Who wears the trousers?

‘It’s not a woman’s dress. It’s a man’s dress.’ So said David Bowie – who else –  commenting on the cover of his 1970/1971 album The Man Who Sold the World which depicts him lying on a couch wearing a sumptuous Michael Fish designed gown.

http://changingattitude.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/A-mans-dress-100x100.jpg 100w, http://changingattitude.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/A-mans-dress-200x200.jpg 200w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />

Apart from the traditional kilt (often worn nowadays – by people with greater or lesser claims to Scottish ancestry – at weddings, as an alternative to morning dress), its catwalk adaptation by Jean Paul Gaultier, David Beckham’s famous sarong, and, the cassock – let’s not forget that – skirts, which were often a feature of male dress in the past, have not proved especially popular with men today.

‘Women’s trousers’ by contrast have become the staple of most female wardrobes in the West, and certainly here in the UK, in what amounts to a fashion revolution. Slacks were often worn by young women in the 1950s when I was growing up, but they were more exceptional than today, and even the trouser-suit of the 1960s, so ubiquitous now in the work setting, seemed very daring then. The movement for rational dress, the impact of feminism, and increasing equality for women in the workplace may all be factors that have caused trousers, once regarded as archetypal male clothing, to become, within a generation, standard ‘women’s wear’, and not just as casual dress, but suitable for almost all occasions.

This development makes it all the more surprising that Christian midwife, Hannah Adewole, has taken her hospital to an employment tribunal for insisting that she should wear scrubs trousers rather than a skirt in an operating theatre for infection control reasons. When she refused she was moved to the post-natal ward.

Mrs Adewole’s case is that the hospital’s infection control policy already accommodates the religious clothing requirements of Muslim women, and ought therefore to respect her belief, as a Christian, that a woman should not wear trousers, a conclusion she draws from Deuteronomy 22:5 which says:

A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.

This text has a special interest for me of course, as one of Changing Attitude, England’s Trustees for Trans people, because it is the text that is often used to terrorise those who cross-dress or undergo gender reassignment; but in fact it is hotly debated and unlikely to refer to cross-dressing anyway:


And even when it is mistakenly applied in this way it does not appear particularly relevant. As I have written elsewhere about this text:

Dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender is forbidden in Deuteronomy 22:5, which is part of a series of regulations that also prohibit the mixing, or blending, of various foods and fibres. Although Jesus challenged this religious obsession with purity, and early Christianity included Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians, who did not observe many of the Old Testament laws, some people would argue that this prescription against cross-dressing still obtains.

However, it is important to remember that, prior to transition, the transsexual person is not the gender that they are perceived to be. They are a genetic female with male gender identity or a genetic male with female gender identity. It is distressing for such people to assume the clothes and social behaviour of their birth sex – that, for them, feels like ‘cross-dressing’ – and totally appropriate for them to dress and behave in ways which express their true gender identity.

It is also worth noting that Deuteronomy 22:5 – somewhat unusually for the Bible – considers females first, and that the word used here for the male garments they are instructed not to assume may include armour, so the verse is also an attempt to exclude women from the warrior role and leadership, which several Old Testament women, e.g. Deborah, assumed with great success. 

My fellow Trustee for Trans people, Elaine Sommers, has also written about this verse, with cross-dressers specifically in mind:

If Deut 22. 5 is now seen as a reference in the context of pagan practices and sexually immoral behaviour, and if cross-dressing transgresses none of the 10 commandments, then it must be weighed in the light of general biblical principles and common sense to see if it breaks basic moral principles.  My own conclusion is that it does not.

If this verse does not apply to Trans people today it seems even less applicable in the case of hospital scrub trousers. What could be more gender neutral than hospital scrubs? True, they include trousers as well as a top, but I have already described how trousers are not exclusively male garments anymore. (Indeed, Trans women often joke among themselves that in many settings they will often be one of the few woman present in a skirt: most of the other women will be in trousers; and I have also heard it said that wearing trousers again can be a sign that someone who has undergone gender reassignment from male to female is more settled in their persona as a female). Moreover, among healthcare professionals, the majority of whom are women – even possibly in theatres, where most surgeons still tend to be male – you can be sure that scrubs are worn by many more women than men.

So, all in all, Deuteronomy 22:5 seems a very poor defence for refusing to conform to hospital policy, and even fairly conservative Christians acknowledge that the text cannot be used in this way:


As the author of that particular article concedes ‘At some point we have to admit that culture has changed’ – sadly, it looks as if some Christians have a problem with that.


  1. Kate says

    I googled, because I hadn’t even heard of this case, and came across this fine photograph:


    It’s of a gentleman who says that on entering a church in Greece he was asked to respectfully cover up his bare knees with a skirt, which the church thoughtfully provided.

    The other question is, how much do we know about what the writers of Deuteronomy wore? It could turn out that proper Christian men should be dressed at all times in flowing kaftan numbers. In fact, I think it should be enforced: it might impart a sort of Haight-Ashbury summer-of-love hippy grooviness to the CofE.

  2. True Bible Expert says

    Nowhere in the Deuteronomy verse does it say SPECIFICALLY what men and women can and cannot wear. That is, the words “skirts” and “pants” are not mentioned. Also, men used to wear skirts, and BOTH genders now wear pants. Therefore, there is no real answer to what is men’s and women’s clothing.

  3. Tony Irwin says

    I saw a guy ask a UPC pastor about this on a Christian discussion forum. It went something like this:

    If a woman went to a women’s clothing store, bought a pair of women’s trousers, and wore them to your church would that be a sin because trousers are men’s clothes?

    Pastor: Yes.

    If she took off those women’s trousers and gave them to me to wear would that be acceptable then?

    Pastor: Yes. They are men’s clothes.

    Wouldn’t I be cross-dressing cos I’m now wearing women’s clothes?

    Pastor: No. Trousers are men’s clothes.

  4. john hughes says

    All of this blurring of the genders will gradually come to a stop as consciousness is raised about the gender-related findings of neuroscience, which are now becoming voluminous.

Join the discussion