Plain: Practical, Yes. Historic? No.

Everyday Me

It’s a quiet day here, as I am under the damping effects of a minor cold. Colds are slightly more serious for me than most otherwise healthy people. I have an allergy to viruses, and even a cold can cause flare-ups of eczema, hives and angio-edema, the most serious form of that group of allergic reactions. So I am on the couch, coughing and sneezing, waiting for the subcutaneous bump on my forehead to disperse (it usually takes about 24 hours) and doing some on-line reading. I use Google Reader and the tag surfer on WordPress, and this opens up a lot of sites it would take me hours to find on my own.

I don’t have to tell my readers how much misinformation is online about Plain groups like the Amish. People who barely know what Anabaptism is about criticize Amish, Mennonites, and anyone who looks Amish as cultish, needlessly romantic, and anachronistic. The Amish and such Anabaptist groups are not a cult, and don’t come close to a definition of a cult. Most of those misperceptions are based on watching movies and television. Although the Amish follow an ordnung, or code of behaviour, so do most Christians. But most of us in the mainline churches don’t take it seriously; that’s the main difference. Then we sit around in committee meetings at church wondering why so few people care about the church anymore. Our blatant hypocrisy may be the key answer to that question. I could have been accused of this myself a few years ago, and justifiably in some ways. But not in the way most people would think: my divorce and remarriage. That was setting to right situations that had gone horribly, destructively bad. Details aren’t necessary here; but it was the worldliness of other behaviour that was really isolating me from fulfilling God’s intentions for me. I was a clotheshorse and a culture dilettante. I was trying to live with a foot on both sides of the Jordan River. I was called into the Kingdom of God, but I wanted to keep a pied-a-terre in the world.

Practicality is my natural turn of mind. There is nothing baroque about me. “Plain” was, perhaps, easier for me than for others. I think all Christians are called to give up the world as much as possible. We are not to be a frivolous people, and we are always called to a life of sobriety. We are to be considerate, thoughtful, and aware of our place in the Kingdom. We are given joy and even happiness, as long as we do not forget who we are.

I submitted to Plain in dress and way of life. We have occasionally ventured back into some worldly pursuit – television was the worst temptation, when we lived in a place where it was always available – but after a spell, we left that behind. Even in reading secular literature I am always asking myself, “What does this mean to me as a Christian?” We can’t completely avoid interacting with the world and culture, but we are called to do that on His terms, not the world’s.

Giving up a worldly wardrobe was a bit of a wrench at first. Through clothing I told the world who I thought I was. I expected that the world would take me at my word, and it pretty much did. I had a classically proportioned figure and I let the world know that. And as one friend once told me, “You are quite beautiful without make-up, but with it you are stunning.” So I would play up the blue eyes, high cheekbones and cupid’s-bow mouth. I wanted to be admired and desired. But that was making an idol out of my appearance, and that kind of  shallow self-absorption was contrary to my natural self, who didn’t care much for frivolous indulgence.

I missed my fine clothes because costume was a canvas for my projection of my pretensions, a rendering of my view of self-worth. Once gone, and once in sober black and grey dresses and white kapps, I didn’t mind anymore. Without make-up, I was more concerned with my real health issues, rather than being focussed on appearing healthy while disguising the neglect of true health.

I took to Quaker Plain dress quickly and easily. It is comfortable, inexpensive and easy to maintain. It doesn’t go out of style quickly. The Amish had adopted Quaker style when they emigrated to Pennsylvania, and the two Christian denominations seemed to have supported and influenced each other for about a hundred years.

But modern day Plain dress, whether overtly Amish as in an ordnung or Conservative Quaker as it has evolved and been adapted, is not historic. Even a hundred years ago Plain Quakers and the Amish had a more elaborate form of dress, especially among women. Skirts were much longer, in keeping with the expectation in the dominant culture that a modest women doesn’t even show an ankle; aprons were at least in two parts, cape and skirt; many Amish did not use buttons but continued to use straight pins, as some conservative groups do today. Kapps covered more of the head, had wider ties, and were invariably tied under the chin, especially among the Amish.

