By Fr Gabriel (ROCOR)
The vision of an "Old Order" within Orthodoxy is to seek to order our lives according to the standards that prevailed prior to the overthrow of the Christian Era, which began with the Renaissance and Enlightenment, was augmented by the Industrial Revolution, and culminated with World War I, the fall of Imperial Russia in the East, and the subsequent destruction of “Victorian” manners and morals in the West during what became known as the "Roaring Twenties".
Beginning around the time of the Civil War, many conservative sects in America, troubled over the cultural drift away from traditional Christianity in society at large, resolved to take action in order to stem the tide within their own churches by defining standards of traditional Christian praxis. This took the form of rules governing separation from modern Society, family order, dress and personal appearance, the use of modern technology, higher education, etc., which distinctions have characterized what became known as "Old Order" groups ever since.
Today, the Old Order Amish, numbering close to 350,000 adherents in the US and Canada, are the largest and best known of these groups. While not without internal problems, which they freely admit, they have been successful overall in preserving amongst themselves the values which once prevailed throughout Christendom. And there are other similar groups such as the Old Order and Conservative Mennonites, the Hutterites, the Old German Baptist Brethren, etc. which practice varying degrees of non-conformity to modern society.
But what about the Eastern Orthodox? Being theologically conservative, why did not an "Old Order" emerge among us? The rule for both clergy and laymen is the imitation, as much as possible according to one's station in life, of our monastic brothers and sisters, who live a life wholly separated to God and devoted to unceasing prayer. This is reflected in their manner of dress, which is characterized by black cassocks which amply cover the body, beards for men, and the veil for women.
Photographs of Orthodox people of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Holy Land from the 19th and well into the 20th Century depict men fully clothed in simple garb and wearing beards, and women wearing headscarves and dresses which amply covered their bodies. This was the case universally in Orthodox lands, regardless of the climate.
Perhaps the failure to draw the line in respect to outward appearance, etc., was on account of the abrupt upheaval of Russian society as a result of the Communist Revolution. And perhaps in other places which were left ravaged or impoverished by the Great War, the Church was so weakened that it's very survival became the primary concern.
Also, many Eastern Europeans flocked to America around this time in search of a better life. Photographs from Ellis Island show them dressed in traditional ethnic garb, but they were quickly assimilate into a rapidly changing American culture.
There are, of course, the Old Believers, who originated in Russia in the 17th century and maintained peasant customs of that period in their sub groups. Even some of them, however, lost much of their distinctiveness at the time of the second World War. Today, traditional dress is still worn for Church, but in many instances it is laid aside for contemporary "street clothes" outside Church.
Some argue that Orthodox Christians are not supposed to look like "museum pieces", adhering to long outdated fashions. But this overlooks how Society as a whole has abandoned Christian values over the past century. We live in unique times, unparalleled in the history of the Church. To conform ourselves to the latest fashion trends--the tamest of which would have shocked former generations-- contradicts the Biblical injunction to "be not conformed to this world", which literally means to not allow the world to squeeze us into its mold. Clergy encourage parishioners to dress "modestly", but modesty has become a relative concept. What is considered modest today would have been deemed indecent even 50 years ago. Instead we ought to look to the Christian past and recover those standards which were universally observed by Christians for 1900 years.
This does not mean that the clothing styles of the past must be strictly imitated; but, rather, that the standards of modesty as traditionally understood ought to be maintained. Over the centuries, this was expressed by many different styles of dress from region to region, but in general it entailed covering the body and concealing its form. But in adopting a particular style of dress today, the utmost care should be taken to ensure that nothing should be worn that would have been deemed out of character by pious Christians of the past. And neither should persons endeavor to imitate the world from a distance, i.e., from fear of being too extreme and therefore dressing and grooming themselves so as not to stand out. This is wrong, for it betrays a focus on pleasing men rather than God.