Staying Plain

Plain as Prophecy

It seems a double handful of friends in various places have decided they are no longer plain. When I ask why the answers range from “My husband/family didn’t like it” to “I was tired of telling people I’m not Amish.” The most honest answer was probably “It was a mistake, I wasn’t meant for this.” I won’t question people’s motives, but I can’t see it myself. Plain is so easy – so low-key – so cheap!

A long time ago I got tired of the mirror. I didn’t want to be the person checking her hair, checking her clothes, checking her make-up. I wasn’t fashion obsessed, but I had the idea that as an artist, my body was a canvas, and I would show the world who I was by what I displayed on it. But instead of having a number of “costumes” that went on easily, so as to get on with the day and serve as a billboard for my creative work, dress became a matter of insecurity.

I was projecting who I wanted to be, not who I was. I was manipulating how people saw me. They didn’t get to know me, they got to know my clothes.

While I am usually in habit now, out on the street, I still dress Plain at home and when I travel anywhere. Do people think I’m Amish? Maybe. Not a bad thing. I don’t do anything that would embarrass an Amish woman or mislead someone about the Amish. (This also reminds me to behave modestly in all things.) And if someone asks me if I am Amish, I say that I am not, and that I belong to a different church. If they are curious enough to ask more questions, it is an opportunity to witness to them, to spread the gospel. Either in habit or Plain dress, I am happy to pray for or with someone if they ask. This is apostolic witness; no Christian should be ashamed of it.

Me, full habit

Me, full habit

Stay Plain. Become Plain. It means you never fuss with clothes again. The habit is a medieval form of Plain; those in religious orders might consider taking it up if they put it off. Plain is comfortable. It is practical. It is inexpensive. You can have a smaller house because you don’t need extra closet space. It doesn’t go out of fashion. It is easy to sew. Covering means that you don’t worry about hairstyles, grey hair or thinning hair. Plain means you need one mirror in the house. You gain self-confidence. You know how people see you: As a Christian. It is a commitment to a way of life that liberates.

medieval nun

Plain means you stop thinking about yourself as some sort of ornament decorating the world, and become Real. Becoming Real means living in God’s Kingdom, now and always, rather than staying in the illusion that is the world and our insecurities.

nun in cloister

Crofting: In the Garden

Just an average day on the job

We are still preparing our garden plots. It is still within reasonable planting season here. This is what I look like when I am adding soil amendments. In our garden this year, those are wood ashes and composted manure. These are not things one wants to breath. And because the manure often has mold spores, I have to be doubly careful not to breathe it unfiltered.

Yes, it is hot, although it is rarely sweltering at this latitude. It keeps the black flies out of my ears and nose, as well. I have a piece of white tulle which is going to be sewn into a veil to go over the sunhat seen here and over bonnets. I think I will make it a tube with drawstrings at either end. I am very much covered from head to foot while outdoors. I wear long sleeves, a high necked dress or blouse, or a kerchief over the neckline, and leggings under the skirt. I wear long socks and at least ankle boots. I have gardening gloves, as well. I cannot wear sunscreen or insect repellent.

In a century past, it wasn’t unusual for women to wear veils while riding in open buggies and automobiles, or to protect their complexion while gardening.

Why a Bonnet?

Amish Bonnet, Pennsylvania

If any one article of women’s Plain dress says, “I am not of this kingdom,” it is the bonnet. It is the public declaration of being different. It covers the hair, a source of vanity. It shadows the face, a clear boundary of privacy. It is the symbol of feminine identity as a Christian: Quaker, Amish, Mennonite, Anabaptist, Brethren, Salvation Army worker, Plain Anglican.

Amish bishop and wife

The bonnet is unmistakeably a way to say,”I am a serious Christian.”

It is anti-vanity, anti-lust, anti-world. It says that the wearer intends to guard her femininity.

It also says, "No foolishin' around."

I described wearing the bonnet as having the monastery on one’s head. It is a place of security and grace when one takes it on with the understanding that under it, one is in the Kingdom of God.

my bonnet

Witness: To Peace

Quaker, 1866

As we discussed Plain dress recently, I think a number of us offered all the usual reasons for it – conformity to Biblical precepts, practicality, denial of self. These are all good personal reasons for Plain dress; I say it is my Christian witness. When people look at me, they know they have seen a Christian. But couldn’t I do that with a cross necklace, a modest skirt and blouse, a kerchief instead of a prayer cap? I could wear a t-shirt even, with Bible verses and great fish graphics. Christian. I could wear my clerics – Christian.