Today’s typical Plain dress is simpler in construction, and shorter. Aprons may still consist of two parts, but are much shorter and use less fabric. Only a handful of Old Orders bother with the open front cape and the innumerable straight pins to hold clothing closed. (And the pins aren’t that bad to use once the wearer gets accustomed to it. I have rarely pricked myself pinning on a dress or apron. I went to safety pins and snaps because my husband became wary of all the straight pins. A lost straight pin is much easier to replace than a lost button, too.) The kapp can be a very light, almost transparent confection that sits gloriously on the wearer’s glossy, swept up hair, or it can be the cupped and pleated style that covers the head from the ears back. It is practical because it keeps the loose ends of hair under control, and I don’t often have to redo my bun and kapp unless I have been caught out in a gale.

As for footwear – shoes have become as much a status statement in Western civilization as an expensive automobile or an exotic vacation. Shoes are a bit of poshness that most women can covet and even express. The more ridiculous the shoe in material and height, the greater the status. Stiletto heels say exactly the same thing as footbinding did in imperialist China. Just like displaying long, painted fingernails, the wearer is saying, “I don’t have to work, walk or do anything for myself.” This is where feminism failed us. Instead of being about equal rights under the law for women, it devolved into “Do what you want.”  So how can anyone take women seriously if women act frivolously just because, well, they can? We as women object to men being lifelong adolescents, concerned with sex, fun and drinking. Why do we accept the same sort of role for ourselves, and worse, put ourselves in fetishistic, impractical outfits to do the same stupid things?

I am liberated by Plain dress and Plain life. I am not chained to a credit card anymore. I am always suitably dressed for any occasion, assuming I am not covered with flour, goat hair or garden mud. And if I have become disheveled in doing my real work, I can easily change into a fresh apron. I don’t have to choose special undergarments on which to hang my tight, skin-exposing clothes, and I am not in four-inch high hobbles.

Yes, I dress Plain as a statement of Christian witness, but part of that witness is that I am no longer a slave to the hell-driven commodification from Madison Avenue. Not only has Jesus Christ given me spiritual freedom, following His way has freed me from the anxiety and wasted energy of fashion and status.

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14 thoughts on “Plain: Practical, Yes. Historic? No.

  1. Hey Magdalena, I sure miss u on FB, but I understand. I am glad to see that your ok, but sad to hear that u have a cold and a bump. You have to take it easy some times you know. Hope all is well where ur at. It’s still so extremely hot here in Texas it’s been 107 and between 100 these past few weeks here. I am hoping for Fall. It is my favorite time of year. Not sure if anyone else wrote comments on here but I do hope this finds you well and write back when you can. Your friend always Mary Brown Texas USA.

    • Hi, Mary! People do write in here to stay in touch, please do so! I have to sheepishly say that the weather here has been about 25C for a couple of weeks, so pretty nice. After a cool and wet spring, we are having a good summer.

  2. Thank you for this.
    I am struggling with Plain today. It is about 100 degrees f here, and we are not air conditioned, so this is not a ladylike glow situation, we’re pouring sweat.
    (In shorts I would stick to the furniture, haha.)
    I’m thanking the Lord that plain does not = historical, I know I’d be far hotter with layers of petticoats and a blasted corset!

    Sending nprayers for nour cold abd bump ; )

    • Hi, Leslie. My compromise in very hot weather: Blouse and cotton half slip around the house. Or a short-sleeved nightgown. Throw a thin linen jumper over that and a light (maybe tulle or gauze) kapp to go out. Women in Arabic countries go around in hotter weather wearing more, so it is a matter of adjusting to it.

      Corsets? No, I don’t think so. I thought about that as I wrote this, and when I switched to Plain, all those hook and eye, boned undergarments I used to wear under evening dresses went right in the trash, along with the garters and stockings.

