The way we dress communicates something about us, doesn’t it? Some professions have ways of dressing that identify people as having certain vocations. Whether they are actual uniforms or unique attire, we can usually pick out of a crowd someone who works in the medical field by her scrubs, a member of the clergy by his clerical collar, a road construction worker by his orange vest and hardhat, or even the pairs of local Mormon missionaries by their black pants, white shirts, and clean-cut hairstyles.
Did you know that according to Scripture, wives have something of a “uniform” for their vocation? St. Paul taught the Corinthian Christians the tradition of women covering their hair after marriage. By covering their heads, adult women in the early church dressed modestly and showed honor for their husbandly, spiritual heads.
Headcovering is a tradition that has largely fallen out of practice today. Just a generation or two ago, a proper lady wouldn’t dream of leaving the house hat-less. But things have changed since then. Sure, some pious Christian women follow certain rules about wearing head-coverings and unique styles of clothes – most often people associate head-coverings with members of Amish, Mennonite, or other more “fringe” groups. However, doing so also sets them apart, rather conspicuously, from the prevailing American culture…which seems (in my mind anyway) to defeat the entire purpose of dressing “modestly.”
As with other traditions, Christian women are free to cover our heads – or not – if we so choose. There are all sorts of great reasons that this practice has been followed across many cultures for centuries. It was an easy way to identify a woman as married or “available” because a woman’s veiled head communicated that she had placed herself under her husband’s headship. Headcoverings of one sort or another have long been part of a modestly dressed woman’s normal attire. In fact, in New Testament times, adult women who went around with uncovered heads often had the profession of a prostitute. Who would want to be mistaken for being one of those?!
Strangely enough, the tradition of women covering their heads after marriage still carries the same message today that it always has – a woman is respecting the headship of her husband. Even in a culture that considers “submission” a four-letter-word, and where more than half of marriages end in divorce, that message still comes across loud and clear. What has changed, however, is that an uncovered head (even a mostly uncovered body!) doesn’t necessarily communicate immodesty or advertise a prostitute’s body for sale anymore. In fact, a woman with a veiled head today often stands out quite clearly in a crowd.
So how’s a young woman to understand St. Paul’s instruction about women’s attire in 1 Corinthians 11? Thankfully, it’s possible to dress modestly – even fashionably – with today’s styles, without drawing all sorts of undue attention to yourself. And if you and your parents want to come up with some handy guidelines about necklines and skirt lengths to make your shopping trips easier, you’re free to do so. Or you can just wing it. Dressing modestly without flaunting your sexuality like a prostitute might is the easy part – it’s just clothing!
Honoring to your husband (or your father, or your future husband) by what you wear, and doing so inconspicuously… that’s a little trickier these days. A modern symbol comparable to a wife covering her head might be the wearing of a wedding ring. It’s a far more subtle symbol of the marital relationship than a veil or a scarf, but it communicates a similar message.
Don’t forget St. Peter also teaches that a woman’s true beauty doesn’t have anything to do with her hairstyle, clothing, or even her jewelry, but is, “…the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious,” (1 Peter 3:4, ESV). It’s simple to tie a scarf on your head and portray outward submission to your father or your husband out of fear of the Law. You might even secretly feel a little pride for being so obedient. But actually trusting him out of faith in Christ – with a gentle and quiet spirit that does not fear anything frightening (1 Peter 3:6) is far more precious and beautiful than any hat, scarf or veil you may wear.
And if you want to cover your head – whether married, single, at home, at church or all the time – you’re free to do that as well. Just remember that you have been washed and dressed in the garments your Bridegroom has given you in Baptism. Nothing beats the beautiful splendor of living in the forgiveness the Lord Himself has given you through His sacrifice for your sins.
by Sandra Ostapowich