historical Quaker plain dress references

A Few Historical Quaker Plain Dress References

Easily Proving Quaker Plain Dress is not a Recent Invention, Fiction, Misinterpretation or Fantasy

Certainly not every Quaker wore it (there were plain Quakers and gay Quakers, signifying whether a Quaker wore plain dress or not), and certainly not every Quaker approves of it (Margaret Fell, is claimed as one who opposed plain dress in a complaint she makes against Friends being all in "one dress and one color"--Martin Kelley has an interesting take on what this missive was really all about). But those who aren't busy saying since Margaret Fell was against it (people who would generally not agree with much about her actual faith) others are busy saying Quakers actually never wore plain dress at all. Though there are a number of deniers, some who would seem to be authorities, it is perfectly clear that Plain Dress was worn by Quakers from their beginnings. It is not a modern invention of historical revisionism by Quakers as some have asserted. Plain dress changed over time, but was always distinct from "worldly" dress, recognizable by fellow Quakers and "the world" by its character and style. "Quakerly" and "Quakerish" were adjectives that had a specific meaning when applied to clothing in all the centuries of Quakerism's existence.

From the beginning of Quakerism, there always has been a way to "go plain."
[See below.]

Plain dress was one of the most prominent reasons Quakers were known as a "peculiar" people. As far as I can tell, a primary source of the problem is Amelia Gummere's "The Quaker, a Study in Costume." I fear a number seem to be misunderstanding Amelia Gummere's thesis. Gummere was trying to straighten out those who thought that Quaker plain dress had always been unchanging, that the form it bore in 1900 was that which had been adopted from the beginning: an inviolable and sacrosanct habit. Somehow people seem to be misreading her to be saying that there was no previous plain dress. Which is not what she argues at all.

As confirmation of my interpretation, please see a review of The Quaker: A Study in Costume book from The American Friend, Vol. 8, Issue 2: Twelfth Month, 19, 1901 - page 1204 where the reviewer exults in the fact that early Friends "never once thought of establishing a set form of dress." Amelia Gummere is not saying, and this reviewer is not saying, that Quakers never wore peculiar, distinctive dress. That would be bizarre. There were people alive then who, even if not plain themselves, remembered the plain dress of their grandparents. Only that the definition of what was plain changed over time, and that fashions that were once unacceptable, like the bonnet, later became central to Quaker plain dress.

Gummere goes into great detail about the different plain fashions that came and went, a much slowed and plained mirror of Paris fashions. Fashions, such as the bonnet, were often originally rejected, then adopted, then either dropped or fossilized into nearly universal use. Other fashions, such as the bustle, were never adopted. Gummere's tone is mocking, and I cannot read it without blushing for her, but she created quite a catalog of the history of Quaker plain dress.

