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.

Shorn Hair

I get a lot of inquries about cutting one’s hair, especially from women who have sojourned with or joined sects that follow a strict Biblical interpretation of appearance. What is shorn hair? “Shorn” means it is cut close to the scalp, or very short so that the shape of the head shows. “Shorn” is the past tense of “to shear”, and shearing is what we do to sheep. We take off most of the fleece, not quite to the skin, because poor sheep need some protection from the sun and insects; shearing follows the contours of the sheep’s body.

Do we mean when we interpret the admonition from Paul that women should not cut their hair at all? No. Trimming is not shearing. Paul meant that women should have long hair, as a covering when they are naked, and to appear as women and not to try to pass as men. He called for women to honour their feminity by having long hair, revealed only to their husbands, and that they weren’t to cut it so short that they could dispense with covering. Covering protected the hair as well as protecting the modesty of a woman; her hair was not an object of beauty to be admired by all. (And those who think this is ridiculous, that uncovered hair can’t be immodest – well, what do all the product advertisements tell us? That we should have silky, shiny, sexy hair, that men will be attracted to our beautiful uncovered hair and other women will be envious. That sounds immodest and vain to me.)

Must a woman’s hair be uncut? I don’t think we should treat the teaching as a superstition. Some women will need to cut their hair for health or safety reasons. Some women will find their hair easier to care for if the ends are trimmed neatly. I believe the covering is more important than the state of the natural growth of hair underneath, since that is personal and between a woman and her husband. My own hair is uncut, not even trimmed, and past my waist. It is a goodly length of hair. I find it manageable.

I do not cut my hair because this is my personal sacrifice to God, that my hair will be as natural as possible and without any ornamentation. Most women my age cut their hair above their shoulders and colour it. My hair is completely natural, and I am not concerned about the colour or how good it looks. My husband has always been satisfied with this, and prefers the natural look of my long hair to anything styled or coloured. In this way, I am as God made me, without any anxiety as to how others view me. My air is covered in public, and through most of the day in the home.

In Plain dress, uncut hair and headcovering, I have no anxiety about whether my appearance is pleasing.

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 (http://www.elizabethstewartclark.com) has nice things for women and children. The patterns are $20 each.

James Country Mercantile (http://www.jamescountry.com) 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: http://howtodresslikeapioneer.blogspot.com.

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 No-Plastics Challenge – Personal Care

It seems that everything we use to enhance our physical well-being is made of or contained in plastic. Shampoos, liquid soaps, toothbrushes, combs, hair brushes – all are plastic or contained in plastic or wrapped in plastic.

I have switched to all natural locally made soaps. I developed a rather painful rash on my scalp and back from the shampoo I was using, a commercial brand in a big plastic bottle. This has happened before, so I knew the culprit. I had been using a commercial, “mild” bar soap, and couldn’t get near it without sneezing. Again, I knew the problem, as I have had fragrance sensitivities since my bad episode with a penicillin reaction a few years ago. I’ve bought a bar of laundry soap as well, against the time when the very weak scent of the laundry detergent starts to bother me. Right now, we are using a super-concentrated detergent that comes in a container the size of a drugstore cologne bottle. Four little pumps, and the whole load is clean, with almost no fragrance residue. That’s good for now, but sometimes I need a bar soap for the laundry, espcially if I am doing it in washtubs.

Soap is easy. Anyone can make soap. You can find hundreds of books on making soap. Even lye isn’t that hard – rainwater trickled through wood ash. Saponification is a chemical process that turns fats into soap. A chemist could tell you more, that’s about as far as I can get. Your great-grandmother made it from tallow or cooking fats. It is harsh at first, but mellows as it ages and the alkalines dissipate.

I use a bar soap on my hair. It has no artificial fragrance or colourings, and I just work up a lather between my palms, rub it in, rinse it through. ThenI follow with a rosemary vinegar rinse – cider or white vinegar (I only use Heinz because it is not made from petroleum) with dried rosemary steeping in it for a couple of days, filtered into a spray bottle (which is plastic – I’d use a metal one if I had one.) I spray my hair, rinse it out, and spray it again, which is left in. The vinegar smell evaporates as my hair dries. (You can use other herbs -lavender, chamomile, sage or calendula.) The vinegar cuts any soap residue. Vinegar will work in your laundry rinse, too.

Vinegar isn’t hard to make either. It takes a special kind of yeast called mother of vinegar and some clear fruit or vegetable juice. It is a bit like beer or wine making, with a more sober result.

Toothbrushes that aren’t plastic are hard to find. Here are some resources for either recycled toothbrushes or wooden/boar bristle ones:

http://lifeonplasticearth.blogspot.com: Good post on toothbrush alternatives.

http://fakeplasticfish.com : Excellent blog on learning to live plastic free, with stuff on toothbrushes and toothpaste.

To purchase products: http://lifewithoutplastic.com/boutique : Wooden toothbrushes and alternatives, lots of containers and such, wooden hairbrushes. Expensive, but might be worth it. I would get their wooden toothbrushes.

