I remember my social studies teacher explaining to me that a good metaphor for our society was that of a melting pot, where different substances are melted and mixed together to form a new substance with elements of the original substances, but not substantially different across the board... with commonalities everywhere. Likewise, ancient Rome was something of a melting pot, with a highway system connecting cultures from one side of the empire to another, cultures could interact with one another, travel freely and trade as well.
But there will always be some cultures that resist losing what makes them unique. For us, groups like the Amish, Mennonites, and others live a distinct sort of life even in the midst of the rest of us. In ancient Rome, odds were Jewish people were the ones who just wouldn't integrate with the rest of society. I think we can see this in 1 Corinthians 11.
Corinth is a multi-cultural port city, ruled by the Romans, located on the Greek peninsula, and with a sizeable Jewish population - it was a recipe for culture shock and a clash of the cultures if there ever was one. Even then, not all Jews were on the same page. Some were more moderate, while others were more like the Pharisees who believed in the teachings of the Talmud.
Inevitably, conflict broke out in the church because some Jews believed that the teachings of the Talmud were just as valid as those of Jesus and the Apostles, and they wanted them to be taught and applied to everyone. After all, they didn't stop being Jews just because they were Christians. The Greek and Roman members of the church didn't believe that the teachings of the Talmud applied to them. After all, it was written for the Jews, by the Jews, about the Jews. They were gentiles who were usually excluded from it's mandates just because they weren't Jews.
Take Paul's comment here: "Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head."
According to the Talmud, not only were women to be silent, but it was a disgrace for a woman to walk in public without her head being covered. But for Greek and Roman women, it was not disgraceful for them to walk in public without some sort of head covering. What if Paul was really saying this:
"If your culture demands that you wear a head covering, then do so - as it's the honorable thing to do. If your culture does not demand that you wear a head covering, then it's optional as it's not shameful if you don't. Don't force what you're culture says is right onto another person from another culture, after all, a woman's own hair is her natural head covering."
Much of the church's early history was the story of how they cut ties with their Jewish roots and became distinctly Christian. Oddly enough, when the church allied itself with the power of the state, sins became crimes and head-coverings a matter of law. Even in medieval times, laws still existed saying that poor women couldn't wear as fine or elaborate or expensive head coverings or veils as the wealthy women could. Some laws said that no woman ought to be permitted into the marketplace or church without a head covering. This was because this rule was viewed as a prescription - right up there with doing communion and baptism.
It's difficult to say when and where the practice of head covering ceased - culturally, hats were already on the way out by the 1960s. At least the Catholic church does give us a reference for the practice and why and
when it fell out of favor:
1. It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.
2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord. - Canon 1262, Code of Canon Law 1917
In 1982, the Canon failed to mention head coverings one way or the other. In the updated version of the rules, it specifically stated that any rule that was not mentioned was repealed. For most of the rest of the Christian faith, head coverings had ceased to be a thing at least a few decades earlier. Canon means that it was a law - a church law, but something that ought to be obeyed all the same. It wasn't a custom or a tradition that was freely accepted and practiced by those who were drawn to it. But a requirement for everyone. Which is why it was not uncommon for little girls to have Kleenex tissues secured to their hair with bobby pins as a makeshift head covering should they have forgotten to bring one of their own.
Predominately African American churches also held onto the practice, favoring hats over scarves, chapel veils, mantillas - they also served as a sort of status symbol - which is helpful for us because in Ancient Rome, it wasn't uncommon for wealthy women to display their fabulous wealth in that they wore elaborate outfits, braided hair, sometimes with gold woven into it. You'll recognize this as the description of what women ought not to wear, but nowhere in those sections that tells women what not to wear does it say that they must also wear a head covering. Paul and Peter failed to mention head coverings one way or another. Even now though, the younger generations in predominately African American churches don't really wear head coverings as their grandmothers tend to. It has become more of a custom among the elders and not a thing for young women.
In this way - we can see two cultures, they used to demand head covering, but they changed and head coverings became optional, and shortly thereafter almost non-existent. Those who continue to practice it, choose to freely. That speaks volumes to me. I'd much rather see a church where a few here and there choose to freely practice head covering, foot washing, what have you, rather than a church that has made it into law and requires it of everyone.
Predominately Caucasian churches let the tradition die some time ago, but there are some trying to revive it - to spark a return to it. To me it seems to be a reversal: a culture that doesn't practice something being instructed to do something. Cultures, fashions, tastes, styles - they all change. That's the nature of being a melting-pot society, with each new addition, there undergoes a change. I think the same is true of Church. We usually don't try to pinpoint the our Golden Era of Christianity - and pause on it as if it were the ideal to which we should try to return to at all costs. We would recognize that we're not that church and we cannot live up to the standard set back then. But we can usher in new Golden Eras, where we let some traditions melt away and others change as we ourselves change. Just as we can't be the church of 20 years ago, 200 years ago, and 2000 years ago - we have to give this living body permission to keep changing, or else it will cease to grow and become stagnant.
I don't think Paul wanted the whole church to give into the tradition of one culture as if the contribution of the other cultures, their own styles and rules didn't matter, so he would tell us the same thing today - if your culture demand something, do it, but don't force it upon other cultures in your midst. If your own morality demands something of you, obey it, but don't force others or require it of others to obey your morals in order to gain your approval or friendship. Ultimately, you have the power to decide what you will wear or what you won't wear on your own head and nobody else can decide that for you.