Plain Dress is also worn by Quakers today.
  • Historical references
    1. George Fox (1624-1691)
      from A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters, and Testimonies (London 1698)
      "Friends, keep out of the vain fashions of the world; let not your eyes, minds, and spirits run after every fashion (in attire) of the nations; for that will lead you from the solid life into unity with that spirit that leads to follow the fashions of the nations, after every fashion of apparel that gets up: but mind that which is sober and modest, and keep to your plain fashions, that you may judge the World, . . ."
    2. Mary Penington (1623-1682)
      from A brief account of some of my Exercise from my Childhood, left with my Dear Daughter, Gulielma Maria Penn taken from Autobiograhical Writings by Early Quaker Women
      describing a dream she had:
      "I remaining cool and low in my mind abode in the place; and as I sat, when all this distracted noise was over, one came in and spake with a low voice to me, 'Christ is come indeed, and is in the next room, and the bride the Lamb's wife,' at which my heart secretly leaping in me, I was ready to be getting up to express my love to him, and joy in his coming, and to go into the next room; but a stop was put to me, and I was not to be hasty, but soberly to wait, and so come coolly and softly into the next room, which I did. And as I came I stood at the end of the room (which I saw to be a spacious hall) trembling, and was joyed at the thing, but durst not go near him, but it was said in me, 'Stay, and see whether he own thee and take thee to be such an one as thou lookest upon thyself to be.' So I stood at a great distance at the lower end of that great hall, and Christ at the upper end, whom I saw in the appearance of a fresh lovely youth, clad in grey cloth (at that time I had not heard of a Quaker or their habit) very plain and neat, of a most sweet, affable, courteous carriage, and he embraced several poor old simple people, whose appearance was very contemptible and mean, without wisdom or beauty. I beholding this judged in myself, though his appearance be as young, yet his wisdom and discretion is great, that he can behold that hidden worth in those people, who to me seem as mean, so unlovely, old and simple." [Emphasis mine.]
    3. Margaret Fell (1614-1702)
      Discusses the developing plain dress: "we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour. This is silly poor gospel!" Full quote below.
    4. John Wesley (1703-1791)
      From The Sermons of John Wesley, Sermon 88, On Dress: "I conjure you all who have any regard for me, show me before I go hence, that I have not laboured, even in this respect, in vain, for near half a century. Let me see, before I die, a Methodist congregation, full as plain dressed as a Quaker congregation. Only be more consistent with yourselves. Let your dress be cheap as well as plain; otherwise you do but trifle with God, and me, and your own souls. I pray, let there be no costly silks among you, how grave soever they may be. Let there be no Quaker-linen, -- proverbially so called, for their exquisite fineness; no Brussels lace, no elephantine hats or bonnets, -- those scandals of female modesty. Be all of a piece, dressed from head to foot as persons professing godliness; professing to do every thing, small and great, with the single view of pleasing God" (emphasis mine)
    5. John Wesley (1703-1791)
      In his journal, per Amelia Gummere's The Quaker: A Study in Costume p. 14 "John Wesley regretted that he had not made a regulation about dress. He wrote in his Journal: 'I might have been firm (and I now see it would have been far better) as either the people called Quakers or the Moravians; I might have said, this is our manner of dress, which we know is both scriptural and rational. If you join with us, you are to dress as we do, but you need not join us unless you please; but, alas! the time is now past.'"
    6. Joseph Pike (this epistle originally published 1726).
      Dress and worldly compliance, addressed to the members of the Society of Friends By Joseph Pike. From footnotes of Quaker Aesthetics "This is one of many reprints of Pike's original message published as Joseph Pike, An epistle to the National Meeting of Friends in Dublin concerning good order and discipline in the church (Dublin: Printed by W. Wilmot for S. Fuller, 1726)." It is also printed in the Friends Library, Volume 2.
    7. J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur (1735-1813)
      From Letters From An American Farmer (originally published 1782) Letter VIII: Peculiar Customs at Nantucket
      The manners of the Friends are entirely founded on that simplicity which is their boast, and their most distinguished characteristic; and those manners have acquired the authority of laws. Here they are strongly attached to plainness of dress, as well as to that of language;
    8. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)
      In his book (this one was published in 1806) A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume 2, T. Clarkson's section "Peculiar Customs" begins with dress. "The dress of the Quakers is the first custom of this nature, that I purpose to notice. They stand distinguished by means of it from all other religious bodies. . . . Both sexes are also particular in the choice of the colour of their clothes. All gay colours such as red, blue, green, and yellow, are exploded. Dressing in this manner, a Quaker is known by his apparel through the whole kingdom. This is not the case with any other individuals of the island, except the clergy . . .. See the entirety of his chapter on Plain Dress.
    9. The Grimke Sisters prior to 1835.
      In her book, Grimke Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Women's Rights, (published 1969) Catherine Birney writes (this excerpt comes from Part 2): "For instance, the sisters never could bring themselves to use certain ungrammatical forms of speech, such as _thee_ for _thou_, and would wear bonnets of a shape and material better adapted to protect them from the cold than those prescribed by Quaker style." After 1835, Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805-1879) had left the more oppressive Philadelphia Quaker realm for the more liberal and accepting Rhode Island Quakers. [Thanks to website reader Wilson for these citations.]
    10. In the The Workwoman's Guide printed in England in 1840, there are instructions for creating a cap for a young lady member of the Society of Friends, a cap for an elderly woman member of the Society of Friends, a shawl for a member of the Society of Friends, a bonnet for a member of the Society of Friends, and also mentions a simple collar for boys suitable for the child of a member of the Society of Friends. [Thanks to reader Andrea for this citation.]
    11. Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845)
      "I used to think and do now how little dress matters. But I find it almost impossible to keep to the principles of Friends without altering my dress and speech. . . . They appear to me a sort of protector to the principles of Christianity in the present state of the world."
    12. An excerpt from "A Persistent Rebel" from American History Illustrated, January, 1981 by Dean Smith.
      "An eager listener at one of her 1859 London addresses was a rich and talented girl named Elizabeth Garrett, who was brought immediately under Elizabeth [Blackwell]'s spell. Miss Garrett later became England's first female medical school graduate and a founder of London's New Hospital for Women. Dorothy Wilson, one of Blackwell's biographers, wrote of Garrett's first impressions of Elizabeth [Blackwell]: 'She looked like a demure little Quaker in her plain bonnet and simple gray silk....The features framed by the blonde graying hair looked drawn and colorless....But from the first word in the low, resonant voice, the first gesture of the slender, expressive hands, the girl was held captive.'"
    13. Caroline Stephen, from Quaker Strongholds, printed 1891
      "I believe that asceticism is in a very deep sense contrary to the real Quaker spirit, which desires in all things to abstain from any interference 'in the will of man' with Divine discipline and guidance, and which would, I believe, regard the idea of self-chosen exercises in mortification of the flesh with the same aversion as it entertains for pre-arranged forms of worship. Friends, no doubt, have often believed themselves required to submit to the adoption of plain dress 'in the cross' to natural inclination, and have felt it a valuable exercise to do so; but the plainness was not devised for that purpose, but chosen (or rather, as Friends would say, they were led into it by the Truth) because of its inherent suitableness and rightness. It is an outcome of the instinctively felt necessity of subordinating everything to principle. Its chief significance is that of a protest against bondage to passing fashions, and for this reason it is a settled costume. It is also felt that our very dress should show forth that inward quietness of spirit which does not naturally tend towards outward adornment, and the Friends' recognized dress is therefore one of extreme sobriety in colour and simplicity in form." (emphasis mine)
      (Click here for the rest that she has to say on Quaker plain dress.)
    14. Louise Brown Wilson (b. 1921), in her memoir Inner Tenderings, mentions how as a child traveling ministers would visit her home and how most of them were in plain dress. From pages 2-3, "I remember feeling the Presence as a child as we sat in our living room in worship, heads bowed and eyes closed with visiting Quakers from Ohio or Pennsylvania. These visits were not unusual. Quakers felt leadings, like being told to visit one another. These visiting Friends often wore plain dress--a collarless coat and no tie for the men and soft gray dresses with a bonnet for the women. They smelled like Ivory soap, and their faces looked like they had been washed until they were pink and shining. I remember feeling warm and safe. I felt like I was more than just me. It was a good, yet strange feeling."

