“On the third day Esther put on her queen’s robes” (Esther 5:1)
The Symbolic Function of Clothing in the Book of Esther 
Dress and ornamentation play a meaningful role in society. Cultural-anthropological studies emphasise that clothing is more than giving protection to the human body, it often functions as a special form of communication. It expresses a person’s cultural identity, or it indicates the status, power or gender of the wearer. In short, dress belongs to the phenomena of ‘body language’. It is a way of making silent statements about someone’s political, religious or social standing.
In literary texts the impact of clothing objects and other insignia may be even more crucial, because authors and writers often intentionally make use of special details about dress and garments to convey certain information about the main characters. More than can be expressed in words these details offer a very illustrative picture of the narrative world and in many cases they clarify matters that are difficult to put into words.
This applies to biblical texts as well. Heather McKay, who did some critical research concerning clothing and adornment in biblical texts, has pointed out that items of clothing frequently have an indispensable function in the development of the biblical plot.  This is not only true for wearing, giving or receiving garments, but ‘events’ such as tearing robes or covering with ash, may create pivotal points in the story as well. Without words they give a clear message to the reader. “The garments speak silently, but speak they do.” 
This statement also holds true for the book of Esther, i.e. in the Hebrew version, as I will show. Each of the five main characters in the book, Ahasuerus, Vashti, Esther, Haman and Mordecai, are dealing with some kind of silent communication by means of clothing, although they are not all equally related to the topic of clothing.
Mordecai: from ‘mourning’ to ‘glory’
The most striking example is Mordecai. In the fourth chapter,
after Haman has promulgated his law to exterminate the Jews, Mordecai
tears his robe and appears )cy
(ja'tsa), in sackcloth and ashes. Now, tearing robes and mourning
in sackcloth and ashes is common use to the Jews.
 But, what is striking in this case is that Mordecai goes to the
king’s gate in mourning. This is a very dangerous action, since no one
is allowed to come to the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth (4:2). Mordecai
probably wants to inform Esther, but why does he resort to such a risky
act? Why doesn’t he simply tell her, as he did in an earlier scene when
he discovered a conspiracy against the king? At that time he easily made
contact with Esther to give her the information. Thereupon she spoke to
the king in Mordecai’s name (2:21-23).
Haman: from ‘glory’ to ‘mourning’
Haman himself does not receive any garments in the story.
At his first presentation, when his seat is set above all the officials
who are with him and everyone is ordered to bow down to him (3:1-2), there
is no talk of any clothing. Yet, he receives an important insignia of
authority, namely at the moment he has made plans to destroy the Jews.
At that occasion the king hands over to him his signet ring, which means
that Haman may constitute every law he wishes (3:10). This ring has an
important function in the plot. After Haman’s execution the ring is given
to Mordecai (8:2), so that now he can promulgate the law. This
ring stands for great power.
King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti
It is surprising that we don’t hear anything about the
royal garments of king Ahasuerus himself. Nothing is said about his robe,
nor about his crown. The only object mentioned is his signet ring, the
symbol of his reign. Surprisingly it is exactly this symbol of royal power
that he gives away! First to Haman, later to Mordecai. Yet, there is talk
about some sumptuous and luxurious fabrics. However, these cloths do not
dress the king, but they decorate the exotic marquee in the garden
of the palace (1:6). They serve as a background for the famous party with
which the king displays the great wealth of his kingdom and the splendour
and glory of his majesty. One can wonder why the text doesn’t mention
whether the king wore some of these splendid cloths himself!
The Crown of the Kingship
It is not without significance that Vashti has
to wear ‘the crown of the kingship’, tw%kl;ma
rteke (kætær malkut).
This is not just a fine ornament; it is the symbol of her royal dignity.
Nevertheless it is peculiar that the king himself apparently doesn’t have
a crown. Only the queen has one.
Queen Esther: dressed with her Kingship
Yet, the story presents another clothing object connected
to Esther’s status: she has a ‘royal robe’! Let us take a look at the
most crucial scene of the story: Esther’s famous entering to the king
to plead for her people (5:1-5). After Haman’s promulgation of the law
to destroy the Jews, Esther decides to save her people. As part of her
strategy, she invites the king and Haman to a couple of banquets.
At the first one she prepares her action, at the second she puts her plans
into effect. 
The Royal Crown on the head of the horse
Finally, there is one intriguing issue left: ‘the royal
crown on the head of the horse’, a highly unusual picture found in the
aforementioned scene about Haman’s fantasy of wearing the king’s royal
mantle and sitting on his horse (6:8). The message is clear: Haman doesn’t
simply want to be honoured, he wishes to be the king himself, as the formulation
of his desire shows: ‘Let a royal robe be brought, which the king himself
has worn’. Just a royal robe is not good enough, probably, the king himself
must have worn it before. The same goes for the horse, ‘a horse that the
king himself has ridden’. But what about ‘the royal crown’ on the head
of the horse? In my opinion the royal crown on the head of the horse has to be seen within
the context of Haman’s desire to be the king
for one day: to wear his personal clothes, to ride his personal horse.
But... ‘the royal crown’ on the horse’s head?
What is the precise function of this ornament?
 This article is a revised version of a paper presented at a session of the Hebrew Bible Section at the SBL International Meeting in Rome, July 2001.
 Heather A. McKay, ‘Gendering the body: Clothes maketh the (wo)man’, in: Robert Hannaford/J’annine Jobling (eds.) Theology and the Body; Gender, Text and Ideology, Gracewing, Exeter 1999, 84.
 Idem, 93.
 ‘Sackcloth and ashes signify male mourning and loss’. See Heather A. McKay, ‘Gendering the Discourse of Display in the Hebrew Bible’, in: Bob Becking / Meindert Dijkstra (eds.), On Reading Prophetic Texts. Gender-Specific & Related Studies in Memory of Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, Brill, Leiden 1996, 188N59.
 ‘Clothing is a conspicious code signalling where one stands in the power axis’, David J.A. Clines, ‘Reading Esther from Left to Right. Contemporary Strategies for Reading a Biblical Text’, in: David J.A. Clines / Stephen E. Fowl / Stanley E. Porter (eds.), The Bible in Three Dimensions. Essays in celebration of forty years of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield, JSOTS 87 (1990), 39.
 This ‘striptease’ is not only a matter of erotics, but has to do with power as well. See: Jopie Siebert-Hommes, ‘“Come to the dinner I have prepared for you” (Esther 5:4). Story of Love or Struggle for Power?’, in: Janet W. Dyk a.o. (eds.), The Rediscovery of the Hebrew Bible (Amsterdamse Cahiers voor Exegese van de Bijbel en zijn Tradities, Supp. I), Shaker Publishing, Maastricht 1999, 90.
 Midrash Rabbah Esther 3:13-14, M. Simon (transl.), Jerusalem 1977.
 For the various renderings of the ‘Beauty Contest’ in Septuagint and Hebrew Bible, see Kristin De Troyer, ‘An Oriental Beauty Parlour: An Analysis of Esther 2:8-18 in the Hebrew, the Septuagint and the Second Greek Text’, in: Athalya Brenner (ed.), A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield 1995, 47-70.
 See about the repetition of plot movements in the book of Esther: Athalya Brenner, ‘Looking at Esther Through the Looking Glass’, in: Athalya Brenner (ed.), A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield 1995, 71-80.
 See Gillis Gerleman, Esther (Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament), Neukirchen/Vluyn 1973, 116-118.
© Jopie Siebert-Hommes 2001, firstname.lastname@example.org, ISSN 1661-3317
© Theol. Fakultät der Universität Bern, email@example.com
produced by moka, 2002