I’m coming to reconsider the matter of head coverings for women, which are usually explained away as ‘just a cultural thing’. While I remain undecided on whether the Bible dictates head coverings universally – and Chinese culture seems to have attached no meaning to the covering of the head – I do have feelings about the way in which they’ve been largely abandoned in the West.
The tradition of covering the head
First it seems right to show that Western women have indeed covered their heads until recently, in church if not elsewhere. In Western Christendom, from the earliest days to the mid-20th century, women seem always to have covered their heads. If you click on the link, you can see head coverings on women through the centuries.
For counterexamples I was going to suggest women from the 18th century, who seemed rather to have big hair than to have covered heads, but soon enough I saw that the images in my head were erroneous, and that my mental omission of head coverings was due to historical drama films, not early modern portraits.
While Keira Knightley hath not always a head covering a Lizzy Bennett or as the Duchess of Devonshire, Jane Austen and the real Duchess of Devonshire are always (as far as I know) depicted with head coverings of some sort. In all these time periods, it seems, whether a headcloth or a bonnet or a hat or a smaller strip of something, women had some kind of covering on their heads. This also, by the way, makes sense of how subversive it is in The Scarlet Letter for Hester Prynne to remove her head covering, particularly in the presence of a man:
By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance and imparting the charm of softness to her features.
And in Hawthorne’s novel this moment is tied to a thought, if not of subversion, then at least of escape from the strictures of New England puritan society: Hester wants to leave, because she hasn’t yet made her peace with the community. Contrasting with the way her hair’s been completely hidden in a cap, which hides her womanly glory in conformity to strict social rules, the letting down of her hair symbolizes the throwing off of those bonds.
Head coverings as protest
For Western women to cover their heads today would be a protest against the liberal abandonment of head coverings that’s accelerated with the sexual revolution. While the Christian bond (for that’s the meaning of religion) must not be confused with the bonds of the puritan society that Hawthorne brings to our imaginations, there is a bond of love taught by God’s law. For libertines this is intolerable, because they take the licence to do as they damned well please, but for Christians this is the arduous path of becoming holy as God is holy.
The essence of modesty, contrary to the gallons of ink spilled on the subject, is not to hide things away from men to accommodate their lack of sexual self-control. Self-control, after all, is required of all, both men and women, and the want of it is a failing in both sexes. What modesty does demand, however, is secure submission to authority, and that seems to be what St Paul commends ‘because of the angels’. The abandonment of head coverings in the West seems to represent the abandonment of the biblical norm of male headship, a norm that others more knowledgeable than I have examined; with this abandonment has also come the notion that the two sexes are interchangeable in all but genital anatomy. In such a climate, hostile to the very idea of living under authority without reserving revolution as a normal principle, it seems right to reclaim a more orderly way of life, regulated by ritual and driven (one hopes) by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.
So royal robes for kings, so magisterial gowns for judges, so cassocks for clerics (and surplices in public worship); so the use of sir and madam and Your Excellency. And in the scene below, even amidst the aristocratic outfits, the hats seem – to me, at least – to lend a touch of modesty:
Maybe, against the egalitarian ideology current in the West among those considered to be well-bred, women should cover their heads after all.