plain dress leading defended Christian women

Three Essays Defending Quaker Plain Dress

Plain Dress as Visual Koan

From the current Wikipedia entry for "koan"
"A koan (pronounced / is a story, dialog, question, or statement in the history and lore of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition."

"English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use koan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a koan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate and timely response when asked about a koan. Even so, a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a koan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given koan, and not all teachers assume that a fixed answer is correct in every circumstance."

Plain dress is a witness to something that many in modern American culture are attracted to, an unnameable, inaccessible-to-rational-thought something they intuitively feel is lacking, a commitment to non-materialism and non-rationalism that calls to them or challenges them. The function of plain dress as a koan for an observer is unique to that observer. Many people find it attractive, without being able to say exactly why. They also tend to understand plain dress to be a group witness to conformity and communal standards, as practiced by the Amish. They know it is ultimately a religious statement but also believe it is a statement on conformity, conformity to a religious group's standards and non-conformity to the modern world. People who wear plain dress outside of this tradition find themselves in some difficulty to explain how they are like the widely-known Amish they resemble *and* how they are not. Their experience of plain dress is unrelentingly nonconformist. They must explain it, both to themselves and others.

Ultimately, plain dress functions as a visual koan, whatever the background of the wearer. Not only can it contain aspects that are "inaccessible to rational understanding," what meaning, what "answer," is applied to it will be unique to the person who wears it, and it will be unique to the person who observes it. There are people who feel fascinated by it, others who feel "called" to wear it. These responses remind me of my own pre-plain experience when I saw a nun in habit: I began shaking uncontrollably. Something was going on, not a call to be a nun, but a call to a closer relationship with God. It had nothing to do with the nun, her habit, or the Catholic Church. I had no previous experiences with any of these, but the exposure to that witness brought God before me in a tangible and inescapable way. Plain dress functions for some people in this same way. They hear something calling to them, something that is not rational and not easily rationalized, which may or may *not* be a call to wear plain dress. But God *is* calling them deeper.

People who know the wearer is a non-communal observer of plain dress usually attempt to make plain dress make sense, to make it rational. This idea of plain dress having a "reason" means they believe it has a function for the wearer and that its function can be specifically defined. If the observer decides such non-communal plain dress is, for instance, a statement on simplicity, then things other than traditional plain dress easily begin to seem the correct "answer" for that purpose. If the observer decides the function of non-communal plain dress is thought to be shame-facedness, the attention it draws would suggest it is the wrong "answer" and other clothes become obviously better answers. If the observer perceives that plain dress is being used by the wearer to help them seem more religious, then it is not only not a good "answer," it is a sign of the wearer not even asking the right question. These conclusions can be drawn without ever actually speaking to a non-communal plain-dress wearer, and then freely applied to both individuals and the group as a whole. They "figure out" the "answer" to this plain dress koan and then apply it universally. It results in someone who lacks any curiosity about the actual spiritual condition of a plain-dress wearer: the observer already knows everything they need to know as soon as they see the plain dress.

My experience is that people who feel exercised by plain dress, drawn to it, but not called to wear it, will eventually try to "distill" plain dress down to function. They look past the weirdness, get rid of the fossilized pieces and historical observances, and seek out what nugget of a change this koan is calling them to. Simplicity. Anti-consumerism. Anti-sweatshops/Pro-fair-wages. Pro-environmentally-friendly-fabrics. Anti-petroleum. Egalitarianism in dress. Plain dress presents itself as a koan, and then they find their "answer" in it. The thing they are being called to witness to the world. Plain dress then does have a function, it becomes a mechanism by which some people are made aware of their own authentic call, even as they find themselves rejecting (for themselves) the form that brought them to this change. Some are expanded by this experience. Others, to my view, are constricted: they determine that plain dress is a phase that everyone should pass through and out of, as they have.

Plain dress also functions as a koan for the non-communal wearer in myriad ways that only the wearer will experience. I wear plain dress because God asked me to, and once I began, with great reluctance, to wear it, I grew to understand there was a "reason" to it, by the responses I got, a reason I would never be able to articulate and that I would never fully understand. It challenges my fellow Quakers and others in ways I would never have guessed. It challenges me in ways I would never have guessed. It is beyond me to claim any specific good has come from it except my own good; it has done me good, and I am grateful.