  • Historical fictional references
    1. Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) in Chapter 24 of Jane Eyre first published in 1847. Jane describes herself as "Quakerish."
      "I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,--which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy- like fingers with rings." "No, no, sir! think of other subjects, and speak of other things, and in another strain. Don't address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess."
    2. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) in Chapter 13, called the "Quaker Settlement" in Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published 1852.
      "She might be fifty-five or sixty; but hers was one of those faces that time seems to touch only to brighten and adorn. The snowy fisse crape cap, made after the strait Quaker pattern,—the plain white muslin handkerchief, lying in placid folds across her bosom,—the drab shawl and dress,—showed at once the community to which she belonged." from a chapter called "The Quaker Settlement"
    3. George Eliot (1819-1880) in Adam Bede (originally published 1859--but set in 1799) has numerous descriptions of Dinah Morris, an itinerant Methodist minister, wearing Quaker dress. From the Signet Classics paperback published in 2004. P. 18: "The stronger curiosity of the women had drawn them quite to the edge of the Green, where they could examine more closely the Quakerlike costume and odd deportment of the female Methodists." P. 22 "The hair was drawn straight back behind the ears, and covered, except for an inch or two above the brow, by a net Quaker cap." P. 32 "Dinah had taken off her little Quaker bonnet again, and was holding it in her hands that she might have a freer enjoyment of the cool evening twilight . . ." P. 59 "I saw she was a Methodist, or Quaker, or something of that sort, by her dress, but I didn't know she was a preacher." P. 556 "She was not in black this morning, for her Aunt Poyser would by no means allow such a risk of incurring bad luck, and had herself made a present of the wedding dress, made all of grey, though in the usual Quaker form, for on this point Dinah could not give way. So the lily face looked out with sweet gravity from under a grey Quaker bonnet . . ."
      And also in Chapter 19 of Middlemarch (first published in serialized form 1871-1872), describes her heroine, Dorothea Brooke:
      They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble: a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish grey drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair.
    4. Interesting article on Quaker Dress, Sexuality, and the Domestication of Reform in the Victorian Novel by Suzanne Keen.
      "WHY ARE JANE EYRE AND DOROTHEA BROOKE clad by their creators in "Quakerish" garb? The oppositional plainness and simplicity of Quakerish heroines have often been read as signs of classlessness and sexlessness. . . . Accurately reading the characters of Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot thus requires careful interpretation of their dress, in this case reversing the conventional reading of their plain, modest, and simple style. This essay argues that Quakerish clothing expresses both a promise of spirited sexuality and an admonition about the class-crossing potential of the respectable female contained within it."
  • Quotes from Amelia Mott Gummere's "The Quaker, a Study in Costume
    Published 1901, Ferris & Leach, Philadelphia, PA
    1. p. 147-8, quote from Thomas Story (1662-1742)
      "Thomas Story, whose wide acquaintance took him among the "world's people," tells us of an attempt he made to convert the Countess of Kildare to Quaker dress:
      It being the Time of the Assizes, many of the higher Rank were in Town on that Occasion, and divers of our Friends being acquainted with several of them, one Day came to my Friend John Pike's to Dinner, the young Countess of Kildare, and her Maiden Sister, and three more of lesser Quality of the Gentry. Upon this occasion we had some free and open Conversation together, in which this Lady and the rest commended the plain Dress of our Women, as the most decent and comely, wishing it were in Fashion among them. Upon this I told her "That she and the rest of her Quality, standing in Places of Eminence, were the fittest to begin it, especially as they saw a Beauty in it: and they would be sooner followed than those of lower Degree." To this she replied, "If we should Dress ourselves Plain, People would gaze at us, call us Quakers, and make us the Subject of their Discourse and Town-talk; and we cannot bear to be made so particular."
    2. p. 89, 1810 reference
      "Joseph John Gurney relates his own experience upon the first occasion that his Quakerism affected his hat. The step was very marked for one who had not previously been a pronounced Friends, and who was so much in the midst of worldly interests as were all the Gurneys. He says:
      I was engaged long beforehand to a dinner party. For three weeks before I was in agitation from the knowledge that I must enter the drawing-room with my hat on. From this sacrifice, strange and unaccountable as it may seem, I could not escape. In a Friend's attire and with my hat on, I entered the drawingroom at the dreaded moment, shook hands with the mistress of the house, went back into the hall, deposited my hat, and returned home in some degree of peace. I had afterward the same thing to do at the Bishop's. The result was thta I found myself a decided Quaker, was perfectly understood to have assumed that character, and to dinner parties, except in the family circle, I was asked no more.
      "That was in 1810, when the Quaker "testimony" had become but an eccentricity in the world, which chose to laugh rather than make it a cause for persecution."

