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.

Headcovering – Compromise

The last time I went without a covering in the house, my husband suddenly asked, “Why is your head bare?” It startled him; he rarely sees me with my hair down. I felt strange without something over my hair, too. But I do have to wash my hair, and it is difficult to get it dry if I put it up in a bun and cover it while wet.

This is my compromise. A kerchief tied back under my hair slides off, and I have never liked a knot made under my chin. I passed the ends of a triangular kerchief under my chin and tied it behind my neck. It stays in place much better and allows my hair to dry.

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.

Headcovering – Covering at Night

I have started covering at night. It was on my heart for a few weeks; I often pray at night in bed, especially when I cannot sleep.

I don’t know why – not many women do, even if they cover during the day. I have left my hair down and gone to bed bare-headed since I began covering, but since Christmas I have felt the tug toward being covered even when I am not in day dress.

It is if I am safely under God’s hand, even when asleep; I am covered by His grace then. I don’t mean this in a superstitious way, but in a metaphoric and spiritual way. It is a comfort to me.

I wear one of my handmade soft caps, tied to one side. It seems to stay on all right. I started out just braiding my hair, but that wasn’t keeping my hair from becoming tangled under the cap, so I loosely pin it with just two pins. Some nights the cap comes undone, and sometimes that wakes me. Only once have I become frustrated with it and tossed it on the quilt.

I know, this makes me look all the more like Granny Clampett, but I don’t mind. Granny was a fine woman. I miss her.

All over again…

We just moved to another city, a smaller, older city with a great history, but a very upscale demographic. It also houses several prisons and detention facilities – so go figure! It is rather Dickensian in atmosphere, an intriguing combination of tasteful old money and improbable characters.

And I am again the only visible Plain person. I have to get used to the stares and whispers, and they have to get used to the long black dresses, prayer cap, bonnet and boots. As my husband puts it, “If they don’t look twice at someone with pink hair, why are they staring at you?”

A subliminal impulse is to try to blend in a bit better – wear a colorful scarf over the cap, dress up a bit more. I’ve tried that before, and felt like a brown hen in borrowed peacock feathers. It just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel awkward and self-conscious, even clumsy. I can’t appear to be what I am not.

I’ve had the opportunity to advise someone who is convicted to become Plain, and she’s not sure how to do this. She thinks she’ll feel conspicuous in a cap, long dress and shawl. She doesn’t know how she’ll explain it to her family. Here is my advice on making the transition.

Begin quietly. Pin up your hair, take off the earrings, switch to plain shoes. Pack up the fashionable clothes and give them to Goodwill or the Sally Ann, or at least put them in the attic. (I say give them away, so you’re not tempted to go back too quickly.)

After a couple of weeks, start wearing a bandanna or kerchief in a dark colour. People may make jokes about it, but you can just say, “I like the way it looks,” and go on with your day. That’s one of the key points to being Plain – don’t care what people think and say; you know it’s right for you, so do it.

Then comes the big day, and you go out in the prayer cap. I began by going to church with my first handmade cap. It was rather old-fashioned, with little lappets and a narrow band, and the ties were mere decoration. One friend instantly called it “becoming,” which was just what I wanted. It became me. Another said it was “fetching and sweet.” Another positive reaction. The Lord spared me the harsh and nasty words at first, although they came a few months later, when I was stronger in my conviction. By then I had learned “to give the bonnet,” as Quaker Jane calls it, and turn my head away slowly and deliberately, as if to say, “That comment/stare/smirk is not worthy of a person’s attention.”

My Plain dress is now so much a part of me that I cannot envision myself in worldly clothes. I dream of myself Plain, it has become so ingrained. It is me, deep down and always. One casual observation made to us is that we were “hardcore Christians.” And that’s a good way to put it. Plain is riskier, more obvious, and more humble than the visible witness of the clergy collar or nun’s habit, because it is so often a subject of derision and contempt. (Stupid Amish seems to be a theme in Hollywood.) And it’s not that the visible clergy and ordered aren’t sometimes subjected to that humiliation. I experienced it in the dog collar and black suit, too, but someone would come to my defense then, perhaps uneasy with the sacrilegious. But no one defends the Plain publicly, at least not in my experience. We have to take it on the chin and roll with it.

Anyone entering Plain life needs to realize that they will be noticed, will occasionally hear and experience negativity, and there is no fighting back. But that is one of the indications that God ordained it for us, that in our Christian witness, we disturb the world.