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Plain Weird: In Defense of Quaker Plain Dress

Wearing plain dress is a form of public witness that invites all sorts of responses, both positive and negative. Some people assume all kinds of wonderful things about me that may or may not be true. Other people assume negative things--which are never, ever true ;) . It seems to me judgments like these (positive or negative) say a great deal more about the person who makes them than they say about me and my plain dress.

What I wish I could find in people who criticize plain dress is respect. Sadly, that seems to be missing from the Quaker discussions about plain dress, about how it is vain or it is too expensive or a-historical or slavishly historical or it stands out too much or it expresses a religious pridefulness, is respect. Lack of respect for another person's spiritual journey and walk with God.

Among Quakers there is a famous (apocryphal) story about William Penn (a nobleman and, at the time, a Quaker wannabe) asking George Fox (founder and Quaker saint) how long he could wear his sword, which was a social requirement for a nobleman like himself. George Fox responded, "Wear it as long as thee can." And, as the Contemplative Scholar points out in her blog-entry on the story, "It was respectful of Fox to realize that it was up to Penn to sort out what it meant and to make his own decisions around it."

Perhaps "plain dress" is my sword. Perhaps it is something that I will need to set aside. That is my mistake to make. That is my lesson to learn. That is my path to wisdom. All things can be a path to wisdom, and all paths to wisdom are by necessity composed of a great deal of folly. It is my folly, it is my foolishness, from my perspective, God-led foolishness.

I do not express or feel disrespect for Quakers who choose not to observe plain dress, or observe a style of plain dress that does not match my own. I do not say jeans and t-shirt should not be worn because they are made in sweatshops, that these clothes are irredeemably boring, and that they express a profound laziness when it comes to choosing personal attire. I don't parse what is wrong with Quakers who don't adopt plain dress and pronounce their choices vain, a-religious, worldly, prideful. When the subject is debated, and the practice of plain dress is rejected, it is regularly rejected as being essentially flawed in its fundamentals and the implication is that it can in no way and at no time be practiced with integrity by a Quaker.

Plain dress can't possibly be as abhorrent to Quakerism as Penn's sword. Penn's sword represented his status, it was expensive, completely worldly, as well as being an implement of violence, and from a modern viewpoint, obviously completely unnecessary. And yet the story is not that Fox said, "What does thee mean, how long can thee wear it? Take the wretched thing off now. Does thee want to be a Quaker or doesn't thee? The sword is prideful. It is vain. It is empty. It is a worldly folly. It is violent. Get thee hence until thee takes it off." Fox didn't launch into a long discussion of why he wasn't wearing a sword: it is prideful, it is vain, it is empty, it is a worldly folly, it is an implement of violence, how he wasn't even a nobleman so he couldn't wear it, and how unegaliltarian is that. He simply, lovingly, respectfully said, wear it as long as thee can.

I wish I could say I don't care what others say, but I do, particularly fellow Quakers. We do have a history of using corporate judgment in helping us discern individual leadings. I enjoy the more loving and less judgmental discussions in the Quaker world on the web. The spiritual exercise that is discovering that God has a will and then learning to discern it is not trivial and I'd love more input. I just know I haven't gotten this one wrong. Despite all the arguments anyone throws at me to the contrary, I am on the path I am supposed to be on, foolish though it may be. I just try to keep it centered where it belongs: God's purpose and will for me.

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My Responses to Things People Have Said to Me Opposing Plain Dress

Here are a few of the most commonly raised negative responses to my wearing plain dress and my responses. The message I hear underneath all of these complaints: conform.

  • Not Simple.

    "Plain dress isn't simple."

    A couple of things here. One, I have found plain dress to be simple and simplifying. I can see how others might not experience it as such, but it has been so for me. However, this is not why I wear it. I don't have "head" reasons for wearing plain dress. I am not wearing plain dress to witness to the Quaker Simplicity Testimony. I have experienced simplicity as a side effect of wearing plain dress, but it is not its purpose for me. I wear it as an obedience. God asked me to wear it and so I wear it. It is that simple.

    I had a reader take me to task for spending $65 (including fabric, notions, labor, shipping & handling) for some of my cotton dresses (identical poly-cotton dresses cost me $30). It seems to be common to believe that part of simplicity is thriftiness or frugality. By spending that much on my dress, I am seen to be breaking a "rule" of simplicity by not being frugal. I don't see the direct corelation myself, but Quakers have historically been taken to task for using expensive fabrics in plain colors (see John Wesley's comment on this page), so I am right in line with my historical forbears. (Though $12 a yard 100% cotton fabric doesn't seem particularly extravagant to me. Quaker women used to wear silk, some of them to avoid the slave-produced cotton of the pre-Civil-War South.) While an initial expense of $65 might seem high, the durability makes it frugal enough for my standards. It also is satisfying to send the money to a woman making a living wage in her own home. But let's do the math.