    3. p. 150, Quaker "Fashion babies" (late 1700 through early 1800s) "'Fashion babies' have been alluded to; they merit more than a passing notice. They were models of costume, originally sent by Paris modistes to London and other cities of large population, displaying the very latest ideas in dress. The fashion plate was then far in the future, and even the Quakers employed this method of communicating their ideas as to the 'proper thing' in drab to their country friends, or, as in the case of the doll model that was given to Stephen Grellet, to other communities of their own sect."
      continuing, p. 152
      "He [Stephen Grellet (1773-1855)] was in England in the year 1816, intending to visit the French at Congenies in France, where was a little community remarkably in sympathy with the Friends, athough having had no communication with them originally. English Friends desired to aid his efforts to build up their small meeting. The Quaker women of London, therefore, made and dressed for them a model in wax of a properly gowned woman Friend."
      See Photographs of Possible Quaker Fashion Doll
  • Photographic evidence
    1. Here is a photograph (taken around 1842/3) of Elizabeth Fry with family. It is obvious to anyone familiar with costume history who is wearing plain dress and who is wearing worldly dress. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law stand out in their Quaker headdresses. The other two women in the photograph are obviously not wearing plain dress. This is an illustration from a fascinating article on Fry's contribution to nursing reform called Twixt Candle and Lamp.
    2. Lucretia Mott stands out in this portrait of Philadelphia-area abolitionists. She is wearing plain dress. (Circa 1840s.)
    3. I also have a webpage of photographs of early twentieth-century and mid-1800s plain-dressing Friends.
  • Other Online References
    1. Quakerinfo's discussion of Quakerism in the 18th Century leads with the discussion of plain dress.
    2. English meeting's discussion of plain dress. Tottenham Meeting
    3. A discussion of the "controversy." Quaker Roots Thread on Plain Dress
    4. In the The Workwoman's Guide there are instructions for creating a cap for a young lady member of the Society of Friends, a cap for an elderly woman member of the Society of Friends, a shawl for a member of the Society of Friends, a bonnet for a member of the Society of Friends, and also mentions a simple collar for boys suitable for the child of a member of the Society of Friends. [Thanks to reader Andrea for this citation.]
    5. Off-line references
      1. Kraak, Deborah. "Variations on "plainness": Quaker Dress in Eighteenth Century". Philadelphia, Costume 34 (2000).
      2. Amelia Gummere's History of Quaker Costume. A whole book documenting the centuries of Quaker peculiar dress, ending with a photograph of a Gurneyite bonnet facing a Wilburite bonnet.
      3. Etten, Henry Van. George Fox and the Quakers. London: Long-mans, 1959.
      4. Stankovski, Kristina. "Dress Reform." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Ed. Valerie Steele. Vol. 1. 1 ed. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005. 381-382. 3 vols. (Has a section called "Nonconformist Quaker Dress.")

