On the Modesty of Women in the Orthodox Church

It seems that more and more often we see young women standing in church who, contrary to the explicit teachings and traditions of the Orthodox Church, are wearing immodest clothing, lipstick and no head coverings. At the St. Herman's youth conference last year, for instance, the clothing many of the young women were wearing was bordering on skin tight, and it seemed that only about half the young women had scarves or hats on.

Perhaps they feel that wearing simple, modest clothing, no lipstick and a scarf makes them, somehow, less attractive. But less attractive to whom? The answer is simple: Orthodox young men. Being one myself, perhaps I can offer an opinion from our perspective. To begin with, let us consider women not covering their heads.

To an Orthodox young man who is devoted to serving God and the Church, it is far more appealing to see a young woman wearing a scarf in accordance with God’s law than to see one putting aside obedience to the Church in order to look more "attractive." When we see a young woman standing in Church with no head covering, our first feeling is not one of admiration. The first thought that comes to mind is "Why on earth isn't she covering her head?" Our feelings may even be along the lines of "How immature!" or, "Doesn't she know any better?"

This is not a sexist attitude. The rules and ways of the world (political correctness, democracy, independence) do not and cannot apply to the Orthodox Church. We are simply filled with amazement and even sadness at the decision of so many of today's Orthodox young women to completely ignore this rule that has been in place since the time of Christ. Take, as an example of this teaching of the Church regarding women covering their heads, this excerpt from St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians:

"I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head--it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels." (1 Cor., 11: 3-11)

The ideas of obedience and humility are foreign in today's world, but they are an essential part of the way of life for Orthodox Christians.

Another thing that is seen more and more frequently is the wearing of immodest clothing by many of today's Orthodox young women. Some of the things young women wear today in the temple of God are utterly appalling. Shirts and dresses are often nearly skin tight, the necks of dresses and shirts are cut very low, and skirts are extremely short. Some skirts and dresses being worn in church today are literally so tight fitting that if a young woman wearing one were to bend over and touch the ground as is customary when venerating the icons, the skirt would rip in two. This is often enough to make many young men look away in embarrassment. Or what is worse, they are not able to look away, or simply do not. This kind of attire is a great distraction to both men and women who have come to the church to pray, not to admire the bodies of the young women. A young person's body should be reserved for their future spouse and for him or her alone, and for a young woman to flaunt her body this way, especially in the temple of our Lord, is to bring shame on both her and her future husband. In a homily on St. Paul's first epistle to Timothy, especially concerning this verse, "Therefore I desire that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing..." (I Tim., 2: 8-9), St. John Chrysostom writes:

'That women adorn themselves in modest apparel.’ "But what is this modest apparel? Such attire as covers them completely and decently, not with superfluous ornaments, for the one is becoming, the other is not... Do you approach God to pray with braided hair and ornaments of gold? Are you coming to a dance, to a marriage, to a merry procession? ... You have come to pray, to supplicate for pardon of your sins, to plead for your offenses, beseeching the Lord, and hoping to render him propitious to you ...For is it not acting to pour forth tears from a soul overgrown with extravagance and ambition? Away with such hypocrisy! God is not mocked! This is the attire of actors and dancers, living on the stage. Nothing of this sort becomes a modest woman, who should be adorned with shamefacedness and sobriety..." (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies VIII and IX on I Timothy II).

There is another factor to consider as well, and that is simply, what "market" are these young women appealing to? What sort of man are they hoping to appear attractive to by wearing tight clothing and not covering their heads? If a man would think worse of a young woman if she covers her head in accordance with the teachings of the Orthodox faith, is he really the kind of man she is looking for? Would she really want to develop a relationship with a young man who judges her by her looks?

And when a young man is thinking of marriage, one of the first things he considers is "What kind of a mother will she be to my children?" He wants a wife who will help him to bring up their children to be God-fearing, pious Orthodox Christians, who will serve the Church, obey God's commandments and listen to the teachings of the holy fathers. He wants to know if this young woman would be that kind of mother. What kind of answer to his question is he getting from the young woman who openly puts aside the customs of her fathers and the teachings of the Church? By behaving in this manner, what kind of opinion of herself is she forming in his mind? If a young woman does not obey the laws of the church herself, what are the chances that her children will? And if she does not respect the teachings of the church and the writings of the holy fathers, how can her children be expected to respect them, or their parents?

One last thing should be mentioned, and that is the wearing of lipstick. When women wear lipstick in the temple, it leaves ugly smudges on everything their lips touch: the holy icons, the cross, and even the priest's hand. I and many others have spent much time wiping these pink, lip-shaped smudges off the glass covering the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. When St. John Maximovich was bishop of San Francisco, he would have an altar boy holding a towel standing nearby during the kissing of the cross. When a woman wearing lipstick would approach to venerate the cross, he would take the towel and wipe off her lips, in front of everyone, before he would let her kiss the cross, or sometimes he would not even allow her to venerate the cross.

I can assure you that although they may not openly criticize, pious and upright Orthodox young men have no feelings of admiration of a woman's open disregard of the rules of the church and the teachings of the holy fathers. We men have many failings, immodesty not being absent from them; therefore when we marry, we look for someone who will help us to overcome those failings. And when we see a girl or young woman who cover.

Help support the ministry of St. Elisabeth Convent