    I own three dresses that cost me $65 each (including fabric, notions, labor, shipping & handling). I added $35 to the expense by purchasing the fabric myself and shipping it to the seamstress. If I had gone with her standard poly-cotton, the dresses would have cost $30 each (at that time). These dresses have so far lasted me 10 years, and appear to easily have another ten years more wear in them. At this time (2011) that means I spent $19.50 per year on those dresses. If they last me another ten, as I suspect, that will be $9.75 per year. If I had been a capable seamstress, as the vast majority of plain women are, I would not have had to spend nearly so much for long-lasting, locally-made, well-fitting dresses. I have purchased cheaper plain dresses made of poly-cottons, but they did not wear nearly so well. This all seems completely reasonable to me, if not the absolutely the most frugal or thrifty I could be.

    The same reader also took me to task for the $60 I spent on my sunbonnet. My primary bonnet was $25, and if it had been sufficient to protect me from sunburn I would have been satisfied. But I have fair skin, an aversion to sunburns, an allergy to sunscreen, and am satisfied to spend $60 on a sunbonnet that will last me the rest of my life. Purchased when I was around 30, if I live to 70 that is 40 years of wear. Seems like a perfectly acceptable investment, particularly since I would spend more than that on sunscreen, if I could wear it.

    Condemn me all thee wishes for the amount I spent on my dress, but be aware that the vast majority of plain women don't don't deserve such criticism as they make their own dresses, which is considerably more economical than having to hire a seamstress as I must. For men, however, it is often argued that plain dress is just too expensive to be simple. Again, if being simple (and inexpensive) is why someone is wearing a $300 plain suit and hat, then that would indeed be rather foolish. It is possible for a man to "go plain" and not break the bank. Martin Kelley (the Quaker Ranter) calls it "Sears plain."

    But I really, really want to emphasize that plain people are not stupid and they are not hypocrites. If being simple, if being thrifty, if being frugal were the most important thing, they would wear something else. These values aren't the most important thing, being obedient to the Lord's will is the most important thing, and plain people find plain dress to be one obedience they are called to observe.

  • God.

    "God doesn't care what you wear."
    "God cares what you wear, and he doesn't want you to wear plain dress."
    "God doesn't know *or* care about what you wear."

    The speaker believes either that God has a will but it is never God's will that a person wear any sort of observant dress, or that God isn't willful. In the first case, the speaker assumes they know the will of God and that I don't. In the second case, the speaker knows that God doesn't have a will for people and I am mistaken when I believe I am experiencing a God who does. Both types tend to come across as paternalistic and superior, almost as if they are kindly trying to correct a child. Those espousing the second variation seem to imply that if I had simply applied logic and common sense (or checked with them first) I would never have committed such a foolish error in judgment. I always wonder if they expect me to have a de-convincement, suddenly realizing the universe is ordered as they perceive it, and that I'll strip naked on the spot.

  • Vanity.

    "Quakers who wear plain dress like the attention they get from it."
    "Plain dress is a vanity."

    Definition of vanity: "excessive pride or admiration of one's own appearance; the quality of being worthless, futile." Oxford American Dictionaries

    In the first variation, I am vain and wear plain dress because of "excessive pride and admiration" of my own appearance. The speaker imagines that I plaster my photos all over my website to encourage people to admire me. Sigh. It simply isn't true. It was excessive pride that caused me to resist posting my photos for months and months. It became clear that this reticence to expose myself on the website was a false modesty: my online witness has to show me and my journey as it is. Honesty and openness are the requirements for my faithful witness. If I were vain, I can't help thinking there would be better ways to express personal vanity and get positive attention. I assure thee, I get plenty of negative feedback.

    In the second variation, plain dress is a vanity because it is "worthless, futile." Meaningless. The speaker seems to be assuming religiously observant dress can only serve the purpose of puffing up the self and is being used as a badge of religious purity, a branded self-righteousness. Here I think the speaker is imagining what the experience would be like for them, coming to the conclusion that it would be meaningless to them, and assuming it is therefore meaningless period. God obviously isn't asking them to wear it. It would indeed be a vanity if they wore it. God is asking me to, and so for me, it isn't a vanity, but an obedience.

