The Modesty of Self

I haven’t posted much on modesty lately. I am so fully immersed in my modest ways, that I no longer think much about it. That’s why the nun’s daily clothing was called a “habit.” There’s a lot to be said for the habit, for just stepping into the simple garments meant to just clothe the body, without a thought as to flattery or appeal. Everything I wear is easy, even if I have to wrangle some pins into it right now. My daily dress routine takes mere minutes, and unless I have some unforeseen encounter with kitchen splatter, garden mud or barn muck, I’m pretty much set for the day, no matter where I go.

apron over apron - upper Valley tradition

I used to be a clotheshorse, being slim and pretty. But that was living in what the world expected of me, not what the Lord expected of me. In choosing clothes and spending time on appearance – hair, make-up, outfit – I was making a little idol out of the image in the mirror. It was about ME. Either it was about my feeling like an attractive woman, or it was about me wanting to be just like others. Even as clergy, that got reinforced. I think many of us had a fear that ME would drown in the collar and suit. We even fretted over vestments, expensive lengths of cloth that cost a small fortune, to be worn one hour at a time on Sunday morning. Choosing the right vestments (for flattery and to express one’s innate good taste and brand of theology) was a major issue. After a few trials, I came to dislike vestments greatly. They are heavy, expensive, easily stained, difficult to clean, and a downfall of pride for priests and clergy. When I had several services a day, wearing vestments felt like spending a whole day modelling wedding dresses. The weight of the cloth, the care needed to keep it unsullied, the moving about in yards of satin and brocade – I dreaded it. I switched down to cassock, surplice and black stole pretty quickly. That felt as natural as a dress and apron.

So why was I still getting into the plastic collar and suit? To prove that I was a real priest? To impress others? Some of both.

What I am doing should tell people what I am. If I’m at the altar, or i n he pulpit, or visiting the hospital, I’m the pastor. But mostly I’m a Christian. Part of what I do is stifle that vanity and pride.

Being a Christian became more important to me than being the priest. I identify more strongly with the simple portrait of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels than I do with the medieval role of the presbyter.

But I needed to stop identifying so strongly with the cultural role handed to me at birth – attractive woman, whose appearance evokes lust, envy, desire, smug approval, or pride. This is what happens when we unthinkingly, unquestioningly, accept what the culture wants for us, without regard for what God wants. And sometimes when we do question the cultural normatives, we still give in, out of fear of being different, out of pressure from those who don’t like our choice, out of persuasion from friends and family who are embarrassed at our rejection of what they accept. Subconsciously, we know that the adoption of a uniquely Christian way of life and its call to separate ourselves visibly will hold us up to a standard we may fail. We may want that opportunity to let our standard slide a bit.

I found that the clergy collar did not require a high standard. Too many clergy have used the collar to hide their sins. Others in recent years have boastfully worn it in the midst of their worldly life – ambition, envy, desire for wealth and status.

God calls us out of that.

And there’s no excuse for pride of modesty either. I see this in evangelical young women, for the most part, mainly because they are the ones who come to me for guidance and advice. There is a lot of initial enthusiasm, and they flaunt their new modest (but fashionable) dresses and headscarves before their less modest friends. They wear modesty rather than are modest. They are not interested in leaving the sinful world behind while aiming for the new Jerusalem. They want to be the Christian character in the game of culture. Others – usually young American women who have read some Amish novels or have seen some “Amish” themed movies or television – desire the Plain life, but find it means Self disappears into the cape dress and kapp. When the cape dress fails to flatter them as they wished, they abandon it. They have not given up the idol in the mirror.

Plain is as much a dedicated life as the monastery. It is a practice of Christian self-denial, and to some degree, all Christians are called to it. The context of it will be different from one place to another, but it is the same. It is a modesty of forgetting the anxiety around the projection of Self. God requires that we become transparent to His Will, both in receiving it and giving it forth. If what we want to project is our own personality, contrived as that is, we cannot be the medium for God’s Peace.

I will say it bluntly: Christian life, no matter who you are, requires great self-sacrifice. It requires great sacrifice of all that we may hold dear in this world. We don’t live in the world of popular culture – television, entertainment, parties, popularity, personal attractiveness, amusement, status, shopping – we live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought it to us, and we inherited it with His death, resurrection and return to the Father. We have it now. What we bring into that Kingdom must be beneficial to all who live in it. What we carry out of it must be what proclaims the Kingdom, and the reality of new life through Jesus Christ. It isn’t just a matter of “believing in him,” a brief prayer that we memorize as a talisman, but a change in our daily lives. We are called by Him – really called, like a parent calling a child home at dusk, and no matter where we are and what we are doing, we are with Him and alive in Him, and He in us. When the rest of the world looks for Jesus, they will see you.

from Amish Village

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.

