put a knife to women’s throats to force wearing those modifications then and no one puts a gun to women’s heads to purchase modern styles now. Any argument that women embrace the style to please men just doesn’t hold water in the post-liberation culture. Few women fear being unappealing to men on the basis of wearing pants so the same would hold for shoes.)
A few decades ago, the mainline strategy employed by women and clothiers alike was to introduce a semantic disconnect that accompanied the counter-cultural pants-for-women movement of post-war America. Women’s pants were marketed as slacks while men’s pants were emphasized as trousers. This semantic ploy allowed women to feel less culturally transgressive. Not surprisingly, the same semantic distinction manifests in the skirt/kilt paradigm. Even in America where kilts are infrequently seen, there are many men who would never wear a skirt but will quickly don a kilt for any justifiable occasion. Even in this construct, though, such men do not have the same liberties as women who may select pants or skirts on whim; a man, however, would be scorched by thousands of burning stares if he randomly wore a kilt to church on Sunday or to the office on Monday.
As I pointed out in A Guy’s Guide to Great Skirts and Why I Wear Skirts, a man’s success with skirts is directly related to his confidence. But that returns us to what I would argue to be the communicative crux of Deuteronomy 22:5. Whether a man or a woman, confidence is universally attractive in every facet of life and one need look no further than the political stage or the entertainment industry to confirm this reality. Culturally, though, men are expected to naturally possess confidence (or cockiness) and those who do not are viewed less approvingly. Conversely, women are admired and praised in business, law, and medicine for their professional confidence (or self-assurance). Male or female, fitness competitors have no qualms about wearing a few strands of cotton because what the competitors wear does not in itself make the men to be perceived as “sissy” nor the women as “butch.” For this reason I think that men who hide behind a kilts-are-actually-menswear shield put themselves at a disadvantage. In North America, the kilt is so infrequently worn that doing so in isolation conveys a nonverbal statement of lukewarm, bashful, and restrained confidence. In other words, a confident person doesn’t GAF whether it is technically menswear or originally womenswear. A confident person does not allow external opinion to assert internal restraint. As a teenage shepherd, David strode out confidently to meet Goliath who was so dumbstruck by David’s boldness that Goliath’s best response was (a very brief) mockery. And when David delivered, the men respected him and the women adored him.
Do men really need to play word games in order to confidently challenge normative sociocultural expectations? Should men be thermometers or thermostats? At present, there are no mass-marketed skirts for men, but that does not mean that there are no skirts for men. In fact, when a confident man puts on that which was originally sold as a women’s skirt, he transforms it into a man’s skirt because he will own it and he will conduct his daily affairs no differently. To better illustrate this point, at one time men did not wear pink. The men who changed that sociocultural narrative did not do so by defending the color as “watermelon” or “salmon.” Just like the men who dared to wear a women’s color, the confident man who dares to wear a women’s skirt should take the attitude that this was a women’s garment, but I am such a GDMF stud that I made it a man’s garment just by putting it on.
To be clear, Deuteronomy 22:5’s implications for trans people is a very different discussion for someone else’s blog. That said, I’m not entirely sure that Deuteronomy 22:5 stands as a prohibition there either because trans people do not endeavor to deceive the public or to pretend to be something that they are not; on the contrary, trans people believe themselves to be the other sex. Thus they are not being deceptive at all. They are seeking to be on the outside that which they feel on the inside. No sane person would choose the harsh adversity that comes from a misalignment of mind and body. Whether their minds are afflicted or whether their bodies are malformed is something for science and medicine to determine. But cisgender men can certainly borrow a page from their stories: live boldly, live honestly.
So perhaps the real meaning of Deuteronomy 22:5 is this: be authentic. Whatever prohibitions flow from Deuteronomy 22:5, those prohibitions speak to deception and duplicity. Even if that were not broadly agreeable, legalism is unmasked by stubbornly clinging to an antiquated position without a willingness to engage in a cognitive assessment. And legalism is the archenemy of love, which is the greatest commandment and “[a]gainst such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:23 KJV/ASV/YLT)