A few years ago, I received this question from one of my dear Christian sisters:
"Dear Prof. Foster,
According to 1 Pt 3:3-4 and 1 Tm 2:9, someone think the first century
christian women had a austere lifestyle (no jewels, ect..).
Is it true? What have Church Fathers to tell us about that?"
Here is the answer I gave at that time:
Whether the Primitive (i.e., first century) Christians had an austere
lifestyle seems to be primarily a matter of exegesis and not history
per se. Granted, there is a field of studies known as NT History.
However, much of what I read in that field is more exegetical in
nature than literary or textual. Having said the foregoing, I must
nevertheless point out that Norman Hillyer writes concerning 1 Pet
3:3-4: "The apostle is not forbidding Christian women from having
hairdos or from wearing ornaments." Hillyer then points out that
Peter's language is rhetorical or figurative and alludes to the
extravagant hairstyles that women were known to wear in the first
century. Peter is thus stressing modesty, not advocating an austere
lifestyle. See Norman Hillyer. 1 and 2 Peter, Jude (New International
Biblical Commentary), page 93. Of course, there are many other sources
available, but time does not permit me to say anymore about the
Regarding the post-apostolic ecclesia, it is good to remember that one
reads about an ideal situation in the Fathers, but the reality was no
doubt quite different. Second-fourth century (professed) Christians no doubt
dressed modestly compared to many of their non-Christian
contemporaries. Nevertheless, the Fathers had to counsel those women
who did not dress modestly. Moreover, some of the Fathers seem to have
been ascetics when it came to dress and grooming. I will quote some
texts to give you a feel for what the pre-Nicenes wrote.
"If there dwelt upon earth a faith as great as is the reward of faith
which is expected in the heavens, no one of you at all, best beloved
sisters, from the time that she had first 'known the Lord,' and
learned (the truth) concerning her own (that is, woman's) condition,
would have desired too gladsome (not to say too ostentatious) a style
of dress; so as not rather to go about in humble garb, and rather to
affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and
repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more
fully expiate that which she derives from Eve,--the ignominy, I mean,
of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of
human perdition" (Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women 1).
Regarding the angels who sinned in Noah's day, Tertullian also recounts:
"For they, withal, who instituted them are assigned, under
condemnation, to the penalty of death,--those angels, to wit, who
rushed from heaven on the daughters of men; so that this ignominy also
attaches to woman. For when to an age much more ignorant (than ours)
they had disclosed certain well-concealed material substances, and
several not well-revealed scientific arts--if it is true that they had
laid bare the operations of metallurgy, and had divulged the natural
properties of herbs, and had promulgated the powers of enchantments,
and had traced out every curious art, even to the interpretation of
the stars--they conferred properly and as it were peculiarly upon
women that instrumental mean of womanly ostentation, the radiances of
jewels wherewith necklaces are variegated, and the circlets of gold
wherewith the arms are compressed, and the medicaments of orchil with
which wools are coloured, and that black powder itself wherewith the
eyelids and eyelashes are made prominent" (On the Apparel of Women 2).
Vide On the Veiling of Virgins by Tertullian as well
Elsewhere, Cyprian of Carthage suggests that if God took pleasure in
humans wearing dyed mantles, he would have made sheep scarlet or
purple. Since God did not make sheep look scarlet or purple, Cyprian
thinks that dyed clothing should be avoided by Christians. Clement of
Alexandria also thinks that white garments are what befit those who
follow Christ Jesus closely.
Tatian the Assyrian further reports:
"This Sappho is a lewd, love-sick female, and sings her own
wantonness; but all our [Christian] women are chaste, and the maidens
at their distaffs sing of divine things more nobly than that damsel of
yours" (Oration to the Greeks 33).
"'So both the virgin and the unmarried woman consider those things
which are the Lord's, that they may be holy both in body and spirit.'
A virgin ought not only to be so, but also to be perceived and
believed to be so: no one on seeing a virgin should be in any doubt as
to whether she is one. Perfectness should show itself equal in all
things; nor should the dress of the body discredit the good of the
mind. Why should she walk out adorned? Why with dressed hair, as if
she either had or sought for a husband? Rather let her dread to please
if she is a virgin; and let her not invite her own risk, if she is
keeping herself for better and divine things. They who have not a
husband whom they profess that they please, should persevere, sound
and pure not only in body, but also in spirit. For it is not right
that a virgin should have her hair braided for the appearance of her
beauty, or boast of her flesh and of its beauty, when she has no
struggle greater than that against her flesh, and no contest more
obstinate than that of conquering and subduing the body" (Cyprian, On
the Dress of Virgins 5).
There are many other texts that one might consult, but I hope you now
have a feel for what the early Church Fathers believed concerning
dress and grooming. They argued that women should dress modestly;
however, some went further by actually promoting an austere lifestyle.
On the other hand, the Primitive ecclesia probably did not espouse
severe asceticism. Hope this helps.