Modest women, modest dress

Today’s epistle reading for morning prayer (Anglican BCP) was in 1 Timothy, Paul’s pastoral advice to his student: “Similarly, women are to wear suitable clothes and to dress quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold or jewellry or expensive clothes; their adornment is to do the good works that are proper for women who claim to be religious.”

And Paul goes on to say that he does not give the women in Timothy’s congregation permission to teach or have authority over men, that they are to remember that they are to be quiet and meek, and that their work of salvation shall be in raising Christian families. Well, that is not the attitude to make Paul popular, but so be it, it’s what he said. Yes, I know that some scholars consider these pastorals doubtful, but I believe them to be Paul’s own, very personal letters, hence the difference in style. Maybe Timothy’s congregation was getting rowdy or boastful, and the women were beginning to take on the attitude of pagan priestesses, so they got a reprimand. But that’s not really my point. Paul supported the ministry of other women in other places, so I don’t think we can generalize too much from his private advice to Timothy.

Christians at the time were beginning to evolve a distinct way of life that was even less cultural than Judaism. They were already running various charitable outlets, and both men and women were told to look and act like followers of Christ in public. Women were to avoid vain dress and action, spending their time in family life, and public good works. They were not to be sitting around, having their hair cut, dyed and braided or curled (yes, they did those things then), and gadding about from jewelry shop to clothing store. Their modesty in covering their heads and bodies, their modest demeanour in the streets, and their dedication to God and family were the distinguishing marks of faith.

My husband and I were on the bus last week, early evening, headed home from our church in the West End. He remarked as he looked out the window, “Hey, Charlie’s Angels,” as three young women strolled past in low-cut, short skirted dresses, hair fashionably lacquered into place, and faces like masks. They were a bit over the top – and they must have been shivering in the cold autumn wind. Yes, I rolled my eyes, but inside I felt sorry for them. They yearn for excitement and attention, but they are going to get lewdness and disrespect. That kind of excitement is like finding a python in your bedroom, and the attention like finding out that it is hungry. There isn’t really a good outcome unless you can run.

Anabaptist writers have mentioned that Plain women get more attention publically than Plain men, since their dress is so distinctive and counter-cultural. Maybe this is our own special witness as women, to be a sort of lighthouse in the dark world. It isn’t enough that we don’t look like other people, but we can’t act like other people.

Plain can’t be just another fashion statement.

Plain in Winter

This can be a serious problem, really. So many plain dresses available are cotton or lightweight fabric. I have yet to resolve this issue completely except to keep layering on the clothes until I reach a comfort level. This, of course, introduces the waddle factor.

Last winter I purchased a thrift store plain grey wool skirt. It is ankle length, with a pantsuit kind of waist. I sometimes wear it back to front for a more traditional look, but I’ve lost some weight and now that looks strangely poofy. I put it on today because it is a cool autumn day, one of the first here. Atop I have a long-sleeved banded collar black shirt (a clergy shirt without the white collar) and a plain grey sweater and my black shawl. This is quite Quakerly, in a sober modern way. I would have worn these clothes just like this when I was worldly, the difference being the prayer cap.

Who makes decent thick socks anymore? We walk a lot and the regular Anabaptist style calf-high cotton stockings wear out at the toe in weeks. They are undarnable, too: The stitches just pull right out.

I have the black wool bonnet for winter, or I use the black shawl in the babushka style, over the head, wrapped around the neck and knotted. My plain black clergy coat is still in excellent shape, although ornamented with fine white dog hair (thanks, Misty). And for occasions when I really need to be bundled, I can put my hooded cape over all that. Usually I wear black stretchy gloves or suede driving gloves, but I expect to wear mittens this winter, as I will be outdoors a lot more. My husband wears a Navy peacoat and the broadbrimmed black hat in winter, and construction boots with thick socks. For outdoor work such as splitting wood he wears a black watchcap and workgloves. He is a warm person, and doesn’t feel the cold as much as I do.

I am about to sew some bigger aprons from denim and other heavy fabrics, which should extend the life of my dresses and add a layer of insulation. I have worn the full apron but the kind with the little bib on top. I acquired a vintage apron that buttons behind the neck and ties at the waist, and it covers most of the upper part of my dress. My husband, though, greeted this delicate green print confection with “Did you get that from my grandmother?” I have to agree, it looks just like something Nana would have worn. The tiny green rosebud-in-squares print is a wee bit too funky retro, but I intend to use it for a pattern and make my aprons longer.