I have a wooden hairbrush, but I think the cushion that holds the boar bristles is a plastic of some sort. I’ve had it for years. In twenty-five years, I’ve had maybe three hairbrushes, all wooden handled, with natural bristles. I’ve only worn out one, and lost the other.

Combs used to be made of wood, metal, bone or even of amber or tortoiseshell. Amber is anti-static, but that would be a bit pricey. Tortoiseshell is considered endangered, although not all turtle species are. Still, who wants to kill the cute little guys just for a comb? Nice wooden combs are still around, and are quite a pretty accessory. My guess is that a good woodworker could make some combs in different sizes and types, polish them up, finish them (tung oil?) and sell them at craft fairs or farmer’s markets. I’d buy one, especially a wide-toothed detangling comb. Mine gets drafted for combing out warp on the loom quite a bit. Bone is up to you; I’m not opposed to it.

Toothpaste comes in plastic based tubes, no way around it. Even Tom’s of Maine has some plastic to it. They will let you return the empty tube for recycling, though. Toothpaste alts are usually made from baking soda, sea salt, and essential oil. I recommend 3/4 baking soda, 1/4 sea salt, and a couple of drops of myrrh or rosmary or sage essential oil. Myrrh is especially healing to mouth ulcers and inflammations. I rinse with a few drops of myrrh tincture in a 1/4 cup of water every night. The myrrh tincture was made by my local pharmacist, but you might be able to find it at an herbalist.

Toothbrush alts, if you simply couldn’t get a soft bristled small-handled brush, are fragrant twigs – sweet birch and licorice root are two old standbys. Chew on the end until it frays out, then rub over the teeth like a brush, no need for toothpaste or water – many people still do this around the world. Simply cut away the frayed bit when it is too worn. Rinse and set to dry just like toothbrush.

Olive oil and other light vegetable oils are the original skin softeners. Lanolin is an old emollient, used by the Egyptians, but not everyone likes sheep oil on their skin. (It’s precipitated out of the wool, not rendered out of the animal.) Beeswax and olive oil melted together with some essential oil for fragrance is the oldest cosmetic ever made. I still use it.

As for hair dyes, make-up and other popular beauty products – just don’t. Someday soon they may not be available, so don’t get dependent on them. I never use hair conditioners, they are quite unnecessary if you do not dye your hair or expose it to the sun. Many of these products are made of harsh chemicals, including petroleum. The best way to get over them is to get rid of all your mirrors but one small one for brushing your hair and pinning on your cap.

Men who must shave (and it is far from necessary – Nicholas has given it up completely now, saying he doesn’t need to spend time staring at himself) may need to invest in a straight razor or the old-fashioned drop-in disposable of the King Gillette type, although someday the blades might be hard to find; they are mostly a mail-order product now. Shaving cream and gel are just expensive alternatives to hard shaving soap and a brush.

As for feminine shaving – what do I need to say? Why bother? I’m so completely covered from neck to ankle that no one but my husband knows what is underneath. If the man in your life objects, there are natural beeswax methods for hair removal.

I’ll cover feminine hygiene products at a later date; this is a particularly sensitive topic amongst women!

Less attention to self and more attention to others, a cheerful and good-hearted acceptance of oneself as God made thee, and a life rich in work for the Lord will replace the need for self-adornment.

Plain Dress Patterns – Near You!

I mail ordered my cape dress patterns from Friends Pattern Company, because I really wanted a traditional Plain dress. But the cape is not for everyone! Some of you may be looking for commercial patterns where you can see the yardage and size range, and get an idea of what is going on before you buy the pattern. With sewing patterns now listing at upwards of $10, why wouldn’t you?

I have made historic dress from commercial patterns before, so I decided to do a little research – not that it was onerous – and I found some plain patterns for girls and women. They are in costume or historic sections, sometimes under “Halloween” – a place most of us wouldn’t think to look.

McCall’s Patterns has quite a range. There is a colonial era style dress and apron (6140) for women and girls I thought might be suitable. It is a button front dress, with elbow length sleeves and a waist apron. It has pintucks at the hem. I find it a little too low in the front – it shows the collarbone – but you could cut the bodice a bit higher and add one more button. I would wear this as an everyday dress, with the extra front coverage and slightly longer sleeves.

MCall’s also has a very complete early American style outfit (4548 for women, 4547 for girls) that includes a prairie dress, an apron, a bonnet and underthings. I like this pattern too, for the underpinnings, and if a person should want a button front dress with collar, for modesty, this is a good choice. You might shorten the skirt a bit for practicality.

McCall’s 2337 is a Colonial style dress gathered at the neckline and sleeves, with a mobcap pattern included. It’s a bit costumey for my taste, but would make a suitable day dress. Mobcaps cover all your hair if you want such for modesty, cooking or cleaning. They have elastic all round, so they stay on well. This is in both women’s and girls’ sizing.

If you like the Holly Hobbie type look, McCall’s has a traditional “pioneer” or prairie style dress, apron and bonnet (9423). The dress has no waistline, and is held in with the full apron. The sunbonnet is very full. I would like this as a day dress, a nightgown, or, if I were of that age, a maternity dress. It is very much like a Laura Ashley dress I had years ago. Again, this comes in sizes for girls and women.