But as I thought about it I was inspired: my Plain witness is a Witness to Peace. I am a Peacemaker.

The Quakers are, throughout their whole Plain history, notable Peacemakers. The Anabaptists who followed Menno Simons were pacifists. that white prayer kapp, apron and long blue dress say “Peace be with thee.”

My husband’s beard and long hair, as well as his Plain coat and hat, are symbols of Peace. The early priests in the apostolic church grew out their beards and hair as a way to disassociate themselves from the Roman Empire, whose male citizens were shaven and shorn, a symbol that they were eligible to join the army.

Most people know about the Amish mostly from popular fiction like the movie “Witness.” The witness is a young Amish boy, but the “Witness” is the Amish witness to Peace throughout the movie, over against the kill-or-be-killed ethic of the corrupt police force that the protagonist works within.

The white kapp and the black bonnet, the beard and the broad-brimmed hat, are symbols that we, Nicholas and I, are dedicated to that same Witness. We live that non-violence, and we let people know that. We are witnesses – and hostages – to Peace.

Quaker woman with bonnet, ca. 1890

Which Bonnet?

My bonnet

This is the bonnet I usually wear – it is custom-made, a Mennonite style bonnet with a deeper brim. I consider this an investment piece of headgear; it was a bit expensive, but I anticipate that I won’t have to buy another one.

My second best bonnet

 This is also a Mennonite bonnet, of a different type. It does not extend past my forehead, and is more practical for driving. It really hugs the head. I’ve seen this style worn by Mennonite women in Ontario; some do drive cars as well as buggies, and this bonnet does not obscure one’s side vision.

Amish women in full bonnets, old postcard

 This image of Amish women at market is probably fifty or more years old. Their bonnets fully cover their heads and shade their faces, a practical consideration when one is outdoors most of the time.

Old Order Amish boonet

 

Anish Old Order bonnet

 Advertised as an Old Order Amish slat bonnet, I think this is mis-identified. It looks more like a variation on the traditional bonnet. Perhaps the seller is confused because it is not an Old Order Lancaster bonnet, which has scallops at the back of the brim.

Old slat bonnet

 

I would call this a slat bonnet. I’m not certain of its age; it may be Amish or Quaker. A slat bonnet is less formal, and is meant for outdoor work. It shades the face completely and protects the neck. Black is not the best colour for a work bonnet, as it tends to heat the head in the sun. Wearing a slat bonnet is described as “having a mailbox on your head.” It severely restricts side vision and hearing. I wear mine for yard work and in the garden, but it is not a good choice for driving or even street wear!

Kapp, Kerchief, Covering

We had an interesting discussion on the witness of headcovering on facebook. A video was offered for critique; many were impressed with the articulate and honest answers of the women interviewed. But two issues surfaced: I thought that the presentation was amateurish (okay, it is youtube) and hurt the credibility of the statements made; another person wondered why none of the women interviewed had covered for more than three years. All seemed to be converts to a group or church that covered. That may have been the focus of the presentation, but it wasn’t clear.

And in looking for other videos or presentations that promote headcovering, I found quite a bit of material that would leave the reader puzzled or perhaps thinking it was for members of certain faith groups and not others. Those Christian churches that have practiced covering for generations – particularly the Anabaptists and a very few Conservative Quaker meetings that continued – have little to say about it. Where are the testimonies of people who have covered for years, who have mothers and grandmothers who covered? And what about the testimony of women who have covered for many years, without much fanfare?

I am inviting all women who cover or who are led to cover to comment, with the goal of compiling those comments and thoughts into some presentation that can be used for teaching about covering.  I would like to see input from women who have just started covering, who have covered for a few years (myself included) and who have covered for many years. There are no wrong ideas or opinions in this, and we are not going to argue theology and discipline, just contribute personal experience and guidance.  Don’t worry about spelling and grammar; I will straighten that out.

Questions to consider:

Why do you cover? When did you start? Do you belong to a group that covers? How have other people reacted, positively and negatively?

You may include your name and geographic location. If you don’t want to, that’s okay.

What would be the best format for this? A blog post? A webpage? A video (eventually – we do not have the technology right now)? Would you want to refer other people to it if it was presented well? (That depending on my skills and any help that might be volunteered.)

Is there anything else that could be presented that would be helpful?

I am continuing to compile information for any updated post on modest/Plain dressing resources, and welcome more contributions.

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.