How Plain is Too Plain?

dec-21-2008-007For many people, I am the only visibly Plain person they know. (It’s the cap and apron.) My husband is Plain, but being a man, it’s not so obvious, since he rejected the Brethren beard as impractical – he still had to shave the upper lip, which meant more mirror time than he wanted. And he doesn’t cut his hair at all anymore, so it is just getting longer rather than being trimmed off at the collar like most Anabaptist men. That’s fine for us, since we are Anglican and not thoroughly Anabaptist. No matter what, I think he’s a very handsome man. (He disagrees.)

But I’m the one who gets the questions. “Are you Mennonite?” is the usual one. Sometimes I just answer, “Yes,” because I am, theologically, very close to Mennonite, without the ordnung. Some people are looking for more, though. They are drawn to Plain life, and have no clue how to begin since they are not going to join an Old Order community. Can I be Plain? they ask, even if I’m not Mennonite or Amish or Quaker?

Yes, of course. Plain is as Plain does. Some people are going to find a spiritual home with the Quakers, or the Anabaptists, others aren’t. Some are intimidated by the language issue of joining the Old Orders, or the huge cultural learning curve. And some, drawn to Old Order life despite the obstacles, simply will not qualify to join the church, because of divorce and remarriage, or because they don’t want a rebaptism – they consider their infant baptism valid. But I find there are a growing number of Plain people in other church communities, Anglican being prominent. I’m going to exclude the conservative evangelical communities, that despite modest dress, are not Plain in dress or life. By Plain I mean  following a Biblically based way of dress without ornament, and living as simply as possible, in the teachings of Christ as transmitted by the apostles.

If thee is called to Plain, thee must follow, or face lifelong misery. The Lord does not just go away quietly once the call is given. That call is perpetual, and must be answered, or denied at peril. Thee will know the call. It may start with a simple longing for a simpler life, a choice of clothing that is simple and without pattern, perhaps an interest in historicity that seems to focus on the peasant life rather than the nobility’s.

But the second question I get is often, “How far do I have to go?” Only thee will know. For some women, Plain may mean simple dresses, prayer caps, bonnets, shawls and boots. That would be me. For others it might be simple jumpers in solid colours, turtlenecks, and a veil-style covering. For still others, Plain may be denim dresses and skirts, and a kerchief or scarf on First Day. We do not need to worry that we are not Plain enough, unless we feel in our hearts that we have not done what we should.

For men, the obvious Brethren identification of the chin beard and “Dutch” haircut may be  important. It says Pacifism. The men may be most comfortable in traditional Plain dress, of the simple collared shirt, braces (suspenders) and broadfall (button fly) trousers. Other men, such as my husband, are Plain in denim jeans and unembellished shirts and sweaters. Nicholas wears either a black, Quaker-type hat usually associated with the Amish, or this winter, a black fur hat which echoes the style of Russian-emigre Mennonites on the Canadian prairies. It’s time for a new black brimmed hat, and a summer straw, to be ordered next month from Ohio, along with a new black bonnet for me. Since I don’t wear the cape dress (yet) I think we look more Quaker than Anabaptist, but that is a sublety lost on most people.

I must say that I may carry “Plain” to the extreme of letting my clothes get a bit decrepit, because they are merely protection for the body, not a statement about fashion, status or wealth. That is why I’m Plain. Perhaps I fall into “monastic Plain” as a type. Many Plain people are quite conscious of looking neat, with some clothes set aside for going out amongst the “Englisch.” I have to cast about on First Day to make sure I have something presentable before the altar of our Lord. I have to admit that a couple of aprons and dresses are at the patched and threadbare stage, and are not a good witness anymore. I do try to make sure my cap is clean, as it is an article of religious dedication, and I would no more wear a dirty cap than I would wear dirty vestments at the altar, or offer the Lord’s supper on stained linen. (Thee, priests, reading this who are not  careful, I remind thee of the Canons. Clean alb, no grime on the stole, and fair linen on the altar. Fair means white and pure, not wine-stained and dotted with candle drips, or made over several times with a number of darns. Thee knows what I mean.)

I do encourage thee, though, to relax about it. Do not become a legalist in dress. I do not intend to go to the gym in long skirts and a prayer cap, but to dress modestly and appropriately for the activity. Although one can do many things in a skirt, do not endanger one’s health and safety. Thee is not representing Christ fairly if one looks ludicrous or is likely to cause trouble with thy skirts.