Sweaters are a necessary but not traditional choice in winter. Some Anabaptist groups don’t wear them. My family is from northern climes, both back in the British isles and in the New World, and we are wool sweater people. (I do prefer the British “jumper” to the unpleasant connotations of “sweater.”) I like mine plain, black, gray, or natural. I have a gorgeous blue Icelandic sweater my mother gave me quite a few years ago, and although not Quaker-plain, I wear it because it is warm and practical without being over the top.

Underneath is the problem. I wear longies of some sort, with whatever is available for warm socks, even oversized handknit ones on top of ballet slippers. We are usually in cold houses in the winter, so feet and head need covering for warmth!

My winter prayer coverings are larger than my usual ones, almost bonnet size, and they are a bit Mother Hubbardish. I keep them for in the house. I am thinking of taking one apart and remaking it into an actual white bonnet for summer, but I have a linen one that covers all my hair and ears that works for cold indoor environments.

Winter itself is a good time for subdued activity, sober clothes, and a sober mind. Once the house is clean, the food prepared and the work done, I have some time for meditative activities like spinning and knitting, and more time for reading (although if we don’t have electricity, I may not be able to do this after dark.) Once the garden is put to bed, and there are no fences to mend, wood to carry or canning to finish, I have more discretionary time and I am not going to waste it running around pretending to have fun at the mall. I don’t want to seek summer in the winter. The Lord gives us the seasons for a reason, so that we can change the pace of our activities. Some seasons are for fasting and intense prayer, others for effort and extra work.

Winter is coming. Some of you are already beginning to see the transition days of autumn. I suggest that you hibernate a bit this winter, and turn your thoughts to the Lord of all, who provides all in due season.

Insomnia and insanity

Not sleeping. Well, I sleep some, but there are long stretches of night where I’m just awake. Nicholas is suffering from it, too, and even the dogs are restless. Maybe it’s because we’re country people and used to dark-as-the-tomb nights, at least when there’s no moon. I’ve always been wakeful on full moon nights, but the city seems to be all full-moon nights, with the parking garage lights next door, the cars coming and going at all hours, street lights, neighbours’ lights…a lot of light pollution.

I have a whole file of insomnia solutions, but I’m reluctant to start on the passion flower/valerian/california poppy route again. Eventually you just feel drugged. Yes, they are natural remedies, but the essential oils and chemical compounds are precursors of modern drugs. I had been using lemon balm-based tea. Maybe it’s time to go back to the nice-cup-of-tea routine, of melissa, nettle, mint and chamomile.  Another good one for relaxation and overwrought nerves is lemon balm, green oat tops, and catnip. But I find it hard to locate the green oat tops. I used to cut them in my backyard.

Israel was always warned by the Lord to stay out of cities. God wasn’t kidding around there. Cities are insane. It is a mad way of life, truly mad because people don’t even see that it is crazy. People with mental disorders often know they are sick and want help. People in cities don’t have a clue. Cities turn night into day. People don’t rest, let alone keep the sabbath and honour the Lord’s Day. People shop, eat food that isn’t really food, and look for amusement. They are constantly on the move, hunting for “relationships” that seem to last mere days, and then they move on.

Hmm, just like in the days of Noah.

The Lord gave us the herbs of the land for our benefit and health, but we pave over the land so that nothing will grow. We spray our green spaces with herbicides and pesticides and plant pretty things that no one can eat. We talk a lot about restoration of the world, saving the planet, and so on, but we are not seeking the kingdom of God. When we do, that will be saving the planet in a big way.

Bonnets and thoughts on Bonnets

Nothing says Quaker Woman more than the black bonnet. Except for Anabaptist groups and the more traditional Salvation Army types, the Quakers wore bonnets longer than any other group in the world. I love bonnets, especially the traditional black bonnet of sober cut, that hides the face from the side and is a bit like walking around in your own little onion dome. Very modest, very quiet and simple.

Bonnets shade your face and usually your neck. They keep out cold winds and rain. You can put your head down in bad weather and feel safe and cocooned. Your glasses stay dry. Your ears stay warm. A sun bonnet with a good puffy cap protects your face, neck and the top of your head while staying (relatively) cool, more so than a baseball cap.

