In the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria taught the faithful, “Those who glory in their looks — not in their hearts — dress to please others.” His writings are replete with like sayings, which together attempt to communicate the utilitarian nature of clothing, the importance of modesty in attire, and the true splendor of the well-dressed soul.
What then is the simple outward “dress code” of Orthodox Christians? To begin, what is the purpose of clothing? Clement concluded:
Man requires clothes for nothing else than the covering of the body, for defense against excess of cold and intensity, lest the inclemency of the air injure us. And if this is the purpose of clothing, see that one kind is not assigned to men and another to women. For it is common to both to be covered, as it is to eat and drink.
His teaching though, does not suggest that men and women should simply dress the same. Women ought to wear softer garments than men, yet, their dress, he writes, “should not be immodest or entirely steeped in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, person, figure, nature, and pursuits.”
The importance of women wearing garments that fit their age, person, and station in life is illustrated in a story shared by Father Paisios of blessed memory when he was reminded that “Sometimes…religious young people who dress decently meet great opposition from adults.” He begins his response by noting that “If they have faith, and dress this way because their heart tells them, they may end of correcting the adults, putting them in their proper place.”
I had known a girl who wore black clothes with long sleeves down to her wrists. That’s how pious she was. Once, an elderly woman, dressed in modern style, said to her, “Aren’t; you ashamed, at your age, to be dressed in black and wear long sleeves?” Since you are not setting the example for us,” the young woman replied, “we are trying to set the example ourselves…”
With regards to the dress of men, we find in the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century:
Do not adorn yourself in such a manner that you might entice another woman to you…. Do not further enhance the beauty that God and nature has bestowed on you. Rather, modestly diminish it before others. Therefore…Do not wear overly fine garments…
For men who were set aside to serve the Church by the Rite of Ordination, the 27th Canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council offers the following counsel:
None who is counted with the clergy should dress inappropriately, when in the city, nor when traveling. Each should use the attire which was appointed for clergy members. If someone breaks this rule, may he be deprived of serving for one week.”
In other words, to those of you who are clergy, if you do not wish to wear a priest’s clothing, do not dare to stand before the altar of God!
Theonas of Alexandria, living in the fourth century offered the following instruction to Christian men and women who were servants of Caesar: “All of you should also be elegant and tidy in person and dress. At the same time, your dress should not in any way attract attention because of extravagance or artificiality. Otherwise, Christian modesty may be scandalized.
Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, who lived in the last century, provides a bit more insight into our persons as to why we ought to be modest in attire:
Man’s nature is such that the sins of the flesh, the active role belongs on the one hand to the male sex, while on the other, the temptation comes from women. Because of this, Christian cultures everywhere established customs, which helped the preservation of good morals, as well as modest dress for women, so that the exposure of the latter should not evoke sinful thoughts and tempting inclinations in anyone. The more elevated the spiritual culture, the more modest was the dress of the women.
Modesty in dress is our first line of defense. It must guard the purity of women and keep men from the temptation of sinful desires. Meanwhile, the evocation of precisely these feelings characterizes contemporary fashion.
The means by which we create a more spiritual culture is ultimately by tending not to our physical attire, but to the adornments of the soul. Saint John of Kronstadt explains:
How and when are we to care for the imperishable clothing of the soul, meekness, righteousness, chastity, patience, mercy and so on, when all our care is directed to perishable clothing and the adornment of our body? We cannot serve two masters, for the soul is simple and single.
I conclude with a further teaching on tending to beauty of soul from Fr. Paisios:
The soul of a true human being is beautiful, full of inner purity, and this beauty is not only present within the soul but is carried over into one’s appearance; the divine sweetness of God’s love is so pervasive that we can see it on a person’s face. Our soul’s inner beauty will make us beautiful and holy inside, and will even alter our appearance. We will be betrayed by the presence of God’s Grace in us, so that even if our clothing is poor and ugly, it will appear beautiful and holy to those who meet us. Father Tychon used to sew his own monastic caps using the cloth from worn out cassocks. The caps he made looked like bags, but when he wore them, they were full of grace. No matter how old or unkempt his clothes were, they looked beautiful because his soul had so much beauty. Once, a visitor photographed him wearing one of these loose and awkward caps on his head and a pajama top – a visitor who realized that Father was feeling cold had thrown it over his shoulders. Everybody who sees the picture now is convinced that Father Tychon is wearing a bishop’s mandya, when in fact it’s only a colorful pajama that he has on. People would approach even his rags with reverence and would take a piece for a blessing. Far greater is the worth of a single blessed man like Father Tychon, who changed his inner man and thus became holy in appearance, that the worth of so many others who care constantly putting on new clothes and yet keep wearing the same man inside, buried under layers of sin.