12 thoughts on “How Plain is Too Plain?

  1. Dear Magdelaina,

    This latest has been most interesting. I understand fully where you are coming from. In Australia, as I have mentioned previously, we have no heritage of conservative/traditional Amish or Mennonite within our population save a tiny handful of Brudehoffe who have been here a little over ten years now. For me, then, ‘Plain’ may be a little different from that expressed in North America. Also, in my experience, this has been a gradual shift; often simply sliding into patterns of doing things that happen to line up with ‘Plain’ (e.g. no makeup or adornment because I simply haven’t replaced the former nor seen the point of spending money on the latter – my only adornment being my wedding ring). As for dress, I’m not at complete Plain yet, but have opted for small pattern (if at all) and simple dresses (see to get an idea). Our chief proponents of modest attire and headcovering are my sisters in the Muslim community bordering my part of Sydney; these women I believe, give an example that we Christians on the whole would do well to follow. the same motivations that prompt them to take up modest attire and covering also extends into simplicity of life, with simple yet practical furnishings, a turning away from material excesses (many giving television the flick) and so on. A lady’s home I have spent some time in has good quality yet simple floor rugs, clean and neat, soft furnishings for sitting, no pictures upon the walls and only the necessities regarding household fixtures; quality yet not overtly fancy. Indeed, I have visited within three homes over the years upon several occasions where this is the case. Though my headcovers would not be considered plain (many being either lace or wide headbands of colourful striped cotton knit, or buncovers) I will use them while they are serviceable and replace with simpler as needed. Hubby bawks at the bonnet; Let us see where God leads on the plain walk.

    I would be most curious as to how widespread the modest/headcovering/plain/simple living tradition is among Anglicans… Are thee and me the only ones in our denomination? I would also dearly love to find fellows who are Anglican and thus inspired locally…


    • Sarah, thanks for the insight. I don’t know many Muslims, and I certainly respect their use of the hijab. There are other Plain Anglicans I hear from. Some of the sisters who comment on this blog are such; others are moderately plain; some are Plain but not Anglican. Still, it seems to be a growing movement. There is a minor but strong element of Anabaptism in Anglicanism. Our Quaker brethren spent time in the Netherlands with Mennonites back in the seventeenth century, and some of that came through into Anglicanism before the Quakers left the Church under persecution. Thee might look up some of the Anglican communal movements, such as the establishment of Little Gidding in England, very much like the Bruderhoff groups. My understanding is that the Bruderhoff had a short-lived intercommunion with the Hutterites, an Anabaptist group, but the Hutterites found that they were not strict enough in Trinitarian doctrine.

  2. Magdalena, don’t even get me started on how some members of the altar guild take care of the altar linens. I really think I’m the only one up here that can wash and sunbleach linen and I KNOW that no one else up here knows enough to starch the linens. If they would only give the linens a good starching everytime, then there would be next to no staining. Even our minister has a very half hearted aproach to taking care of the church. Let alone the “live and let live” attitude to the bats!

    I also get the “are you Mennonite” question, but that’s because I do look alot like our local mennonites. I wear a kerchief style covering but I do often wear cape dresses in small prints. I once had a women say “do you know your church was started by a Catholic priest?” thinking I was Mennonite, I had fun answering her with “no, my church was started by king Henry VII”. It gave me the chance to talk with her on how other Christian women can be modest and answer the call to cover. I don’t think I could ever be Plain, I’m comfortable with Conservative 🙂 I like pretty prints too much to give them up, but my style is definitely modest and old-fashioned. If any of your other readers here would like some pattern company suggestions, please feel free to email.

    I’ve been lucky. Even with being a farmwife, admittedly one who stays in the house mostly, I’ve not found anything I can’t do in my denim jumper. It is A-line so it’s fairly narrow (compared to all my other dresses) so I’m safe wearing it to drive the tractor and it’s good for garden work too. I haven’t tried my bike yet, but now that my little one is getting bigger, that might be something to try this summer.