If there is anyone in the world who thinks a bonnet is sexy, I don’t want to know about it.

I have two bonnets. One is a black cotton fabric with a stiff brim and ribbon edging – nothing fancy. The other is all wool, with a little peplum across the back of the neck, and a deep soft brim that I can turn back. It is the winter bonnet. It is completely untrimmed, and as plain as unfrosted vanilla cookies. I made both bonnets, which is easier than expected once you figure out the three-dimensional modelling.

The bonnet, like the prayer cap, says a lot about the orientation of the Christian Woman wearing it. It certainly says dedication to Tradition and Biblical ways. I like wearing my bonnets because they really say a lot about a lack of vanity, and I have to constantly remind myself of that. (The Lord has yet to remove that thorn from my side, but I am a bit negligent in asking for the grace.)

Having said all that, I have stopped wearing bonnets in the city. I can’t see well enough at intersections or on the street, and since London (Ontario) has a lot of bicyclists using the sidewalk as a sort of two-wheel superhighway, this is getting dangerous. I never drive wearing a bonnet, but we haven’t been using the vehicle lately. I’ve noticed that some Mennonite ladies are wearing a cutback bonnet that looks more like the old-fashioned Sally Ann style, probably for better peripheral vision.

So until we are back in the country or a village, the bonnets are in the drawer. I pull them out sometimes and look at them wistfully, but right now, avoiding collisions seems more important than my strange reverse vanity.

Hand wash only

Oh, yeah, just in case you wondered…

I do our laundry in two big galvanized tubs. This is my fourth set, I think. The sheep beat one set to death when I used them over the winter as feeding troughs, and the other antique set gave out at the seams, and the third set got left in New Brunswick because we were moving to the city. Stupid me. I hate washers and dryers, I hate laundromats, I hate scented laundry detergents. So I persuaded my husband to get a new pair, really new, and they were $30 each. I offered to trade down to big plastic yardwork tubs, at half the price, but he gave me that withering look and said, “You”ll go through those in a few weeks,” and bought the good ones. I was honestly thrilled! New washtubs! Oh, my feminist sisters and friends are just about now dying of mortification or rolling on the floor in helpless laughter. Yes, I acted like Steve Martin in “The Jerk,” running around shouting “The new washtubs are here!”

So this is what you do. Put the washtubs on a stand that gets them about 18 inches off the floor, or your back will suffer. We use two old wooden chairs with the seats removed and the legs leveled. My former stand was made out of a futon frame, and was so sturdy you could have parked a truck on it. Nicholas (also called Dave), my husband, knows how to build to last. The good thing about the old chairs is that they have backs on them, just uprights with a crosspiece, and I can wring heavy things on them, like jeans and towels. I don’t have a wringer. Nicholas helps me with sheets, although this is a wee bit hazardous, because he wrings fast and hard on his end and sometimes I expect to just spin around with the wet fabric.

Fill the tubs with hot water, or cool water for dark fabrics, put in the clothes, and soak them for a while, a few minutes to overnight. Then get out a bar of yellow laundry soap (Fels-Naptha, Sunlight, Linda, whatever is in the store) and rub it into the stains and the dirty parts – collars, hems, under the arms, down the front of aprons. Scrub the soiled part against the side of the tub, a washboard, or the fabric. Swish around a bit to remove the extra soap, and drop into the second tub for a rinse. I usually wash a few things, swish them together in the rinse, wring, and then hang them up.

You will not believe how clean the clothes get. Detergents leave residues, and after you have washed clothes a few times with real soap by hand, dull things look amazingly brighter. Blue jeans will be blue again, whites will look white and not gray. You can use chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide, but I don’t. And even though we live in an apartment, we are on the ground floor, so I wash out on the patio and hang the clothes on a temporary clothesline in the yard. No one has complained so far. I use a folding drying rack for small things, or to dry things indoors.

It takes time to wash this way, but no more than driving to the laundromat and staying through the final cycle. It is very cheap, too, just the initial cost of the tubs, some soap, and the clothesline. The equipment has already paid for itself in saved laundromat costs.

We use a lot less water, electricity and detergent this way. Ecological savings are high, too.

If this seems hopelessly retro, well, give it a try some day. You can use five-gallon buckets instead, or haul the clothes down to a good clean creek and scrub them on the rocks. This is really more pleasant than it sounds if it is a warm summer day.