Plain Dress – Children

Amish children, Lancaster County, old postcard

All the Old Order children I have met dressed Plain. There didn’t seem to be any question about it; they dressed much like their parents, and if anything, their clothes are simpler and plainer. Little girls usually wear a chemise type dress with sleeves, and a overall kind of apron that buttons in the back. Little boys wear pants with suspenders and button front shirts. Infants of both genders wear a longish dress with diapers until they are toilet-trained, which seems to be at an earlier age than Englisch children.  When you are just weary with washing cloth diapers, you are likely to push the toiletting much earlier, especially if you have another in diapers and one more on the way! Most children have the muscle control necessary by two, at the latest; very few won’t by three. It might even be four or five for all night bladder control, but as my family pediatrician used to say, “They never start school in diapers.” I honestly don’t know why parents want to keep buying disposable diapers. They are expensive and a nuisance to dispose! I know that if you don’t have your own washer, it is quite a chore to haul buckets of diapers to a laundry. Still, women did them by hand for many generations.

Amish child's dress and apron ca.1900

Amish girls still wear garments much like these. This outfit was for offer on eBay; the seller’s reserve wasn’t met, so it may still be available. I think he was hoping to get upward of $100 US. Perhaps someone will want this for a collection. But since the style and method of construction is pretty much the same as today, I don’t see anyone spending much for it. Old clothes only have real value when they are connected with a famous person or event. Contrary to what most people think, museums don’t purchase much unless it has an important history and is directly related to the rest of their collection. They are often the sellers of items that are no longer pertinent to their focus, or are being replaced by better examples. Archival storage space is expensive, and for textiles in particular, as they must be held within a certain temperature and humidity range, while being housed in containers that are acid-free and insect proof.

The dress without the apron

I would think that examples of Amish clothing from this time would be rare, as clothes would be handed on to another sibling or cousin, and eventually would end up as rags or patches. I think this cornflower blue quite pretty, but I suspect the original colour was a deeper indigo.

Amish child's dress and pinafore

This is a more recent example, but made of the same basic design.

Winter outerwear, Lancaster County

Both boys and girls wear simple short jackets in winter in Lancaster County. The young man here is wearing a scaled down version of Pa’s black felt hat. Girls might wear black bonnets over their prayer kapps, or a black wool scarf tied kerchief fashion under the chin. This group, apparently siblings, have bright scarves at their necks. They seem to be without mittens or gloves, though.

Englisch barn boots of the black rubber pull-on type seem to be in common use now among Plain people in winter, with socks inside for warmth. Lace-up boots are so cute on little children, but I can imagine when Mama has to get five young children into boots every morning, it could be quite a struggle. I’ve noticed that Old Order children often wear flip-flop sandals in summer and dark or white running shoes the rest of the year. Young men in their teen years wear dark running shoes or workboots, while young women and girls wear Keds in all but the coldest months.

Bright sunbonnets are standard among small girls – parents allow a bit of freedom of choice in the fabric for the summer bonnet, and even older women will wear quite a colourful floral print sunbonnet on weekdays. Bonnets are good sense for children’; they protect the face, neck and the tender scalp of children prone to burn, and there is no risk of adverse reactions as there is to sunscreen. They stay on better than sunhats. Little boys wear wear straw hats much like their fathers. They may be anchored on the youngest with a bit of elastic.

I would say that Plain parents, even if not Amish or Mennonite, should expect their children to dress Plain. The child is obedient to the parent until independent. It might be a struggle to get teenagers who go to public schools to honour this, but I wouldn’t allow much dissension in my own house. (It isn’t an issue, since all the children were away from home when we became intentionally Plain.) I would expect little girls to cover by the age of eight unless parents don’t expect that until baptism or reception as an adult in the church.

Plain dressed families have so many advantages – the clothes do not go out of style, and are usually handmade and sturdier than factory made clothes. There is no question about status or fashion. There is no temptation to push the limits on how mature or “sexy” the clothes make the child. (Although I have heard of Amish girls asking if they can wear a cape dress and adult covering at a younger age than their older sisters, so they can look more mature. It’s rather like my wanting lipstick and pantyhose at twelve, emulating my older cousins.)

Lancaster County, vintage postcard

Note that here, all the children but one are barefoot! The little boy looks as if he has been dressed up for an occasion; this may be a family setting out for church or market. Perhaps the oldest girl has another place to visit or attend, and she put on shoes and hose.

