What Were They Wearing?

Jewish Women and Social Practice in Late Antiquity

Prof. Dr. Katharina Galor

This presentation examines perceptions, reflections and representations, of Jewish women’s social dress as an indicator of status, gender, and maturity both in the midst of homogenous Jewish communities, as well as in their interaction with pagan or Christian neighbors. While the Talmud comments at great length on the rules and conventions of dress, there are various limitations that compromise our understanding of the female “social skin.” The primary concern is the androcentric nature of these writings, reflecting a male-biased view of how women should present themselves in both private and public spheres.  Furthermore, these texts are mostly relevant to the geographical, cultural, and religio-social context in which they were composed, without addressing the diversity of Jewish communities that existed throughout Palestine and the Diaspora.  A more nuanced and varied rendering of physical and aesthetic practices as revealed through clothes, jewelry, and headwear during the Roman and Byzantine periods can be gained from representations of women on mosaics, wall paintings, and engravings, as well as from three-dimensional sculptural or relief renderings.  Such evidence is supplemented by material remains of clothes and jewelry as well as other gendered artifacts, some of which are found in archaeological context, providing additional documentation on socioeconomic, religious and cultural factors.  In order to determine the possibility and extent of women’s agency, a more closer look at the visual and material culture, is thus of compelling interest.