I was struck by an interesting conversation we had at a seminar on the Syrian Fathers recently. It was about how in earlier times clothing was an important part of the identity of a person. Rather than the modern notion that the real you is the naked you, it seemed that in earlier times that the real you was also incorporated the way you dressed. Perhaps this reflects that a person was not an independent individual but a distinct member of a society. Only in society are you, you, because being you is only relevant in reference to others and your clothing, or simply even body paint/makeup, helps to place you within a society. (I am only surmising here and there are many better read than myself who know about this.There are also many more facets regarding the issue of clothing and the meaning of nakedness that I do not intend to address here.)
Anyway, the point is that clothing acts as an important symbol defining someone and without this symbol a person ceases to be properly who they are supposed to be. It becomes a shame and dishonour to be incorrectly attired or lacking attire at all. This was done as an act of shame for someone. A naked king is still a king but an king dressed as a peasant is under cover precisely because he is not dressing as he should be. He is in a sense no longer being a king. Also, with soldiers, being out of uniform is not being who a soldier is meant to be and hence the sense of being outside the laws applicable to soldiers, as in a situation such as that they should be captured by the enemy.
Within the Church, clothing also plays an important part in who we are within the Church as well as within wider society. A Priest needs to vest because only once vested is he truly the fully appropriate icon of Christ. Clergy are expected to wear clerical clothing at all times because it identifies them as who they are, as well as a clerical haircut, tonsure. These are important part of the identity of clergy and failure to wear the correct clothing is in many ways a denial of who one is and, especially for clergy, a denial of who Christ has made one and hence a denial of Christ. (I am taking this to an extended conclusion to provoke further thought because this may be a serious matter and it is certainly something worthy of God inspiring Canons about.)
Not only clergy but monastics are required to where appropriate clothing. It is a shame and a scandal for a monastic to dress as a layman. They are not and the denials above also apply.
Again, this issue applies not only to clergy and monastics, it also applies to laymen and laywomen. Apart from societal ranks, clothing is an important part of distinguishing the sexes. The Scriptures and the Fathers are clear how shameful it is for men to wear women’s clothing and also for women to wear what is for men. In doing so one confuses and denies who one is and again denies who God has created one to be. Wearing clothing meant for another is a shame and actually removes one from the place that one is meant to be without attaining to the other place. One is neither man nor woman. Clothing does matter in this regard; it is more that merely a covering. Our modern society is in a complete mess regarding this matter with much confusion of gender and loss of true manhood and womanhood. Normally, Christians are expected to wear the clothing a society associates with the appropriate sex but today clothing has lost this distinction in many areas. Should one accept this and wear what they like? I would argue that a Christian, although in a society, is not of that society and they should wear clothing that is still clearly distinguishable as that for men or for women and try to avoid “unisex” clothing. An item of clothing that is very important for women is a head covering. This is clearly identified by St Paul as being the symbol to be worn by women and St John Chrysostom comments that removal of a head scarf is more shameful than being stripped naked, that is it is the primary symbol of clothing appropriate for a woman to be as she should be. This symbol is not only for Church services but for all times and places, one does not cease or become a woman only within the sacred temples. Men must also avoid wearing that which is appropriate for women.
As noted above it is not only a matter of clothing but also of cutting our hair and beards. These are not matters of merely personal taste but also aspects of who we are. God created men with beards and to cut these off is to remove a symbol of manhood that identifies one as truly man. Thus we see the rise of beards throughout the Christian nations, especially of the East. Neither should we mar who we are with the addition of makeup, which is to change the appearance as God created it. We are to keep ourselves clean and tidy but we must not alter our appearance from that which God has established.
We seem to have forgotten today that the symbols of clothing and appearance are not merely matters of personal style but an integral part of who we are and what our place is in society. The Incarnation of Christ made matter important within what it means to be human and this extends to our appearance and clothing. To say this is unimportant is to limit the fullness of Christ’s Incarnation and union with matter and form. The forms of Christian appearance are taken from the natural world and society but as in all things with the Church they pass into the realm of Tradition and beyond the whims and changes of time and become established as the way of dress of Christians, although this does to prohibit some changes in style that maintain the Tradition. Thus, the style of head covering may change but a full heading covering remains. The style of cassock may change but the cassock remains and so on.
The symbols of clothing and appearance are forms that manifest the Mystery of Life in the Church. Each man is the image and glory of God and must appear appropriately as such to truly incarnate this Mystery, just as a Priest must appropriate vest as the icon of Christ in Church services. Each woman is an icon of the Church and she must also appropriately dress to incarnate this mystery. For a woman to dress as a man is fail to provide the appropriate symbol for the Mystery and thus she separates herself from her place in the Church and, I boldly state, from Christ Himself, who has established this place. Our whole life is an icon of the Mystery of Christ in His Church, and there is not a limit to only “seven” Mysteries, although these are those conducted by Priests in a special manner. (Note: I would argue that one cannot be saved outside the physical manifestations of the Mysteries of Christ because being human of both soul and body requires us to participate in Christ both in soul and body. Otherwise we would not save the whole man. The issues of dying without Baptism extend from this; it is not only important to be sinless in soul but also to be united to Christ in body through Baptism otherwise one remains separate from Christ.)
Finally, matters of form are always understood in the context of what is practically possible. For example a man who cannot grow a beard is not condemned for this neither is a women who naturally grows a beard. These things are only applicable in so far as we are able to do them. This is also entirely in keeping with our human condition.