Margaret Fell Fox in 1700 "Our monthly and quarterly meetings were set up for reproving and looking into superfluous or disorderly walking, and such to be admonished and instructed in the truth, and not private persons to take upon them to make orders, and say this must be done and the other must not be done: and can Friends think that those who are taught and guided of God can be subject and follow such low mean orders? So it's good for Friends of our country to leave these things to the Lord, who is become our leader, teacher and guider, and not to go abroad to spread them, for they will never do good, but has done hurt already: we are now coming into ... that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do. For one Friend says one way, and another another; but Christ Jesus saith that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on: bids us consider the lilies, how they grow in more royalty than Solomon. But, contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour. This is silly poor gospel! It is more fit for us to be covered with God's eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness, and to live righteously and justly and holily in this present evil world. This is the clothing that God puts upon us, and likes, and will bless. This will make our light shine forth before men, that they may glorify our heavenly Father which is in Heaven, for we have God for our teacher, and we have his promises and doctrine, and we have the Apostles' practice in their day and generation: and we have God's holy Spirit, to lead us and guide us, and we have the blessed truth, that we are made partakers of, to be our practice. And why should we turn to men and woman teaching which is contrary to Christ Jesus' command, and the Apostles' practice? ...Friends, we have one God, and one mediator betwixt God and man, the man Jesus Christ; let us keep to him or we are undone."
historical Quaker plain dress references
historical Quaker plain dress references
historical Quaker plain dress references
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daily george fox quote

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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