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.

When We Became Plain

We’ve been publically Plain for more than four years now. It was a very easy step for us, but the consequences were great, and no one expected it of two middle-aged Anglican priests. My husband, Nicholas, had lived in southern Ontario for quite a while, and often encountered Amish and Old Order Mennonite as he travelled around the province in his work. He openly admired them, the simple, Christian way of life, the lack of materialism. He adopted some of that simplicity in his life, although it wasn’t that obvious. Anglican priests, for the most part, dress quite simply. Black is the colour. That’s about it. Black shirt with white collar insert to look like clergy, black jeans or trousers, a plain black jacket or sweater. Yes, I know Anglican clergy, male and female, who are veritable peacocks. (You know who you are.) Most of us, though, keep to the simple and narrow way – it’s easier and it hides the coffee stains, which are an occupational hazard.

I, on the other hand, had closets of clothes. My daily dress was basic black, with some grey for variety. Off-duty, once out of overalls and denim jackets (raising sheep limits one’s wardrobe, too) I had dresses of fanciful shape and hue, and shoes, shoes, shoes. I had designer clothes. Oh, yes, tasteful designer clothes in those timeless styles, but cashmere, expensive wool, silk. Poor Nicholas was more than a bit intimidated by my high style when we met. (I wore designer jeans, a silk blouse and a suede cowboy hat. He was wearing an ugly plaid shirt and khakis – it just screamed “priest out of uniform.”)

Once we were together, and I had winnowed the chaff from the grain, wardrobe-wise, I was motivated to go one step further. Nicholas gave me his copy of Scott Savage’s The Plain Reader. I was home at last. Within a few days, I was down to two dresses, a skirt and blouse, and boots. I kept my black wool coat and made my first prayer kapp, thanks to Shepherd’s Hill.

But why?

It wasn’t mere Amish-enthrallment, motivated by romantic novel covers. I had known Mennonites and liked them, and had felt a bit of a tug to get Plain, but didn’t follow through. Anglicans aren’t Plain, I reasoned. No one will understand, people will hate it, I will look silly.

So I put that impulse aside. Little did I realize at the time that the hounds of heaven were on my heels.

Nicholas and I talked it over. It was a new life for us. We were already rural people, living a very simple life. It seemed practical, but it seemed more than that. We were making a break from the worldly past, and we were eager to show it. In Plain dress, with kapp and sturdy boots, I felt armored for the battle. I was ready. I was under the shelter of the heavenly hand.

That was the fulfillment of my search. I once said, “If only we could go out into the world, and take the monastery with us!”  I meant that we need to carry peace and mercy with us, sheltered by God. We move in this world, but we are not of it. We live in His Kingdom, here on earth. We are not citizens of the world of commerce and trade, just sojourners eager to return Home.

I went through many permutations of Plain, from nearly monastic to what I wear now, a Quakerly cape dress or jumper and a white or black kapp, and a very Plain Mennonite bonnet. I have made myself a slat bonnet, and those who know me as the most Austere of Austere Plain will be surprised to hear that today I bought two print fabrics for summer dresses, by Nicholas’s advice.

Nicholas looks the same as he has for four years or more: black shoes or workboots, black or blue jeans, black braces, Plain cotton shirt in white, beige, blue or black. He does have one madder red shirt he calls “orange” and thinks way too flash. He wears a black felt hat in winter, a plain straw hat in summer, doesn’t cut his hair and wears a full beard. He was wearing the Brethren chin beard, but his low vision now prevents him from shaving properly, and his beard and mustache have filled in. His winter jacket is his old peacoat, which he has had for many, many years. He’s a handsome man and I am blessed to have him by my side.

That’s us, Plain.

Plain Dresses from Historic Patterns

Unless you’ve inherited a very old house with a very full attic, chances are you will not find really old dress patterns. women made their own, or their dressmaker kept them for them. Godey’s Lady Book was one source; and old (19th century patterns are difficult to follow, with no directions or even sizing.

Modern historic reenactors take old garments and make their own patterns, and some are available for sale online. If your goal is to find comfortable, simple clothing, you may have to choose carefully among the patterns. Soem can be maddeningly complex. If you’ve ever been involved in hsitoric societies, you also know that many people are quite fussy about the details, so don’t get caught up too much in authenticity if all you want is a wearable day dress.  It’s easy to do if you get mesmerized by the explanations about horna nd wood buttons, hooks and eyes, hemming, natural fabrics and prints, and accessories.

I, for one, have no use for a reticule or a parasol tassel. My practical everyday dress is, while modest and plain, is not accurate for any historic period bu ttoday. I remind myself of that when I get fascinated by authentic Civil War era ladies’ boots or bonnets. I live today, in the 21st century, and I allow myself zippers and elastic. Elastic is an excellent thing, or our drawers would have drawstrings, and you know what can happen if the knot comes loose.