Growing into Plain

I’ve been looking at vintage patterns lately and it has been a bit of a revelation. I spent years in professional attire or casual jeans; I always thought of myself as someone interested in fashion, who dressed to be stylish and projected an air of well-read sophistication. (I’m not quite sure how well-read one can look, now that I think about it.) One young friend called it the “cool minister” look.

But as I look through clothes styles from my young days, and pick out patterns I would have worn, bought or coveted, I am surprised to find that Folkwear, “granny” dresses and pinafores played a big part in my taste. I read books by and about Quakers. I liked the Puritan costumes at Plimouth Planation, although Puritan theology gives me the shivers. I had read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books; I was devoted to Yves St. Laurent’s romantic Russian styles from the seventies.

This is what I mean:

I had this pattern. My grandmother didn’t want to make it full length. so she made the top for me. Not what I had in mind. I realize that my family thought I was a bit extravagant in the fabric usage department. Because I would have worn this:

Yes, with the straw hat. Although this variant is appealing too:

That ruffle looks like fun!

I was never one to moon over my future wedding, but when I had a serious boyfriend, I sketched this dress a hundred times:

The one on the right, in lace, with a full veil and a juliet cap.

I could never have afforded anything designer, and the sewing skills required kept me from attempting this, but in my heart of hearts, this is what I wanted to wear:

vintage 1976 YSL

 And here is something I just bought, that I had wanted for decades!

I think it will make a great workdress for the croft, and in a light batiste for summer, a nightdress.

I may be Plain, but I haven’t forgotten romance!

More Apron Patterns

vintage Advance pattern

 I have found eBay to be a good source for vintage patterns, if you have the temperment to browse through frame after frame of small photos. Aprons are a way of seeing how our foremothers saw themselves; how culture thought of women; what women were expected to do.

I suppose before sewing machines were a common item in households, most women made patterns from their old clothes, and kept their workday items fairly simple.  Wealthier people had their clothes tailored, and I believe that young housemaids and kitchen girls were expected to make up their own work costumes. Aprons were utlitarian, the clothing that protected dresses and skin from water, soap, dust, mud and food spatters. Maids had work aprons that went over serving aprons; I still do this. I have kitchen aprons that go over the cape and apron or dress apron that covers my dress. (Even on warm days I have three layers of clothing.) By the 1930s women made their own aprons, and while still pretty utilitarian, they were becoming a little more fashionable.

the 1930s woman - looking good in the kitchen

Patterns were available by mail order from newspapers. As dresses got shorter, so did the aprons. Printed feed and flour sacks were used for this kind of everyday garment, or older dresses were taken apart and made into new aprons. Women wore the cocverall kind of apron right through the 1940s, with popular patterns advertising that they used a yard or less of fabric. The Depression shortage of funds for new material and the wartime shortages of any fabric may be why wraparound and coverall aprons were rarely made in those decades.

The 1950s br0ught a new prosperity and a number of “labour-saving” household devices; while my country living family still wore the coverall or bib apron, suburban women were becoming more sophisticated.

a fun little apron, suitable for entertaining at coffee klatsch

 It was in this time, and into the 1970s, that aprons became an at-home wardrobe enhancement, “dressing up” a plain skirt, or worn as a way of indicating hospitality. In some communities, bridesmaids received a gift of a pretty apron for helping serve at a bridal reception. (I gave my two “bridesmaids” vintage aprons when Nicholas and I were married.)

Most of us wear aprons for the old reasons – we have kitchen, house or garden work to do. We need pockets big enough to carry tools. We wear full aprons and the two-piece cape and apron for modesty. While my young friends like an apron for baking or cooking, they aren’t likely to put one on over a dress for appearance or modesty. Nor would they wear one outside the home, or even think of putting one on just because that’s what YOU do. Yet I see young women acorss the continent and in Europe making and wearing aprons.

My friend Bethann made the point in seminary that the apron has been the distinguishing garment of women for millenia; men may have work related garments that cover clothes for safety or sanitary reasons, but women wear aprons as an identifier of feminine competence. An apron says that we are ready for serious work, or at least we might consider it. Even women in the Sun King’s court put on a lacy little overskirt, as if to say, “I could whip up a batch of madelines right now.” Marie Antoinette had a frilly dairymaid’s apron to go over the elaborate peasant costume worn down on her play farm at Versailles.

We are reclaiming the apron. It passed out of the fashion vernacular for a few decades, but it looks like it is coming back.