    • Yes, a good coating of spray starch keeps off the wine spills, and prevents the wax from sticking, but be careful that real linen is stored without any starch, if it is to sit for a while. The starch will yellow the linen. I recommend that linens be wrapped around an unfinished, sanded hardwood dowel or hung over the same in a linen press for storage, because the folds will set permanently, and the fibres stretch and break from the weight of stacked linens. I used to be a museum curator, and poorly maintained textiles are always an issue. I used to have to remind the altar guilds that altar linens do not go in the washing machine, and that anything that comes in contact with consecrated wine must be washed separately by hand, and the water discarded outside, on the ground, preferably where no one will walk on it. This is to show respect for Our Lord’s sacrifice, not for some superstitious reason. It is mindfulness. Altar Guilds should have a kettle for hot water in the sacristy, and a large enamel or stainless steel basin for washing, so that the linen doesn’t get carried home and forgotten. A good way to dry the linens is to stretch them out wet on a countertop, and sort of paste them down very flat with thy fingers. They dry without wrinkles then.

      As for bats…the guano (droppings) are alkaline and will cause rotting in the floors of the belfry or dormers where they nest. Not to mention attracting insects, and the odor and bacteria! Since I have a serious mold allergy (enough to keep me out of museums now) I will stand no nonsense about bats and birds in the church.

  3. I totally agree that going plain and to what degree is an individual decision, unless they join a community and even then there are differences and you can decide which one suits you best.

    I think a strict dress code is more for conformity than anything else in a group. It heps cut down on peer pressure within the group. Conformity gives a sense of security. Anyone who pays attention to how quickly worldly fashion changes can attest to this.

    I’m halfway between cape dresses and simple regular dresses and skirts. I’ve been having difficulty finding suitable skirts that are comfortable, modest and most of all durable. I’m replacing my skirts with cape dresses as they wear out because for me they are more comfortable.

    My husband wears jeans and simple shirts, some plain, some print. He buys them at thrift stores since working with coal, he tends to wear them out fast. Most of his clothes (and several of mine) therefore also fall in the functional rather than fashionable category of plain.

    • Just being modest is quite a step these days! I don’t see the Anglican Church ever having dress standards again, even for priests. One of benefits is that we are completely out of fashion trends. I’m planning to buy a cape dress pattern later this year, since I now have a good sewing machine.

  4. I’m a history fanatic. I wish we lived close to Upper Canada Village, what fun it would be. You would be horrified if you saw how the linens are stored. As for the bat guano, I’ve had to give up the altar guild; my asthma just can’t take it. I often take Ella with me and it’s not a good situation to have her in.

    Here’s the cape I usually wear. I like these patterns, they come with all the sizes which is handy if your weight fluctuates (I have PCOS).

    • Me, too. I hope we can travel to UCV this summer. I have terrible mold and dust mite allergies. I can’t risk working in a museum or a mildewy sacristy again. thanks for the link. I will order one of their patterns soon!

  5. It seems that women are being called to be plain all over the world and in many faiths. I am not Anglican, Quaker, Amish nor Mennonite. Because I am not, I do not feel comfortable wearing their distinctive headcoverings–I would hate to cast aspersions on them by my non-Amish behavior. So I wear 18thC French linen caps in my plain dress. But even though my caps do not look like theirs, people cannot help but think all plain dressers must be Anabaptist Mennonite or Amish or Quaker. It never seems to cross their minds that others might be wearing religious plain clothes.

    You have an interesting site and insight.

    • Thanks, carolyn. I’d like to see you get up to speed with your own blog, since you have a lot of experience and insight to offer yourself!I jsut moved to a more formal prayer cap, but I am in a place of great variation in practice. Some wear the little white cap without ties, some wear kerchiefs, some wear a more old-fashioned cap. So no one thinks much about it. There is much variety amongst the dress of my Quaker friends as well. I don’t know why the Lord is calling us to this, and we may never know in this life, but it is definitely a growing movement across denominational lines.

  6. I am drawn to Plain dress and headcovering and have been all my life. I’ve struggled with it, especially the headcovering, because I don’t like attracting attention to myself (which it does), and because my hsuband finds it unattractive and severe (but maybe that’s just my face!!). Finally, it is too insistent a call and I just have to do it.
    In terms of churchmanship, I am very drawn to the Conservative Quakers (but there are none remotely near), am exploring the (Anglican) Third Order of St Francis and, after having been a Methodist minister for a decade or so, presently worship in a very kind and beautiful Anglican church.

    • There’s no right/wrong to Plain and modest dress outside the Ordered groups, so do what is comfortable for you, works in your family, and answers your heart.

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