Monday, February 20, 2012


Kristi Upson-Saia, Early Christian Dress: Gender, Virtue, and Authority. Routledge Studies in Ancient History, 3. New York; London: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xiv, 171. ISBN 9780415890014. $125.00.

Reviewed by Raeleen Chai-Elsholz (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of Contents below.]

This book seeks to examine Christian attire in relation to gender, virtue, and authority in late antiquity. Kristi Upson- Saia proposes to address previously neglected approaches to uniquely Christian problems of dress and gender, particularly regarding asceticism. Insofar as early Christian women's clothing (rather than men's) is the starting point, it is an original contribution to our understanding of how, down to the very fabric of one's clothing, "fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions—family, religion, state—were inseparably intertwined".1

Upson-Saia's Introduction calls attention to two themes of her book (pp. 4-5): "the use of dress to differentiate and rank social groups", with reference to Thorstein Veblen, and "the relationship between discourse and dress" and the performance of gender; here she turns primarily to Roland Barthes and Judith Butler. Upson-Saia proposes on page 9 to examine the "mutual interaction of discourse and performativity" in texts providing a framework for reading and interpreting attire (Chapters 1 and 2); those attempting to exercise control over the forms and signification of dress that challenges authoritative views (Chapter 3); and narratives of cross-dressing women saints (Chapter 4).

Chapter 1 reaches back to the ancient Republic to examine the bases for interpretation of opulent clothing in the early Roman Empire, pointing to two dichotomies: Roman and non-Roman, and men and women. Immoderate sartorial display was deemed non-Roman on the one hand; on the other it was read as a typically feminine vice, particularly when exacerbated by foreign influences. With respect to Roman women, Livy's early-Imperial depiction of second-century BCE debates over the Oppian laws illustrates two views of luxurious attire. It could be read as a sign of female vice, and/or as a sign of the prestige of the city and the men to whom sumptuously clad women were attached. Upson-Saia notes that both arguments rested on assumptions of Roman women's inherent lust for finery. This had repercussions on how femininity and masculinity were to be performed through clothing.

Chapter 2 turns to Christian writers of the second to fifth centuries CE. The focus is on dress as indicative of the wearer's virtue (and virginity, where applicable). Christian writers juxtaposed Christian and non-Christian dress in moral and scriptural terms. Upson-Saia gives an excellent synthesis of the arguments summoned by the Fathers and other authoritative voices to control and impart meaning to the dress of Christian women, providing a catalogue of sins mapped against dress and beautification practices. Here linguistic subtleties are exploited to en-gender interpretations of Scripture (for instance, pp. 37-39 on woman/wife and men/people). Upson-Saia also investigates resistance to dress constraints and discusses female Christian ascetics whose performance of virtue via clothing was challenged and complicated by gender stereotypes upheld by male Christian authors.

The time span and geographical areas (mostly Roman Africa and Asia Minor) covered in Chapter 2 mesh with the picture in Chapter 3. Here Upson-Saia offers fascinating discussions of gender crises crystallized in the dress and appearance of certain Christian ascetics (Carthaginian virgins of both sexes, a married woman, Eustathius of Sebaste's community) and how their appearance troubled authorities like Augustine and Tertullian. Again, the linguistic and scriptural interpretations in and between the lines of authoritative writings show that ascetic "troublemakers" could be a learned lot and could competently, though perhaps only temporarily, challenge such authorities. While the only real "power" some exercised was to posit interpretations of and prescriptions for ascetics' attire, the bishops at the Council of Gangra wielded anathema and excommunication to compel ascetics to conform with gender and social roles.

Chapter 4 deals with popular fourth- to seventh-century (and later) versions of originally Greek lives of ascetic women saints who disguised themselves as men to gain freedom from female gender roles and achieve their spiritual goals. Upson-Saia investigates vitae whose narrative strategies reaffirm traditional male-female gender patterns, she argues, rather than undermine them as some critics believe. She hypothesizes that this is why these lives elicited less unease than second- and third-century narratives in which cross-dressing occurs. Upson-Saia concludes (p. 106) that "the Lives could be read as pedagogical literature that trained readers to locate gender in even ambiguously dressed bodies."