While a bit on the upper end price-wise for patterns, “The Sewing Academy” by Elizabeth Stewart Clark ( has nice things for women and children. The patterns are $20 each.

James Country Mercantile ( ha a wide variety of patterns for men, women and children. Some of the men’s things are military uniforms, but the shirt and pants patterns would be useful for Plain dress. There are patterns for women’s plain work dresses, and homestead dresses. Very interesting is a pattern for authentic bloomer suits, if you want something very modest for bicycle riding or beach wear. There are many patterns for hoods, caps and bonnets according to taste. Children’s clothes are well-represented.

A reenactor in Utah has a good blog on sewing historic “pioneer” style clothes, with lots of photos and advice:

When I look at reenactment costumes, I am amused by the wide range of styles represented in any era, depending on one’s socio-economic class. Servants, slaves and homesteaders wore basic, modest dresses of wool, linen or cotton. Wealthy women, whether in a plantation setting or a city, wore elaborate costumes that required engineered underpinnings, made in fine cotton or silk. Today, there is little class distinction except in the cost of clothing. Only “Plain” says that one is simple living, rural-oriented, and unconcerned with fashion.

The Sublime of the Mundane

I recently got taken to task for being too mundane in this blog. You know, talking about laundry and sewing, children and food waste. I had not thought it was mundane. I realize it is not the most interesting subject matter but mundane?

Yes ( my anonymous critic) I do have some expensive degrees. I went to universityand seminary for knowledge – the knowledge of how to learn and think. I didn’t go to trade schools. I wish I had done so as well, because then I would have a job that paid sufficiently. But earning money is not the reason for learning to learn.

As for the mundane – I believe there are many of us who are facinated by the mundane. I don’t mean in that worrisome know-everything-about-the-Red-Sox way, but that we see the meaning of life in the mundane. We see the universe in a drop of water, perhaps. We see the underpinnings of society in children’s games and stories. We certainly see the hand of God in His Creation, right down to tadpoles and grains of sand. We see the happiness of our family groups and our social groups in homebaked bread and laundry hung out on a clothesline.

Those of us who love the mundane and live in it with joy have accepted that life is not about bigger, better experiences. Maybe we will never see Paris or Tokyo or even Vancouver. It just doesn’t matter. We don’t just stop to smell the roses, we live in rose gardens. Often, our journeys are within a small circuit, because for those of us who are Christians, we know that God has already given us heaven in Jesus Christ.

The simple sensory experiences are enough. Homemade cupcakes, fresh baked bread, an herb garden on a warm day. A garden chaos of tulips, star of bethlehem, lily of the valley, lilac. A green canopy of maple leaves overhead. Stars over the lake. Two dogs and a small child running around on the grass. A husband’s loving smile. Even the grey hair I see in the mirror and the scuffed comfortable boots I wear most days. All this is an acceptance of my life as I have lived it, and the gifts of joy the Lord puts before us.

I don’t want to live in a world where I must have anxiety over a lack of perfection (however perfection is defined that day). I like our world of surprises and changes; some of them have been scary,but the Lord has provided. I will let God look after perfection, and I’ll tend the small garden He put in my hands, imperfect and troubled as it may be at times; there is more joy than trouble in it.

Dress Questions

I talked to someone today who has a role in directing my future employment. (No names, of course.) He expressed a mild admiration for my way of dress, asked about the background of dressing Plain, and then the big question: “If a parish calls you, will you be willing to answer their questions about your appearance?”

If this were a matter of something I could not help – a scar, body size, disability or baldness – I would be very offended. I would be threatening employment discrimination action. But this is something I chose, and I chose it for a reason that would affect how my parish would interact with me.

I dress Plain as a Christian witness in the world, to discipline my own waywardness, and as a sacrifice to God. I can explain all that. And if a parish could not accept that, then I probably wouldn’t want to work there. We would not be close enough in our understanding of how God leads us to work together. Since Plain is a lifetime commitment, as far as I’m concerned, I need to be in an environment where people will make the effort to understand and accept.

I wanted to answer his question with honesty and integrity. I wasn’t going to say, “If they have a problem with it, I’ll take off the prayer cap and the cape dress and look like any other priest.” I could not, with integrity, say that in the hopes of ingratiating myself. I think it would have been a mistake, anyway, because the too-flexible answer would call all my convictions into question. Theere are some issues on which we must take a stand.

I was prepared for this pre-interview conversation with several months of prayer and consideration. I had decided to say that I would like to go back to rural parish ministry, even though I have considered working in team ministry or in a suburban parish with good resources.

