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.



About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.


  1. Where to begin?

    None of this is important. NONE OF IT.

    If you want to further alienate people (women especially) then continue to police what they "should" or "shouldn't" do when the focus ought to be on encouraging faith and embracing everyone, regardless of their appearance.

    I recall a wedding in the Orthodox church years ago, where a lovely female guest of the bride – who was not part of the church – arrived in a dressy ("modest") pantsuit, and was visibly, humiliatingly, and unnecessarily escorted outside and "not allowed" in for the ceremony. She had no idea, and was visibly upset and embarrassed. Exactly what Jesus would have done, I'm sure.


    No one says a thing when men wear too much cologne or chapstick or lipbalm. (If any priest offering communion finds lipstick to be an issue, then EVERYONE should be given a wet wipe while in line. Frankly, it's not hygienic to have the entire congregation kiss the cup without it being wiped with an antibacterial solution in-between.)

    Men don't always dress "appropriately" either – but this is never an issue.

    Men/boys are "allowed" in the altar, while all women (except perhaps a menopausal nun) are not given entry. Oh, we can clean the church, but not the altar.

    Young men wear decorated vestments and parade up front carrying torches while the young women stand in the back to clean the candle-holders and scrape wax off the floor.

    Women who are menstruating are not "allowed" to take communion. (The reason, given to me by a priest, is that "you cannot take in the body and blood of Christ while bleeding.")

    That's odd – because no one ever worries that a man may cut himself shaving or otherwise, or that everyone goes to the bathroom every day, or that a woman on her period is actually releasing blood that has previously collected, she isn't, in fact, "bleeding". Biology. Science.

    This backwards notion was actually not the reason, however. Long ago, women didn't have access to proper feminine hygiene products, and there was the possibility of her menstrual blood leaking. (This is another reason pants ought to be "allowed" for women, if you think about it.)

    Still, no one seems to care that we all wear shoes in the church, with who-knows-what on the soles!

    Supposedly, if a church is "desecrated" by blood, it must be burned down and rebuilt. Insane.

    Women who have given birth are only "allowed" in the vestibule, but not in the church (for a period of time) for these same "reasons".

    Women pray, sing in the choir, attend endless services (while standing), give birth/rear/manage the children, keep homes, WORK, cook/bake for the church and serve at trapezi, clean the church, and devote their time to the community – in the sisterhood, at the schools, and for holidays and events.

    Women do all this – yet they have NO SAY in the administration of the church, are not "allowed" to be leaders or priests, and on top of all this have an elaborate dress code – while the men do NOT.

    Men can wear pants (so much more comfortable) while women MUST wear dresses, skirts, and hose or tights. Actually, some men also wear dresses in church (the vestment robes are gowns).

    Men don't have to wear head coverings. They don't usually wear makeup, so that's not an issue.

  2. Women are not second-class citizens. We're told to cover ourselves and be modest (again, pants would make more sense if that's so important), while the icons in church display naked bodies and the stories in the Bible are explicit.

    Why is it so shameful to be human? We have hair on our heads, we are covered in skin, we age (women are HARSHLY judged for this – ergo why women wear makeup, fyi), and we have breasts to feed our children. Men need to learn to deal with reality, instead of trying to put all the work and blame on women for being so "alluring".

    Enough with the patriarchy, the misogyny, and the archaic, ignorant "rules".

    I don't care who walks into a church or what they are dressed as or look like. Everyone should be welcome and supported, rather than berated, shamed, and controlled.

    The archbishop lives in a gilded Upper East side penthouse while the highest-level nun lives in a tiny room in an unheated attic 30 miles north.

    He is dressed in elaborate bejewelled outfits; she wears the same dreary black cotton habit and old shoes every day.

    He is cared for, has many assistants, and is catered and deferred to – with everyone kissing his hand; while she is serving the poor, the infirm, the elderly, and tends to the GRAVE SITES (her 'view' from her bleak residence).

    If you want to turn more women away from the church, keep doing all of this, and continue to critique them.

    And by the way, women were not created "for" men like some kind of geishas or anatomical gift.

    In fact, we all start out as a generic embryo, with a set of male or female sex chromosomes. The distinction doesn't kick in until hormones enter the picture. Without hormones – like testosterone, everyone would stay on the path to womanhood.

    1. Good grief. You haven't read the article well enough and your assertions are unfounded, emotionally and SOCIALLY driven, and quite unfair. You may disagree with the teachings of the Church if you would like, but know that you are disagreeing with the teachings passed to our Church leaders, through the apostles and by our Lord.

      Women clean and cook in the Church and men clean and cook in the Church. Women are asked to dress modestly in a place of prayer and men are asked the same. Monastics, both male and female, live in very simple condition outside of the superfluous requirements of the world, and bishops must endure the world although most would rather live as the monastics. I would probably rather wear a skirt than restrictive pants any day. Your examples say nothing about equality or inequality.