      I must say that I admired the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe in the recent royal trip here. She is naturally thin, but she also chose one-piece dresses that could easily go over a slip without fussiness. Even her evening wear was modest and practical. I do hope her example ushers in an age of simplicity and modesty.

  3. I have heard the same thing – that I look great without makup but with it I would be so much more, fill in the blank. My husband does feel that over time there is a kind of beauty in no make up that becomes more noticeable, even to others. He says he cannot put it into words. When I first stopped wearing especially mascara he had a hard time getting used to me without it ( even though he did not want me to wear it), but when I tried it a few years later just to see his reaction he found it so way over the top – just too bold. I struggle with knowing I could be more stunning because I was raised to believe my best contribution was my looks ( it started very young, like age 2 or 3 when my dad had my pic entered in some contest). Noone meant to hurt me, but honestly, it did. I have come to the conclusion I will always feel this way, but that I must not go by my feelings in this. I do hope it gets better because it can draw me into being mopey when I am tired or less strong, but I rather doubt it will.
    Joanie

    • I have always found that my concern about my appearance was centered on someone else’s expectation, that left to myself, I wouldn’t bother with a mirror in the house. I find mirrors disconcerting in that they reverse reality and make the three-dimensional two-dimensional. So if I say to myself, “Why does anyone care what I look like?” it lifts the burden. I like being on the healthy side of slim and I like being strong. I am mostly careful in how I dress, so that other people are not distracted from what my mind has to offer. I want people to listen to what I have to say, and neither be thinking, “Wow! gorgeous!” as if I am some exhibit in an art gallery. nor have them wondering if I have noticed a stained apron or a dirty kapp. My Plain clothes are more like a nun’s habit, or a nurse’s uniform. I want to express my profession as a Christian in that outward witness. And I want to be taken seriously as a thinking Christian. As for the vanity, well, I’m sure I will never completely get over it. Soemtimes I deliberately choose for a blog illustration a photo that is “unflattering” to my eyes.

  4. When I stopped being a slave to fashion I really enjoyed it! No more worry about what is in fashion, planning outfits with accessories and jewelery and much fewer clothes! Now just grab a dress and I am good to go!

    • That is how I feel. I also enjoy the freedom from the mall and from the anxiety of shopping. Even if I bought things I liked, I worried that they looked good on me and certainly the expense of new clothes was always a concern.

  5. Magdalena,

    This is a phenominally good article!! The cosmetic industry operates upon the principle that women ‘need’ their product to be all they can be. This principle intentionally erodes a woman’s healthy image of herself as it draws her into the trap of feeling good only with ‘product x’… I find the comments some of you have been subjected to such as ‘you look lovely without makeup but with it you would look stunning’ little short of obscene. Are we naught but a bit of paint?? regardless of the intentions of those who make such statements…

    ‘Plain’ modest gives us back our dignity as women and human beings. Plain is not dowdy or frumpy. these terms actually refer to ‘threadbare, tatty and almost ready for the ragbag clothing, not to crisp, neat, clean, laundered, pressed plain attire.

    I can relate to those of you in 40c plus climates over summer; Sydney is not much better than this in summer, plus in Feb we get the humidity! a lightweight cotton dress with halfslip and pettipants plus sandals works, as does a lace covering (very very good when in the heat but out of the sun.

    Sarah,

    Australia.

    • Oh, Sarah, do I ever tire of the “dowdy” comments I see! I wore a one-piece, back zip cape dress to church on Sunday, and received several comments on it, so I guess that isn’t “dowdy” or “frumpy.” Now that I’ve dropped a few pounds with exercise and diet, my clothes fit much better, too. No matter what one’s size, properly fitting clothes look smarter! I couldn’t afford to upsize my wardrobe, so I had to downsize my body, and I am nearly back to my healthy weight, which is about 140 pounds. As I am 5’3″ and muscular, this is a good weight. Women need to stop worrying about the number on the scale and relax with the idea of being a healthy, fit person. Despite my past and current health issues, I have a strong cardiovascular system, no problems with digestion, and all in all, I am biologically younger than my chronological age. I attribute this only partly to genetics, as heart health is always an issue in my family. I enjoyed athletics as a teenager, continued to hike, bike, ski and run as an adult, and took up weight training at a serious level about five years ago. Even though I experienced a perimenopausal weight gain, the excess came off quickly once I changed diet and had a more active life day to day. I know how many women my age are struggling with health and fitness, and I hope I can assure you that it is always possible to reach a good level of fitness, even if one is never going to look like an Olympic athlete or film star! Sarah, I know this has been a big challenge for you, and is even more so now in your recovery from a very bad injury, but I hope and pray that you will regain your previous mobility and improve your strength!