This overview of the book's contents shows that this slim volume has a wide chronological and geographical reach, from pagan ancient Rome to the Christian early-medieval Near East; the corpora providing the basis for discussion vary as much. The chapters therefore sometimes seem to hang together loosely, giving the book a disjointed feel.

Yet there is much of interest to anyone even vaguely familiar with the topics. Specialists of the early Church will appreciate Upson-Saia's synthesis of Christian writings on women's clothing in Chapter 2, along with the whole of Chapter 3. Parts of Chapter 4 will fascinate literary scholars, too, though it is regrettable that Upson-Saia declined to analyze related earlier material (pp. 87-88) because this might have yielded insights into how the genre is inflected by gender. Students would need to be informed that a great many clothing regulations from late antiquity and earlier are aimed largely at men and only sometimes at women; that ascetics of both sexes had posed problems to authorities from the start (with respect to clothing, Pope Celestine's "Cuperemus quidem" of 428 comes to mind); of how different types of authority (moral, civil, ecclesiastical, etc.) interacted and clashed;2 of concepts of virginity and chastity from pagan antiquity to early Christianity.3

Because much of it focuses on late antiquity, the book additionally holds appeal for medievalists specializing in what is for them the "early" period. The requirements of this particular audience call for some engagement with works familiar to medievalists dealing with gender and/or sanctity.4

Leaving aside questions of audience, we now turn to content. Because of the subjects emphasized in all but Chapter 1, a more accurate title for the book might have been something like The (Self-)Fashioning of Ascetic Christian Women in Late Antiquity. As it stands, the title and subtitle almost seem to be preventing the book from being entirely successful. For example, Early Christian Dress is too broad because there is almost no discussion of the dress of Christian men. Fortunately, although Upson-Saia treats Gender almost exclusively in terms of femininity and "counter-femininity", there are several instructive moments when she calls attention to the performance of masculinity. Virtue refers mainly to virginity or chastity, which remain undefined and are not examined in terms of gender. Lastly, Authority is treated briefly when it appears in case studies, but is not theorized. Given the author's interest in discourse and performativity, it might have been worthwhile to consider scholarship along the lines of Bourdieu's analysis of authenticating discourse in the construction of symbolic power. 5

Dress, a thoroughly status-related concept, is examined without very much regard for social class among Christians, though the relative status of Christians and non-Christians is addressed several times. Some exceptions are pp. 48- 49 and 52-53, where Upson-Saia offers the telling example of Melania who informs her interrogator that she is better than her ascetic's clothing shows her to be. Thus, as Upson-Saia explains, her performance of ascetic poverty had to show that she had given up the trappings of the elite, but nevertheless remained elite in social terms while gaining religious prestige. Jennifer Glancy cites another striking example from the Acts of Andrew of what class could mean in relation to ascetic sanctity.6 Here a certain Maximilla achieves chastity by offering her husband a slave woman in her stead. Thus a well-to-do matron secures her freedom from the sin of sex through the literal and moral enslavement of another person. Another interesting allusion to class is found in the section on Eustathius of Sebaste (pp. 61-75). Indeed, the importance of class hierarchies to the early Christian mind emerges clearly from the synodal condemnation of his community, when ecclesiastics wielded their authority to quash this apparently egalitarian (between sexes and between classes) movement. Undoubtedly, any insight Upson-Saia could have provided into the convergence of gender and class issues would have been stimulating since clothing is a differentiator in both.

Now for the quibbles and desiderata. The attentive reader will observe that Upson-Saia alludes to some of the aforementioned points summarily in the main text and/or in the notes. In fact, because the notes sometimes provide perspective lacking in the main text, it is regrettable that such material was not integrated into the body of the work.

A discussion of clothing items that may have crossed gender boundaries would have been useful. For example, what is the pallium Jerome refers to in his criticism of ascetic women's wiles (p. 56)? Is it the same garment Tertullian prescribes for men in De pallio, or is it simply a typo for palla? Could this be the "philosopher's mantle" adopted by the Eustathian community (as well by Thecla and Hypatia, not discussed in the book) and perhaps worn also by Emmelia and Macrina (p. 75)? It would have been helpful to include such terms in the index. Also missing from the index are Melania (pp. 52-53), Esther (pp. 40, 78), and Judith (pp. 47-48).