  • Ugly.

    "You'd be such a pretty girl . . ."

    I want these people to speak to the people who think that I wear plain dress because I am vain. Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Plain British Friend Pen Wilcock reports on her blog Kindred of the Quiet Way that she was told that it was a societal duty to wear clothing that was pleasing to the eye. A quote from that blog entry: "The last retreat I took, we had a session about Plain dress and some of the people in my group left me in no doubt of their views--ugly, frumpy, inconsiderate (because other people have to look at us) etc etc. What surprised me, and I had to be very careful in my response as a result, was that the people so loud in their criticisms evidently thought they themselves looked elegant: I know this, because they said so. They told me that they (unlike Plain dressing people) took great care over their appearance and felt it a responsibility to society to do so. The thing is, had they not told me so, I wouldn't have known."

  • Immodest.

    "Plain clothes attract too much attention."

    Definition of modesty: "behavior, manner or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency, also, the quality or state of being unassuming." Oxford American Dictionaries

    I really can't believe they are arguing that plain dress is improper or indecent, so it seems their argument is that plain dress is immodest because it attracts attention. I wasn't very surprised to get this from conservative "women should keep there place and be seen and not heard" sorts of people, but others not in that arena have raised this judgment. If modest means trying to make sure no one looks at you, then not going out into public at all would seem the best option. A Muslim solution is purda.

    By modesty, some seem to mean "blend in" and "don't stand out." This stance is more along the lines of the definition of being unassuming. The burqa, by this definition, would be immodest in the United States. If I were wearing plain dress to be unassumingly modest, I would indeed be making a mistake. Plain dress is not indecent, which is my standard for modesty. It is my experience that God calls some to live the plain dress witness, which means witnessing to their faith in a public way every day, day in and day out. If that is immodest, then I am immodest.

    In the end, when they say "blend in" they are really saying "conform."

  • Costume.

    "Plain dress is a costume."

    The complaint here seems to be that I am wearing a plain dress costume to create a false persona that is a shell only, an empty nothing. Of course this could be true, in theory, of someone who wears plain dress, but the same can be said of Goth regalia and a police uniform and a Roman collar. These things can also all be worn with integrity. An essential part of my convincement and my call to the plain dress discipline was the bonnet. The ultimate in plain dress anachronism. I have to say I resisted the bonnet completely. I kept thinking God must be joking. But it became entirely clear it was what God was asking of me, and so I submitted. Not a costume, but an obedience worn with complete sincerity.

    In defense of the bonnet, I have to say it is nice to be able to "give someone the bonnet" by which I mean, if someone is staring a bit to intently or for too long (I concede my mode of dress invites this to some degree) I turn my head and block them out of view with the bonnet. All the more reason to wear the largest, deepest bonnet possible.

  • Slavishly historical.

    "It isn't religious, it is historical re-enacting."

    Some people are quite disturbed by the anachronistic aspects of my form of plain dress. The bonnet. The shawl. It seems to strike them as excessively weird and unnecessary.

    What can I say? The bonnet was the piece that was non-negotiable. God made the bonnet and Quakerism requirements. Amazing the things that ended up going along with that.

    Also, as a technical matter, what I wear has anachronistic elements but would never pass re-enactor muster. I wear machine-sewn dresses with zippers from a decidedly 20th century pattern. My bonnets (polyester and plastic) and caps are much more simple in design and much less exquisitely crafted than those ever worn historically. They are modern adaptations of historical garments, elements that have been kept because plain people have found them useful.

  • A-historical.

    "Quakers never wore plain dress. That is a myth."

    Though the argument hinges on the theory that I am wearing plain dress without proper historical precedence among Friends (and clearly imagining that this is my reason for wearing it), I invariably hear this comment from Quakers who have themselves chucked centuries of Quaker precedence.

    I don't wear it because of its historical significance, though I think it was significant historically, nor do I wear it with the purpose of reviving a historical practice. I would be wearing it if I were the only Quaker doing so or ever having done so. It was a great consolation to me to learn (via the Internet) that I was not the only person feeling so led. It was also a great consolation to learn that I was in excellent historical company: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Fry, John Woolman, Samuel Bownas all adopted (made a change from one style of more or less acceptable Quaker dress to the more observant plain style of their time) a distinctively Quaker style of plain dress with integrity and worked God's will in the world while they were at it.

