One somewhat contentious topic among Christians is the subject of modesty. Christian men and women shouldn’t dress in a sexually provocative manner, but this was not Paul’s primary meaning in his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:9.
Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger and arguments. Similarly, I want the women to adorn themselves with modest and sensible fashions, not with fancy braided hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly. 1 Timothy 2:8-10; cf. 1 Peter 3:3-4.
From Paul’s instructions in these verses, we can see that there were tensions in the church at Ephesus. These tensions were resulting in anger and arguments among the men. The cause of these tensions may have been the arrogance and conceit of the wealthy men (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). The ostentatious dress of wealthy women was also causing problems.
Mosaic of a Roman woman with braided hair and gold jewellery, circa 70 AD, Pompeii.
National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 124666) (Wikimedia)
The first-century church strived to be inclusive of Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female (Gal. 3:28), and there were some efforts to be egalitarian. A degree of equality was achieved wherever and whenever the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully and freely (e.g., Acts 2:44). However, it was not always easy to maintain. So Paul taught that distinctions that might lead to tensions and divisions should be avoided.
More so than today, back in the first century what a person wore was an indication of their socio-economic status. For instance, only wealthy women, who had slaves who could attend and dress them, had elaborate, braided hairstyles. And only wealthy women could afford to wear gold and pearl jewellery and expensive, high-quality clothes. Furthermore, the wealthy women of Ephesus were probably used to a lifestyle of idleness and leisure (cf. 1 Tim. 2:10; 6:17-19). And some of their attire and lifestyle may have even been suggestive of immoral living.
The poorer women and slave women, on the other hand, did not have fancy hairstyles, they did not own anything made from gold, they did not own pearls, and their clothes were simple, inexpensive and probably well-worn. Furthermore, they had to work hard, either as free women to support themselves and their families, or as slaves in the employ of their masters.
It would have been difficult to maintain sisterly affection when some women wore gorgeous clothes and expensive jewellery while others wore plain, even drab, clothes. To foster harmony and equality, Paul wanted the rich women to dress modestly, that is, simply and sensibly. He also wanted them to be generous and to share their wealth with their poorer brothers and sisters. Instead of idleness, he wanted them to be busy with “good works,” that is, benefactions (1 Tim. 2:10; 6:18).
Paul’s real instruction concerning modesty in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 is for humility and meekness. He wanted the wealthy women to be humble for the sake of their poorer sisters, and to dress modestly. He wanted the wealthy women to present themselves in a way that was unlikely to cause jealousy and ill-feeling.
Does the way you dress make less well-dressed, poorer people feel inferior? Or does the way you dress and present yourself promote harmony and equality in the church?
 Some Christians give confusing messages to women about dress and modesty. They say that women have an obligation to look attractive for their husbands, but not too attractive in case they become attractive to other men.
 The conjunction “similarly” (hōsautōs) indicates that verses 8 and 9 are addressing a similar situation. The instructions about modest dress may be in the context of women praying, just as the instructions about lifting holy hands is in the context of men praying. Kevin Giles commenting on these verses writes:
When men pray, they should do so in the absence of contention or anger; when women pray they should dress modestly. The reference to women praying is often missed by male commentators but it should be noted. In v.9 the words addressed to women lack a verb which must be supplied from v.8. In v.8 there are two verbs ‘to desire’ and ‘to pray’, which the adverb at the beginning of verse 9, hōsautōs (= in like manner) shows are both carried over (so Chrysostom, Calvin, Spicq, Barrett, Debilius and Conzelmann).
Giles, “Response” in The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue, Alan Nichols (Ed.) (Canberra: Acorn Press, 1990), 72.
A translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-10 that perhaps more fully conveys the intended meaning may be:
I want the men to pray in every place, raising holy hands without anger and arguments, and I want the woman to pray in every place wearing respectable clothing with propriety and modesty, not to adorn themselves with fancy braided hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly.
 Paul uses a cognate of the Greek word kosmeō twice in 1 Timothy 2:9. This word can mean “adorn” and “beautify.” (The word “cosmetic” comes from this word kosmeō.) However, it can also refer to order and respectability. It seems that Paul wanted the rich women to make themselves beautiful with sensible and respectable fashions and with “good works” (i.e. charitable acts).
 This version is my paraphrase.
 For instance, Paul’s main reason for writing his first letter to the Corinthians was to address various factions and divisions that were causing problems. Some of these problems were between men and women (1 Cor. 14:34-38; cf. 1 Cor. 11:11-13), between rich and poor (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and between followers of different Christian leaders (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
 Useful information on this by Bruce W. Winter is in “You Were What You Wore in Roman Law: Deciphering the Dress Codes of 1 Timothy 2:9-15” here.
S.M Baugh makes these excellent observations on elaborate hairstyles and wives and mothers of Roman emperors:
The women of the imperial household originated new styles; by the Trajanic period they had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire: “See the tall edifice rise up on her head in serried tiers and storeys!” (Juvenal, Satire 6). One can even date representations of women by the increasing complexity of hair fashions.
If Roman styles seem a bit too far away to affect Ephesian fashions, consider that portraits of reigning empresses often appeared on coins minted in Ephesus and other Asian cities and that they had prominent statues in both public and private places. [Bust found in Ephesus of Livia (58BC–29AD), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, here.] Portraits of provincial women from the era show that the imperial coiffures were copied in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia.