McCall’s has a pattern for making costumes from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz (4948), if you want Alice or Dorothy style dresses for a little girl. It comes in adult sizes, too, but the dress might be a little juvenile for anyone over twelve. It does include fairy and witch costumes, but don’t be put off by that. The puffed sleeve dress and bib apron are really nice for either everyday wear or in fancier fabrics for Sunday best.

For intimate wear, which is what started this search in the first place, McCall’s has not only the costume pieces (4548 and 4547) but for girls, a complete set of underthings, slips, pantaloons, and camisoles in “Ruffles and Lace”, 4505.

Simplicity Patterns has quite a number of costumes, but they are more of the traditional spooky/critter/character type. For girls, they have a nineteenth century type pattern (2843) which I would characterize as “Wild West,” but includes dresses and skirts and blouses of a very modest type. You might need to ignore the saloon-girl costume it features. Who in their right mind dresses up a twelve-year-old (or younger) as a brothel worker, historic or otherwise? It’s a rhetorical question. If you know, don’t tell me.

Simplicity’s 2845 is similar to McCall’s 2337 with its Colonial gathered bodice dress and mobcap, and comes only in a girls’ sizing. Their other Colonial style pattern has a fitted dress, apron and bonnet. I find the dress is too fitted for my taste. (Patterns 3723 and 3725, for women and girls.) They have a nice Empire style pattern, with a high waist, (4055) that could be cut suitably to avoid showing the usual Empire bosom.

Simplicity has a good assortment of undies patterns. For a chemise, drawers and corset, there is 2890; for slips and a corset, 5006, and for a different set of drawers, chemise and corset, 9769. Some of these are Civil War era, when corsets were an essential part of a lady’s wardrobe. Those of us who are reconciled to our waistlines as they are don’t need them.

Butterick Patterns has three I found suitable. There is a particularly good-looking one for nineteenth-century aprons (5509) that I would buy for myself. It has a pattern for a pinner, if you are looking for one. They were an essential item for nursing sisters and housemaids. The top part pins to your dress, so there aren’t ties to fuss with. This is very practical if you need the bib to stay put and not sag when you lean forward, or you struggle to get things tied or buttoned behind your neck.

There is a pattern for a Victorian style skirt, capelet, muff and bonnet (Butterick 5265) which could be made in simpler trim than shown. I’d put the skirt with a simple button-front jacket in the same material, and with the capelet over it, and it would be suitable for winter wear to church.

For intimates, Butterick has a Rachel Wallis pattern (5061) that includes a wrap called a kimono, a nightgown, a bedjacket, pantaloons and a cap.

I have not been fond of Vogue patterns, as they are often complicated and cut slim. They do have a modern version of traditional underpinnings in Pattern 7837, with a slip, camisole, pantaloons and a few more. They are meant to be an underlayer for knit clothes, but would work well with our own Plain dresses.

I hope this is a helpful guide. These are all well-known pattern companies, and many will be available at your local fabric store. You might be able to order them discounted over the internet, or join a sewing club to get discounts. There are internet sites for searching for used patterns, and some places have pattern exchanges for free patterns.

I should warn you that you cannot use these patterns to make clothes to sell. They are copyrighted, so they are for home sewing only, not for resale items.

Does anyone have other favourites that might be readily available? And what about European and Australian pattern companies?

Plain Profiles: Faves All-Around

When I started to buy Plain, it was with trepidation. I am petite and very persnickety about fabrics. I modified or sewed my own at first.

But that didn’t help my husband, who needed a Plain black hat.

I ordered one from Mennonite Maidens (http://www.mennonitemaiden.com), who sent it promptly to meet a departure deadline. Nicholas wore it for years until I finally got him another one last winter. (It was decrepit, but is still in use as a working hat.) Maidens also carry bonnets, kapps, veils, kerchiefs and Amish hairpins. They have an extensive selection of aprons and modest dresses, including cape dresses, and an impressive range of old-fashioned undies. They are sweet ladies, and wonderful to work with. They are also on facebook and eBay.

Other speak highly of Katie’s Mercantile (http://www.katiesmercantile.com), although I haven’t bought from them myself. She has clothing for women and girls, including head coverings ranging from baby bonnets through veils, kapps and bun covers. She also makes modest and cape dresses as well as nightwear and unmentionables.

Many friends and Friends like Rachel’s Seamstress Services (http://rachelsseamstressservices.com). She has some very Quakerly kapps, including one designed for Quaker Jane. She makes men’s broadfalls and children’s bonnets.

For overall Plain and modest dress for women and girls, many use The King’s Daughters – as in Psalm 45.13  (http://www.thekingsdaughters.com).  They have a wide range of styles and fabrics, are exceptionally responsive to special needs, and I really like their lovely website.

Now, these aren’t inexpensive options, but for those whose sewing skills aren’t that well-developed, it is a good investment. Plain dress doesn’t change in style; well-made clothes will last for years with the occasional mending.

Do you have other favourites? I will be writing another post on this subject soon.