  6. I think of frumpy as excessively baggy, too, and that is often the context I perceive with the many commentaries on the subject of modesty. I haven’t done so, but I have wanted to remind these people it is hard to be frumpy in a neat nice dress and apron that accentuates womanliness in my opinion. Not in a detailed or immodest way. I do watch my diet better, in fact, as the apron starts to ride up quickly on my tummy if I gain a bit. Another thing is that I can wear a too large dress under a well fitted apron and noone really knows unless there is too much material coming out the armholes, which isn’t the case yet. I had some expensive dresses made by an Amish girl and they were not the right size, too big. I couldn’t wear them with their apron and cape without looking “frumpy”, but underneath a one piece tie apron they looked just fine.

    Oh heat!! It is in the low 90’s today, but with the heat index ( we have such bad humidity here in Indiana) it is well over a 100 degrees to our bodies and my husband is working on a black roof where he manages all the air conditioning units for a factory. He is very careful to keep hydrated and takes breaks, wears a hat etc… it amazes me how efficient his normal body runs under such conditions if he cares for it. Mine would collapse no matter what I fed it under the heat and I feel like a waste of a human sometimes. I am constantly feeling guilty that I have air cond. and that I am not able to deal with heat. I don’t seem biologically my age either in many ways, but then I am not very hearty and never really have been. I have a husband who insists on babying me, so I suppose that has preserved me some. I was a very active child and young adult, and a gymnast. I did gymnastics after the birth of my first child and well into my 20’s and hiked and played in our river and in the woods – I thought I was healthy and strong. But I had a lot of illness as a child on up and it was all autoimmune related and by the time I was 30 it knocked me down to where I could not get up for some years. I would not be here if I had not found natural ways to improve my health and my immune functions, but I will always have delicate health.
    Joanie

  7. Magdalena,

    Bless you, dear sister! 🙂

    I’m getting there, as we say here in aus. I covet your prayers and friendship.

    blessings,

    Sarah,
    Australia.

  8. May God bless your journey to Plain and Faithful living, Magdalena. Your commentaries on living Plainly echo our own. It tells us that the Holy Spirit is moving many to return to God, Faith and Family.

  9. I think that both men and women that are in the world, rapidly become self absorbed by what the world expects of them, they have to keep up with all the new trends and fashion that come along, waist money needlessly just because their neighbors and co workers have it. Keeping up with the Jones so to speak.
    We that dress plain or have dressed plain in my case (I was Old Order Mennonite) really don’t care what the fashions are, don’t care about what their neighbors have. I believe your focus changes entirely, your concern is more on family life, farming, gardening, canning putting up.
    I think it is sad when I see people in the world are so concerned with everyone else. Focus stays shifted from the family it seems. Sure they do things together but unlike among any of the plain groups it is not family life around the table, talking doing simple things together interacting with each other, children in the world grow up going to school and practically living to go to the mall, the games, the computers, everything except pure simple family life, the people wonder where they went wrong when the children become teens.
    I don’t know I could go on for hours but won’t. I am not Old Order any
    longer, but my life revolves around all the values I hold most dear. I live a simple life, have a car, and not a slave at all to fashion, still live in the same area right in the middle of Old Order Life in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (Dayton/Bridgewater) Virginia area.
    I am glad I found your blog and can relate to it in many ways.

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