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On Modest Dress in Church

The elder grieved about the coming decline of morals and depravity among people. He predicted that almost all women would wear trousers.

From ‘An Ascetic of Carpatho-Russia, Archimandrite Job Kundria’ (+ 1985, glorified in 2008) p. 155, by Grigoriy Rachuk, Moscow 2008

A recent rather peculiar statement on women’s dress in Church has upset Orthodox. In particular, an assertion by a public figure that Orthodox women in France cannot wear skirts, because otherwise they will be taken for Muslims, is very strange. Clearly, the individual who made these statements has never lived in France. I have, and for fifteen years.

True, in the early 1980s after the Iranian Revolution, one Orthodox convent in France allowed nuns, who had to go outside the convent, to wear a white head covering instead of a black one, so that they could avoid being spat on by prejudiced French people. But Orthodox women in France who care about the Tradition have in no way changed the Tradition. They make the effort to go to church in skirt or dress and with some sort of modest head covering. To say anything else is simply not true, especially about a country where many women still have a sense of elegance.

Perhaps we should look again at what the Orthodox Tradition says about this through looking at what the Tradition does NOT say:

1)The Tradition is not that Orthodox women drape themselves in down-to-the-ground black dresses. Black is a monastic colour and down-to-the-ground dresses (called nuns’ habits) belong, together with the public use of prayer knots, to nuns, not to laywomen. (Monastics live according to vows of obedience and chastity, laypeople do not and should not pretend to be monastics when they are not). Laywomen wear any colours and indeed there is a pious custom of trying to wear some small item which matches the liturgical colour of the season. Thus, some women wear some item of dress which is black or dark on Great Friday, they wear white or light-coloured clothes at Easter, joyful colours for Sundays and feasts, something blue on Feasts of the Mother of God, a green item on Palm Sunday and at Pentecost etc. This is merely a modest and welcome sign that they are taking part in the liturgical season.

2)The Tradition is not that Orthodox women put huge blankets or tablecloths on their heads. The Apostle is quite clear: ‘Every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head’..Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? (I Cor 11, 5 and 13). Thus, in the Tradition, women cover their heads with something appropriate. This may be a headscarf, this may be a hat or cap of some sort. It does not have to be excessively large, heavy, tight or uncomfortable. In the summer, a lightweight headscarf need not be a burden at all.

3)The Tradition is not that if an unChurched woman comes to church in trousers and without a head covering, older women (or men) are rude to her. I regularly have women come to church who are wearing trousers and do not have a head covering. At the end of the service someone usually gently and discreetly informs them that the Orthodox Tradition is that women do not wear trousers in church, where they also cover their heads (there are always light headscarves at the back of the church which they can borrow, if they forget the next time).

4)The Tradition is not that women come to church wearing low-cut dresses or blouses or very short or tight skirts. (In such a case a modest pair of trousers, worn beneath a coat, would even be preferable). The Tradition is very simple. Women (and men) dress modestly in church, because they have come there to pray and repent. The easiest way for women to dress modestly is in a normal skirt or dress and with a covered head.

5)The Tradition is not that women overdress for Church – it is not a fashion parade. Nor do they ‘underdress’, wearing old, drab and dirty clothes, as if they were living in poverty. The latter is merely false humility and the Church is not a parade of false modesty.

An icon of a woman saint, bare-headed and wearing trousers, is a quite unimaginable image. The Tradition is that women cover their heads and wear women’s clothes - a simple skirt or a dress. This is modest and therefore also has spiritual beauty. It is the Tradition that it is simple to keep. Why complicate it?

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