The nations around Palestine in the ancient Near East have left stone monuments depicting the life of the people and their garments. From Palestine we have few such monuments. Cloth disintegrates, and thus the identification of cloth and clothing is a difficult task. Fortunately, the nations that did leave stone monuments occasionally depicted people from the region of Palestine and Syria. The clothing of the surrounding nations is instructive but not necessarily normative. Yet some significant archaeological evidence does exist, including an ivory carving from Megiddo, from about the thirteenth century BCE, depicting a victory celebration (see J. B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures [1969], no. 332). This carving not only displays actual Palestinian dress but also exhibits the Middle Eastern cultural attitude toward clothing itself. From the court there are the king, wearing an ankle‐length robe (decorated around the neck and on the lower fringe), a knee‐length cloak, and a togalike shawl over one shoulder (decorated similar to a garment worn by the officer in the chariot; thus, this garment may be related to the king's position as head of the military); a prince or priest, wearing a decorated head covering (servants had to cover their heads in the presence of their masters; before the king even the naked prisoners have their heads covered), a decorated cloak that covers his arms to the wrists, a cassock‐type garment that comes to just above the knees, and an embroidered long robe reaching almost to the ground; a musician, with a plain cassock and a lightly decorated long robe; and palace servants wearing a single long robe that reaches to the ankles and to the elbows. Related to the military are a military officer in a chariot wearing an elbow‐length cloak, something covering his arms, and protection over his thighs; a lower‐ranking officer with headgear and short kilt; an armed soldier with headgear; and naked prisoners. The higher‐ranking people wore more clothes; nakedness meant humiliation. Men of dignity cover the entire body, even the legs; the shame of uncovering the legs is described, for example, in 2 Samuel 10.4–5 and Isaiah 47.2.


The earliest form of clothing in the Middle East as elsewhere was apparently leaves. Tribes in the southern highlands of Ethiopia still wear leaves for working in streams and fields. Such clothing is indicated in Genesis 3.7.

The skins of animals were used for clothing at a very early stage and continued in use as a symbol of an ascetic life‐style (see Mark 1.6; cf. 2 Kings 1.8).

Before the development of metals, hair could only be plucked from animals. In spite of this, goat‐hair tents were constructed and felt was pounded out for caps and other uses. Some wool was plucked during the Bronze Age for clothing, but with the coming of the Iron Age shears were invented, which greatly assisted the development of woolen cloth.

Flax, and later cotton, were grown and manufactured into clothing.


The spinning wheel has never reached the Middle East. Spinning was and in some isolated areas still is done by a simple hand‐held spindle. The wool/cotton is first “carded” to make the fibers parallel. It is then formed into long, continuous strips of fibers. These strips are then loosely wound onto a U‐shaped bent stick. The spinner's hand slips through the lower part of the U and the loosely wound strips of fibers extend out of the top of the hand. The second piece of equipment is a thin dowel about 35 cm (14 in) in length, with a wooden or stone crosspiece/weight near the top. The spinner twists the end of the strip of loose fibers into a length of thread, attaches it to the lower end of the weighted spindle, and then hooks the developing thread into a metal catch on the upper end. With a deft flip of the spindle the weighted stick is set spinning and gradually feeds the loose fibers from the other hand into the thread as it forms. The spindle drops as the thread forms. In the meantime the spindle loses speed. The spinner then grasps the spindle, unhooks the thread from the metal catch at the upper end of the spindle, winds up the newly formed thread onto the lower end of that same spindle, again hooks the thread into the metal catch at the upper end of the spindle, and once more twirls the spindle between the thumb and forefinger, releasing it to spin suspended in air like a top, and starts again to feed the fibers into the twist as new thread is formed. The evenness and thickness of the thread formed is related to the style and skill of the spinner. After months of spinning the family will have enough thread to approach the village weaver for the making of a piece of cloth.

Both the vertical loom and the simpler horizontal loom seem to have been used, the latter probably being more prevalent. Four cubits seems to have been a standard width (cf. Exod. 26.1–2, 7–8). Cloth could be made in long pieces for curtains and hangings, or a single garment could be woven entirely on the loom. Thus a seamless robe (see John 19.23) could come from the loom needing only to be trimmed and finished.

Cloth was made more beautiful and attractive in a variety of ways. Patterns in the weave itself were possible. Dyeing was extensively used. Indigo on white wool produced blue, and on yellow wool, green. Madder or kermes created reds. The Tyrian purple was famous for royal robes. The robes seen in the Megiddo ivory described above demonstrate extensive use of embroidery.


Dress in different ages was inevitably influenced by the wide variety of cultures that dealt with or ruled Palestine. Furthermore, specialized clothing existed for special classes and occasions. There were garments for kings, priests, and prisoners, as well as for mourners.

The dress of men was made up of a loincloth, a shirt/robe, and a cloak. Footwear, belt, and headdress completed their attire. Women wore various types of headcovering and in certain periods veils to cover the face.

The loincloth could be cloth or leather and was common to the military (note the soldier in the Megiddo ivory). The shirt/robe was the standard indoor dress for all classes of people; all of the people around the throne in the Megiddo ivory are wearing them. The outer, heavier cloak was the basic garment of the poor; it was doubled for a blanket at night. Thus, the law demanded that such a cloak be returned before nightfall to anyone who had left such a garment in pledge for a debt (Exod. 22.26; Deut. 24.10–13; cf. Amos 2.8). A belt or sash was essential to hold in the loose‐fitting robe, both to protect the garment and to allow for freedom of movement. If in danger of being soiled by menial tasks, a worker would “gird up his loins,” taking the lower edge of the robe and tucking it into the belt.

Women traditionally covered their heads. Such a standard was demanded by the rabbis of the first century CE, because the hair was considered a critical part of a woman's beauty, which should not be on display to the common eye. Paul urges Corinthian women to be sensitive to the cultural traditions of the community and not give unnecessary offense (cf. 1 Cor. 11.2–16).

Across the centuries sandals have been the traditional foot covering. Lack of any such covering gradually became a sign of servanthood; hus the prodigal son was given sandals (Luke 15.22).

See also Fringes


Kenneth E. Bailey