Looking Quakerly today

Plain isn’t easy. First, I don’t have a huge closet of costume to choose from, and I do laundry by hand (it’s an ecological, plain-living thing), and I don’t wear trousers (except for overalls if I’m shearing sheep.) I don’t have scads of money to spend on custom-made dresses, not even some money to buy fabric, patterns and notions. I have a sewing machine, a really good one that was given to me because it wasn’t working. My husband got it running in about half-an-hour. I have some things I’m going to modify or rebuild, but that doesn’t give me a lot of variety.

Plain dress is supposed to be really plain, and that means modest in price as well as modest in appearance. So I get things at thrift stores that work for me, take other things apart and restructure them, and I sew my own prayer caps, which isn’t that hard. The cap part is basically a circle with the bottom quarter cut off, and the band is a doubled rectangular piece of fabric. I pleat my caps rather than gather them because I think pleats look more sober. The cap I have on today is made from old unbleached linen table napkins, a good source of fine fabric. Small pieces become caps, bigger pieces (old plain tablecloths) become aprons or neck-kerchiefs. Cap string can be made easily with ribbon. I have made the cap strings the old way, but this is time-consuming and at my age, requires strong daylight to see the tiny overcast stitches.

The dress I have on is a matte velveteen, long-sleeved, gathered loosely in a high waist. It is dark brown, a very quakerly colour. It has a bit of lycra in it, so it is easy to put on, and has no buttons or zipper. I avoid zippers, and choose only very plain buttons that look like wood or horn.

Over the brown dress I have a plain, fringed, rectangular shawl, gathered at the front with a brass kilt pin. Under the dress is a plain black skirt, with a tie closure that I made specifically as an underskirt. I wear dark knee-length stockings (never sheer hose) and dark brown boots.

I have two plain black dresses of similar construction, which I wear with either the black shawl or a white or tan neck-kerchief pinned in the front with a straight pin. All the dresses were of commercial manufacture and purchased at thrift stores. One had a slit, but I sewed that shut. The skirts are almost ankle-length.

The Plain Quaker dress style has a bit more freedom than that of the anabaptist groups, since they have an ordnung, or a stated way of life, to follow. The ordnung (German for “order”) varies from group to group in Mennonite, Amish and Brethren tradition. That’s why there isn’t one obvious anabaptist style of dress. Conservative and traditional Quakers also vary in practice, but prefer dark, sober colours and clothes that have no hint of “worldly” about them.

Non-aggression as it is lived

I was a teenager in the 70s – Vietnam, peace movement, tie-dye, levis and barefeet. I had just pushed myself out of the conservative Baptist Church before the big leap (baptism, that is). I considered myself artistic, publishing bits of poetry here and there, doing some very amateurish artwork. My goal (can you believe?) was to backpack through Europe and parts of Asia. (I did not do that.)

Vietnam was the back story of our lives then. It was not discussed in our household. At school, we debated and argued and got quite polemic. I was definitely a peace advocate, and it was all quite exciting to take the radical stance.

Then I moved out into the real world and things were different. Job, kids, studies, and the concerns of everyday life diluted my enthusiasm. The strong American view of military might subdued my arguments. I became blase about peace and forgot about non-aggression. If anything, I was proud of my personal strength and agility. Although I have never had to face a human opponent, I learned to shoot a gun, to box and to fight with the sword.

And I called myself a Christian.

Okay, I never had to hurt anyone, but I was prepared to do so. The martial arts are good exercise. I have a thousand excuses for leaving behind that gospel I had absorbed as a child. Jesus did not fight back, even though he could have called on all the forces of heaven in his defense.

This is more profound that we would like to admit. It is incredibly hard to be defenceless when you have the ability to defend yourself. There’s that scene in the movie “Witness” where Harrison Ford, in Amish clothing, punches a guy who is harassing the Amish neighbor. We all cheer, at least inside. But the Amish didn’t see it that way. They saw someone who looked like them doing something they would not do. Why won’t they fight back?

Because they are following Jesus, and he did not fight back.

Martyr means witness. We can witness to the gospel everyday in a non-aggressive way. We can be defenceless against the taunts and hostility of the world. We can change radically the way we live, by giving up selfishness and worldliness. This is a non-aggressive stance, too, that we live with only what we need, that we don’t participate in the world of television, shopping and consumerism, the world where getting ahead means a lot of other people are left behind or left out.