    Here is a page of Quaker Plain Dress References offering centuries of proof that such a practice did exist among the Quakers.

  • Alienates people.

    "Plain dress makes the wearer unapproachable because people are uncomfortable with it."

    This complaint is kind of fun, because "creating a hedge," being isolating, was the desired purpose of plain dress among Quakers of a certain period.

    Quakers have historically been able to make significant contributions in plain dress that told others in a glance they were Quakers: Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, Elizabeth Blackwell quickly come to mind. Something that plain dress does besides separate the wearer from others, it separates the wearer from expected dress conventions. I wear plain dress to my husband's office parties, to the theatre, to the mall, to the dentist, to work, to play, to socialize. At no point am I actually dressed inappropriately for the occasion. It has functioned for me as a very egalitarian response to situations that request stratification. I am judged to be weird, but not to have the wrong shoes on, or to be wearing a color out of season or a sleeve length that is so last year.

    Plain dress, in much the way of nun's habits, can distance, but they can also draw people to you, help people perceive you as trustworthy, help them believe you are not there to judge them for their income or the education, but for themselves. There are some who believe that you are meeting them on equal ground. I am regularly approached by people who are homeless, people who are working poor. They have been invariably accepting and comfortable with me, something I never experienced when I did not observe the discipline of plain dress. It is more often among the wealthier classes that I ever get a sense of dis-ease and distancing. Like what I have might be contagious.

    Undoubtedly there are people who it puts off and makes uncomfortable. Some people have said it makes them feel judged. I guess I am not here for them, but for the others, the ones who find it comforting, reassuring, uplifting. People have said my plain dress does these things for them, and I believe them. Perhaps the Lord offers my plain dress as much for their encouragement as mine.

  • Is expressing self-righteousness.

    "People who wear plain dress feel they are religiously or morally superior to those who do not wear it."

    I cannot agree. Plain dress is very humbling in a great many ways. For starters, as a Quaker, I can't just say I am conforming to the standards of my community. I am not. I have to confess that I am doing it because God asked me to. I don't think God asked me to because I was some excellent example of Christianity and Christian values. In fact I sometimes think he asked me to wear plain dress because subtlety doesn't work with me. I needed a kick in the head by the Holy Spirit, and I seem to require plain dress because I am terribly self-important, self-conscious, shy, spiritually recalcitrant, intellectually prideful, unreflectingly arrogant, and way too desirous of people's good opinion. And, for me, plain dress sends all of those out the door. Interesting. The very things plain dress is criticized for, things I am without a doubt prone to, are the things that plain dress inhibits in me.

    I wanted to be seen as insightfully intelligent. I think, therefore I am the center of the universe. Gone. I wanted to be seen as beautiful, elegant. Gone. I wanted to believe I was in control of my destiny, to have my judgments judged as sound, intelligent, wise. Gone. I wanted to be able to explain everything and make everything make sense. Gone. Humbled. Daily. By. God. In. My. Plain. Dress.

    I also know so many weighty Friends and spiritually wise non-Quakers who dress in so many varieties of ways that I can't think for a second that what a person wears bears any impact on that. Except if their dress is their idol, and it becomes an empty form. That can happen, and then it is time to let it go. I laid the plain dress discipline down for a period of, I think, four months, while God was re-ordering me on that. I was so *mad* about that. First he makes me look the fool by making me put on that enormous bonnet and those ridiculous clothes. Then he says to stop. Then I get to look twice the fool. By the time that exercise in humility was done and I returned to plain dress, I finally had a sense of when my orientation is true. It comes and goes at God's will, not mine. It isn't a rule. It is a witness. It is not unchangeable and it is not for my ease and comfort. God is entirely capable of handling us when we stray off the path.
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Epistle 189

"The Preciousness and Weight of Truth"

(To Friends in New-England and Virginia)

MY Dear Friends, Robert Hodson, William Robinson (1), Marmaduke Stevenson (1), Peter Pearson, William Brend, William Ledra (1), and the rest of Friends in New-England and Virginia, Be faithful to the Lord in the Truth of the Lord God, and in his Power and Wisdom be valiant for it upon the Earth, and spread it abroad, and confound Deceit: And dwell in the Power of God, and stand in it, which comprehends the whole World: that through it ye ...
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