But my heart is out in the fields and on the backroads to heaven. I work well with rural people, whether farmers, commuters or retired folk. I understand them and they understand me. I know what it is like to pick potatoes and deliver lambs. I’m strong and fit, still able to do manual labour day in and day out. I follow the seasons and don’t schedule important meetings for harvest time. I give dispensation to work on Sunday if the week has been rainy. I’ll help a neighbour find lost cows, or pick up hay and grain for a sick widow so she can feed her animals. I shovel manure. I understand planting by the moon cycles. I will prescribe herbal remedies for sick dogs and goats, or take someone’s injured cat home to nurse.

This is in addition to home visits, nursing home visits, hospital visits, barn visits and shop visits. I expect to do at least two services every Sunday, and teach confirmation classes. I preach a fifteen minute sermon most Sundays, but will preach less rather than natter on, and sometimes more if the congregation needs it. I don’t expect cathedral music when the available instruments are a concertina and a twelve-string guitar. I will lead a capella singing. I beleive in simple vestments and simple services.

I like potluck.

My weak points in ministry are that I hate meetings, will pass weddings along to retired clergy when I can, and I don’t always get the manure off my shoes before I go to someone’s house. (I’ll leave my shoes outside then.) I don’t procrastinate except about returning phone calls or email. (It’s best to catch me at home, since I will almost always answer the phone if I’m there.) I don’t keep office hours and I don’t publish a bulletin or a newsletter. I am not alwasy swayed by emotion, and I can be downright cynical. I may look like a bumpkin, but I’ve been out in the world and seen the worst parts of it. Things sometimes offend me, but nothing shocks me.

I don’t know, maybe these aren’t the best qualities for a parish priest. But that’s what I am, that’s what I do.

Plain Resources

Please send me links with Plain resources, and I will compile them into a post. I am going to do some research myself on this today and over the weekend, and I am really interested in photos. I will try to persuade someone to take some photos of Nicholas and me, so you can see how we have adapted traditional Plain dress to our purposes and way of life. If you are a vendor of Plain dress, please send me a short summary of your business, a photo if you wish, and a link.

Out of the Plain Doldrums

I`ve had to pay attention to clothing again. We had a small infusion of cash, and some of it has to be spent on covering our bodies decently. I sometimes get kind of frustrated with myself this way – I`m really good at fashion, but not for myself. I chose to be Plain, but maybe I carry this too far, and start throwing on random clothes from the closet in the morning. Two days in the same deep purple shift and loose black dress, with a loose cap over the barely brushed hair. No shoes. Apron. The hair pokes out from the cap edges, the hem of the dress is muddy, there are flour smears on the sitting down part. The purple shift is darned in several places visible over the neckline of the dress.

I am a mess.

Saturday night, Mother Kay and I left Patience asleep in bed under the supervision of Nicholas, who doesn`t do evening things, and we went to the Great Vigil at the Cathedral. It is not Easter-Pascha for me until I have heard the Exsultet, even if I have to sing myself in a darkened room over a tiny taper. I had pulled it together for the Vigil, at least. I wore the black dress, cape and apron, the new bonnet over the white stiff cap, and a black shawl. (The boots do not bear inspection, but feet were mostly tucked under the pew.)

As we were leaving, a clergy spouse stopped Mother Kay (and she in collar) and said to her, “Oh, your friend is so adorable! She looks so sweet!` Kay said, `Tell her yourself, she won`t bite.`(That`s true.) So Mrs. Clergy came up to me and told me that I was the first Mennonite person she had ever seen! (Oh, I`m wondering, don`t you live in Ontario. But it may have been a mild exaggeration, maybe she meant up close.) I then explained that I am not Mennonite, but Anglican, which sort of surprised her mightily, and she wanted to know if I dress this way all the time.

Well. yes. Sort of. Because sometimes I`m not nearly that tidy and presentable.

I have decided that it might be time to lose the wild-child persona that hangs out in the house. I have ordered patterns from Friends, the Quaker pattern people, who have patterns for Amish and Plain-modest dresses. I am getting the three-piece Ohio dress, cape and apron, and a pattern for a surplice apron, big enough to cover everything. I am on the look-out for some additional caps, since I really like the stiff cap with the set pleating down the back. I assume that the set pleats are done on a wooden form, and are steamed and starched in. I don`t think I can make them myself. (If you have been avoiding stiff caps because they look difficult to clean, but like them, I wash them with a damp cloth and a stain removal stick that is made locally; any oil removal product would do. The caps don`t lose their shapes with spot washing.)

I look forward to sewing some things myself, knowing that the fit and length will be right. (I am blessed that Mother Kay also knows how to sew, and I will have my Pfaff machine back soon.) I found that I am very fussy about the fabric, as well, and things I ordered, while well-made, have been in fabrics I don`t really like long-term.

I am still looking for a parish; I have a meeting in a bishop`s office next week. While I don`t intend to wear the collar again, I think I might make a better impression if I don`t look like a survivor of a trek through the Ozarks in a hard winter.