These details notwithstanding, this is a carefully edited book for which congratulations are due. There are few typographical errors (such as the consistently misspelled "Radista" for "Raditsa"; on pp. 85, 103 and 106 should "diffusing" be "defusing"?; on p. 149, note 38, "gold" lacks its initial 'g').

As it is not unusual to wish for more of a good thing, readers might have liked to know what Upson-Saia would have made of the "legend" of Thecla,7 or even Mary of Egypt whose donning of Zozimus's mantle results from her disclosure of her sex, at which point she acquires a narrative voice. The passion of Perpetua and Felicity, too, might have made an instructive case study with its several important references to clothing, bodies at once maternal, masculine and feminine, and "gendered" torments in the arena. This would have been an opportunity to discuss performance of virtue and defiance of authority and social hierarchies, this time outside the context of asceticism.

Upson-Saia's innovative focus on women's dress as the crucible where gender, virtue, and authority simmer and seethe will certainly fuel further research (and timely, too, given the present-day power struggle over Muslim women's clothing). Indeed, "the power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more general power to control identity—that of others at least as often as one's own."8 Upson-Saia's book offers several interesting shifts in perspective which, in the Butlerian tradition, allow us to break away from "standard" male/female dichotomies when the interpretive possibilities those have to offer can be expanded upon. Given further opportunity to explore class, authority, and gender (including masculinities) in relation to the dress of early Christians, Upson-Saia may well produce a comprehensive classic on the subject in the wake of this very good first monograph.

Table of Contents

List of Figures ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
Analytical frames 4
Distinction 4
Discourse and Performativity 7
Contributions 10
1 Elite Roman Women's Dress in the Early Imperial Period 15
Interpreting Luxury 15
Signifying Elite Roman Women's Dress 19
Roman Women's Luxurious Attire and Adornments as Signs of Women's Vice 21
Roman Women's Luxurious Attire and Adornments as Signs of Men's Status 26
Femininity and Masculinity reconceived 29
2 Scripting Christians' Clothing and Grooming 33
Scripting Christian Dress 35
Scriptural Precedents and Answering Scripture 37
Dressing Ethically 41
Lying, Pride, and Sins against Creation 41
Idolatry 43
Undermining Sacraments, Blessings, and Salvation 44
Improper Use of Wealth and Almsgiving 44
Sexual Sins 46
Resistance and Allowances 48
The Female Christian Ascetic 51
Performing Status 51
Performing Gender 54
3 Performance Anxiety: Dress and Gender Crises in Early Christian Asceticism 59
Tertullian — Unveiling the Carthaginian Virgins 61
Eustathius of Sebaste — One Size Fits All 69
Augustine and the 'Widow' Ecdicia — Who Wears the Pants in the Family? 75
Augustine and the Long-Haired Monks 80
4 Narrating Cross-Dressing in Female Saints' Lives 84
Lives of Cross-Dressing Saints 87
Fixing the Femininity of the Cross-Dressing Saints 88
Marking the Disguise 88
False Accusations of Rape and Paternity 92
Discovering and Exposing the Saints' Naked Bodies 94
Conclusion 104
Notes 109
Bibliography 155
Index 167


1.   Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press, 1980. p. 256.
2.   Rapp, Claudia. Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition. University of California Press, 2005. 2006.01.38
3.   McInerney, Maud Burnett. Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Chapter 2.
4.   Heffernan, Thomas. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 1988.
5.   Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Ed. John B. Thompson; Transl. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Harvard University Press, 1991. Also: Cain, Andrew. The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2009.
6.   Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 156.
7.   McInerney, Chapter 1.
8.   Greenblatt, p. 1.


  1. In the second paragraph, should "Theodore Veblen" be "Thorstein Veblen" of 'conspicuous consumption' fame? Or is this another, less famous, Veblen?

    1. Yes, indeed -- it should read Thorstein Veblen. Apologies for the error!