      Women play equally as important roles as men. The teachings of the Church have always been those of equality. Men and women play different roles and that is simply the order of the world we have been given. Do not allow the relativism of our society influence your spiritual understanding. As the article states, we are speaking and viewing our existence in very different ways.

      Forgive me if I offend. It is not my aim. I am hoping we can come to the Truth together.

  3. When women are treated as lesser human beings – especially in the context of faith – it perpetuates misogyny.

  4. This has nothing to do with treating people differently but has everything to do with what the Church has taught for 2,000 years. Each time I have ever spoken to a women about dressing more modestly I get attacked.. instead of the women thinking "Hey I could be a stumbling block to some men" they go on the attack. Also women seem to forget that young single men have hormones.. we deal with temptation and the last place we want to experience that is in Church. I am not judging anyone's heart who dresses immodestly.. they could be 1 million times more holy and faithful them I am… but I am judging the fact that women don't seem to care about the Churches teaching on dressing modestly. I wear a hat pretty much every day.. yet on Sundays I leave it at home. I wear tracksuit pants and cargo pants almost daily.. yet on Sunday I leave them at home. I do my best not to look at anyone in Church these days. It is really hard when some one dressed in tight fitting clothes is sitting in front of you… remember God made women beautiful for a reason.

    I see many young people still respecting the Churches stance on clothing and wearing head coverings I wish more would follow suit and understand you are not attending Church to look sexy.. you are attending Church to be part of a unified family in Christ and to repent and ask God to forgive you of your countless sins. I myself am a grave sinner.. and I hate it when I start having thoughts in my mind about the way women dress. I pray to God He gives me the strength not to judge or look down on anyone… yet when I see a man in tracksuits pants or a tight top showing off their muscles I think the same thing.. why are you dressed like that? This is Church.. not a gym or nightclub.

  5. I agree that modesty is important for both sexes. I do think it's strange that the man who wrote the article assumes all the women at the church not covering their heads or wearing clothing that is too tight/revealing are doing it in order to attract men, though. There may be a few – and those may be just fine with the less than pious men who are definitely also there in church checking out the women. But most women really do just dress to please themselves – they aren't calculating what the men are going to think at all. So, sorry dear author, but those young women aren't even noticing you, most likely. If a woman is being extremely immodest (or a man for that matter), then it's often for attention – this is the kind of outfit that you actually have to close your eyes to overcome the distraction. But for everyone else, they are just dressing how they want to dress, how they can manage to dress, how they know to dress – for their own comfort and pleasure. I think *that* is where the immodesty issue often comes from – people are used to dressing for themselves, not really considering how others might be affected.

  6. The church is a holy place, and these are the apostolic traditions. Save self expression, comfort and rebellion for another place, another time.

  7. Well I have no issue with dressing modestly. What I take issue with is how women are constantly blamed and shamed regarding attire. Men need to stop blaming women for their own lack of self control.

  8. St. Paul concludes this discussion about hair length and coverings with v16, which is always left out when this topic comes up, but proven as prophetic when it’s discussed: “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”
    (1 Cor. 11:16 NKJV)

  9. Wow, that was an amazing article! Thank you for sharing. The church we belong to ( we have been Catechumens there for 2 months) is very lax. Not because of the priest but because of the parishioners and precedent. We are not above God’s law. We don’t get to install pews, ruin icons with lip balm and lipstick and wear whatever we want to church.

    Forget the whole idea of distracting people and tempting young men, what happened to plain old being respectful? There’s a young woman that routinely comes to church in skin tight “body con” dresses with cut outs and slits in the side. Her sister wears slightly more modest skater dresses, that also hit above the knee and their parents are with them! It’s beyond me why anyone would let their teenager daughter wear such to begin with.. but to thinks it’s appropriate for church absolutely baffles me.

    It IS distracting because it’s just downright gross and disrespectful.

    I have made the decision that I will be covering my hair. There are only two other women in our whole church who do, our Matushka and a young woman who is a rent convert (who, not surprisingly, are also the only two people who stand the entire service, despite the fact that Matushka is in ill health from cancer.

    If we continue to do what we want, live and let live and say nothing, that is how tradition and correctness and piety will slowly be chipped away at. It’s one thing when we let society rob us of our Orthodoxy, why in heaven would we silently allow it to continue in our own church?

  10. What about women who come from cultures in which a pair of trousers and a long tunic are their conventional dress (parts of Bulgaria, Pakistan)? Do they have to adapt the Western style of a dress / skirt which are usually considerably less modest than covering your legs with a pair of trousers. For my part I think uncovered legs – skirts to the knee or just below the knee are utterly immodest and look revolting.
    The way a person dresses arises from their “inside”, and with the conventions in which they were raised. During Paul’s time men also wore robes (dresses) – if the conventions of Paul’s day are intended for women they should also be adapted by men.
    It should also be remembered that imposed dress standards are widely found amongst sectarians / cults such as Mormons, Brethren, Mennonites etc. This is a reflection of a sectarian / cultic spirit.

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