What is the proper manner for Orthodox people to dress?
This is a topic which we visit from time to time, primarily because as new fashions come into vogue, the younger generation of Orthodox who are maturing into responsible adults, are often caught in the clash between the ever changing idea of what is fashionable and the tradition of the Church which is established on the rock of the Faith.
If we make a cursory investigation into the styles of dress from about the 1960s, going back all the way to the fourth century, the time when St. John Chrysostom lived, we observe some external changes in the manner people clothed themselves, but what remained fundamentally the same was that they were actually clothed; that is to say, very little of their skin showed at any time. This held true for both men and women, both the wealthy and the poor. The intent was directed towards modesty and a clear distinction between male and female garments.
In our modern era, the dramatic changes in dress began to occur as we entered the 1960s and 70s and continue until our own time. The general trend has been less and less clothing, or clothing that accentuates a person's bodily features. These changes were inseparable from the social and political movements that characterize our times. Modern man has been taught to think and believe that our current generation is the most advanced, the most compassionate, the most intelligent, etc. The reality however is that no civilization in the history of the world can compare with the barbarity of our modern culture. A society that turns a blind eye to every form of sexual deviancy is morally dead. A society that condones the death of 5,000 or more unborn infants every day, year after year, has become submerged in the abyss of darkness. But most importantly, a society that sees no boundary between good evil, truth and falsehood, has succumbed to the whirlpool of religious relativism, which is Ecumenism at its root.
More than at any other time in the history of the Church, it is imperative that Orthodox Christians make clear delineations between good and evil, truth and falsehood, heresy and Orthodoxy. Our clothing is an external indication of our inner disposition. Clothing that is immodest and revealing, is not conducive to the pious disposition that our forefathers cultivated within themselves. Because of the fallen condition of man, unfortunately, such types of clothing, or lack thereof, become the cause of stumbling for many pious men and women.
The Church therefore, strives with all her zeal and attention, to implant the seeds of the Gospel in her spiritual children by setting clear boundaries to the dress of men and women, in accordance with the holy canons and the pious mind of the Church. Orthodox men clothe themselves with pants that fully cover their legs, and shirts that fully cover their arms, although we see some examples in the past of men wearing shirts which covered half of their arms. Women wear clothing that covers them in the same manner, with the addition of a dress or skirt that fully covers their legs. Leggings are optional, depending climatic concerns. The most authentic tradition from ancient times also includes women covering their heads with either a scarf or a hat.
In the divinely inspired epistles of the New Testament, we find the clear teaching of the Church in regard to the clothing women are to wear. Saint Paul considered this question of such importance for the Christians of his time, that he took care to impart this instruction in writing to the Apostle Timothy.
I wish therefore the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also for the women to adorn themselves in modest dress, with regard for others and sober-mindedness, not with plaitings, or gold, or pearls, or expensive apparel, but what becometh women professing reverence of God, by means of good works. [1 Tim. 2:8-10]
Because the world is ever changing, and its morality is ever changing with it towards the worse, and very rarely towards that which is more moral, the Church is aware that the Gospel teaching is often obscured by the reality of life around us. Righteous conduct can be learned through reading, but all the Church Fathers exhort us that if we wish to learn to fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom, we should seek out a person who has learned this, and carefully observe his manner of life, and emulate it. In our difficult times though, it is not easy to find a true servant of God nearby, and so we are forced to seek spiritual nourishment from the crumbs we find in books, in the lives of the Saints.
The lives of the saints give us a clear indication of the path that leads to the Kingdom of God, although the benefit that those who actually knew and lived with them is incomparably greater. The iconographic tradition of the Church also contributes to this pious example, for we are given clear examples of how the ancients understood the above quoted passage from Saint Paul. They wore garments that covered their bodies fully, both men and women. Men were obligated to leave their heads uncovered, while women covered their heads to protect them from demonic deception.
But I wish you to know that the head of every man is the Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having anything on his head, putteth to shame his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered putteth to shame her own head, for it is one and the same with her who hath been shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn; but if it be shameful for a woman to be shorn or to be shaven, let her be covering herself. For a man indeed is not obliged for his head to be covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man is not of woman, but woman of man. For also man was not created on account of the woman, but woman on account of the man. For this cause ought the woman to have authority on the head on account of the angels. However neither is man without woman, nor woman without man in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so also the man is by the woman; but all things of God. Judge in yourselves: Is it becoming for a woman to be praying to God uncovered? Or doth not nature herself teach you that on the one hand if a man should have long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but on the other hand if a woman should have long hair, it is to her glory? For the long hair hath been given to her for a covering. But if anyone think to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the churches of God. [1 Cor. 11:3-16]
We therefore exhort the pious children of the Church to seek out and pursue the best examples from the history of the Church in every aspect of their lives, in their dress, their mode of speech, their entire deportment, that the light of Christ might shine brightly in our souls, as is God's will and fervent desire for us. Amen!
By Dormition Skete, Buena Vista, Colorado.
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
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