Paul’s injunction regarding elaborate hairstyles reflects the increasing influence of Rome at Ephesus during the third quarter of the first century AD. And his sceptical response to this trend was due to his judgement that simplicity and modesty in dress befit pious women rather than external extravagance.
Furthermore, his reaction to women’s imitation of the latest hairstyles is understandable since it was quite a new trend, really begun only a decade or so earlier, and it carried connotations of imperial luxury and the infamous licentiousness of women like Messalina and Poppaea.
Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” in A. J. Köstenberger & T. R. Schreiner (eds) Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 35.
 Pagan writers, contemporary with Paul, and who were concerned about the brazenness of the “New Roman Woman,” counselled women to dress sensibly and not look like courtesans. Plutarch (died 127 CE) praised his wife for the simplicity and plainness of her dress in his Consolation to his Wife (paragraph 5). Seneca (died 65 CE) likewise commended his mother Helvia in a consolatory letter:
Unchastity, the greatest evil of our time, has never classed you with the great majority of women; jewels have not moved you, nor pearls; to your eyes the glitter of riches has not seemed the greatest boon of the human race; you, who were soundly trained in an old-fashioned and strict household, have not been perverted by the imitation of worse women that leads even the virtuous into pitfalls; you have never blushed for the number of your children, as if it taunted you with your years; never have you, in the manner of other women whose only recommendation lies in their beauty, tried to conceal your pregnancy as if an unseemly burden, nor have you ever crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in your body; you have not defiled your face with paints and cosmetics; never have you fancied the kind of dress that exposed no greater nakedness by being removed. In you has been seen that peerless ornament, that fairest beauty on which time lays no hand, that chiefest glory which is modesty.” Seneca the Younger, To Helvia, 16:3-4
 Many people were poor in the Roman Empire, and many were slaves. It has been estimated that one-third of the population of the Empire in the 1st century were slaves. We know that women and slaves were attracted to Christianity.
 N.T. Wright comments,
The phrase ‘good works’ in verse 10 sounds pretty bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on.
Wright, Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis, conference paper for the symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’, St John’s College, Durham, September 4th 2004. (Source)
 It seems one of the wealthy women was not meek but domineering (1 Tim. 2:11-15).
A Final Comment
Very few churches insist that men raise their hands when they pray despite Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8. Very few churches forbid women to braid their hair, wear gold or pearl jewellery, or wear expensive clothes, despite Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:9. Yet many churches, prohibit women from preaching and teaching because of 1 Timothy 2:12. Why do churches mostly ignore Paul’s wishes in verses 8-10, but focus on verse 12? 1 Timothy 2:8-15 addresses specific issues in the Ephesians church. [More about these verses in 1 Timothy here.]
“Woman with Earrings,” a Fayum mummy portrait, circa 100 CE.
(1) Bust of a Roman woman, circa 100 CE, with elaborately braided hair. National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Room 32.
(Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikimedia) I’ve cropped and slightly recoloured the photo.
(2) Mosaic of a Roman woman with braided hair and gold jewellery, circa 100 AD, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 124666) (Wikimedia)
(3) Mosaic depicting two slaves attending a Roman matron. National Museum of Carthage. (Fabien Dany, www.fabiendany.com/www.datka.kg, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia)
(4) Statue of Messalina (died 48 CE) and her son Britannicus. Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities in the Louvre Museum. (Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)
(5) Fayum mummy mask of a Roman-Egyptian woman with braided hair, circa 100 AD. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mary Harrsch, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)
(6) “Woman with Earrings,” a Fayum mummy portrait, circa 100 AD. Brooklyn Museum
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Postscript: February 15 2022
The meaning of aidōs in 1 Timothy 2:9
“Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty (aidōs) and self-control” (1 Tim. 2:9 NET).
The Greek word aidōs, and its related verb, covers a range of behaviours. It can refer, negatively, to shame in the way westerners understand it, but it’s usually tied more positively with restraint which upholds honour and respectability. (More definitions of aidōs here, and of the verb here.)
Reverance and Piety in Hebrew 12:28
Aidōs can also mean to behave with reverence. It occurs with this sense in some Greek texts of Hebrews 12:28. Aidōs doesn’t occur in all texts of Hebrews 12:28; many have the word eulabeia instead which has the sense of piety and reverence. A few Greek texts of this verse have both aidōs and eulabeia which are practically synonymous here.
Modesty and Self Control in 1 Timothy 2:9
In 1 Timothy 2:9, aidōs is paired with sōphrosynē, a word that typically means restraint and self control. Sōphrosynē is often mentioned in ancient texts as a desirable and important virtue for respectable men and women. I believe aidōs is used with a similar sense as sōphrosynē in 1 Timothy 2:9. Paul wanted the rich women in Ephesus to dress sensibly and with restraint.
Shame and Disgrace
Aidōs is not to be confused with aischunē which means “disgrace” and also refers to the shame that comes with it. Thayer has a good, short discussion on the difference between aidōs and aischunē here. Strong does not!
I discuss the concept of “shame” in honour-shame cultures here.
The Prominence of Women in the Cultic Life of Ephesus
“Equality” In Paul’s Letters
The Problem with Modesty and the Problem of List
Working Women in the New Testament
The Holy Spirit and Equality in Acts
Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
Likewise Women … Likewise Husbands
Various articles on Paul and Women
Various articles on the Christian quality of Meekness