Vintage Apron

the vintage apron on the vintage model

Some of us were discussing aprons back and forth – not an unusual  topic among my jet-set friends – and I thought of this apron. It came to me as an item stuffed into a rag bag in a box of old fabric and patterns. The bias trim was loose in a spot, and the apron had been washed so many times that it is as soft as cotton can get. My husband refers to it as “my grandmother’s pinny.”

the print

You can see that the print is green roses with some sort of little gridded square between – the sort of nonsensical pattern much loved in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. It is edged with a light green bias, very nicely sewn, on an old straight stitch machine. I can’t imagine sewing bias on by hand; tedious and eye straining!

the upper edge of the bib

I am having trouble dating this particular apron – I’m thinking somewhere in the mid to late 1950s. The pattern from which it is made is much older, I think, although it has a rather sweet scallop to the bottom edge, unlike the very utlilitarian patterns of earlier days, and it is not all that long. The maker may have combined two patterns, as the back of the apron is similar to aprons common to the early twentieth century, and very smilar to styles still worn by Amish women.

button closing, tie waist

I intend to draft a pattern from this soon, probably onto an old sheet or muslin, since I think I would use it a lot. I will eliminate the scallops, make the skirt longer and a bit wider, and make the ties a bit wider, as well.

Plain Dress November

Plain is as Plain does

I’ve been Plain since 2006, along with my husband. He was naturally plain, I think; even as a child, when his mother, a very good seamstress, would make him fashionable shirts and clothes, he would only wear them to please her, preferring jeans and dark shirts. He was a natural for clergy garb – black pants, black shirt with the funny white plastic tab in the collar. (I absolutely despise those tabs.) He’ll wear the same shirts now, without the insert. Oddly, he always hated belts – the buckles were never plain enough for him, and he’s not shaped well for a belt, anyway. When I switched his trousers to braces buttons, he was well-pleased.

He hates suits. When he’s had to wear one, especially if it means a tie, he looks like a dressed-up bear. He rolls his arms forward and leans out of the tie. He no longer has either.

My journey to Plain is well-documented here; I don’t need to recapitulate. I’ve survived the hostility from friends and family, and in some cases, I’m still waiting for some people to come mend their side of the fence. Those that don’t like it can go on not liking it; I’m done defending myself because for Heaven’s sake, I have done nothing wrong in this.

Should others become Plain? Only if called. When the call is felt, it is inescapable. I was probably called from childhood. I loved Plain people, Quakers and Amish. I loved nuns in traditional habits. I thought our Baptist ministers in their suits and coloured ties were real peacocks compared to the Catholic and Anglican priests! (I’ve since met some really flamboyant dressers, and have toned down my opinions.)

We do need to think about Plain when we are called. It will be a long, hard meditation, with a lot of wavering. It isn’t vanity to take pains with Plain when we start. It took me a couple of years to refine what I needed to do. Some of it is pragmatic – the stiff caps instead of soft caps, the length of skirts, the choices of colours. (My husband is partially blind for the last year and more; I’ve switched to brighter colours so he can see me more easily.)

Dressing in the morning is now more than undies, jeans and a pullover. I have to consciously think of how the clothes go on, and remember why I am doing it. Long dresses, some of them cotton, require shifts and such underneath, and an apron (or some such) over for modesty. (I have a lot to be modest about,which I used to flaunt, or at least emphasize. I’m not ashamed of it, but it isn’t what I need to present first to the world.) Priests of the high church party used to have cards outlining the prayers they were to say as they put on their ecclesial garments, a practice derived late in the 19th century from the vesting prayers of the Orthodox Church, which are ancient. I have used both, although when alone my vesting prayers were along the lines of “Please, God, don’t let me say anything stupid out there, and keep me from tripping over my cassock again.”

In the church, I was plain at the altar. I wore cassock and surplice (a really long one that looked like a nightie; it subbed as an angel costume) and black stole, known as a tippet. This is also called a preaching stole. I very rarely wore coloured stoles, an alb or a chasuble – the round garment that signifies the prist who is celebrating the communion. Some priests wear their university hood with cassock and surplice and stole. I was taught to wear one or the other, hood or stole. I’ve lost my hood, and I doubt if I will replace it. It says to the people, I think, “I’m smarter than you.” There were times I would get called out of the vestry, not get back in, and start the service in just cassock. I sometimes said the service in street clothes. Everyone there knew who I was and what I did, why did I need special clothes?

Things I like about Plain: I don’t send mixed messages. I don’t look rich, or sexy, or trying to look younger than I am. People ask me questions in a friendly way. Sometimes I have amusing encounters with people who guess all the wrong things about me (except that I am rich, sexy or young.) I can make my own clothes and ear them for years without anyone wodnering why I’m out of style. My shoes are comfortable. I get to wear aprons.

It is an easy vocation, now that I’ve done it for quite a while. It is a blessing.