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.
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.
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.
We might be excused for thinking that “Amish economy” is a result of people who deliberately stay rooted in an agrarian way of life; that the Amish, and other Anabaptists, are thrifty and hard-working from necessity. Those in the Old Orders almost never have education beyond American grade eight. They learn trades and crafts rather than professions.
Amish economy is based on old Anabaptist principles that are about community rather than money. This may seem strange to Americans, whose goals are generally centred on obtaining a comfortable life, with a fair amount of ease and luxury, even if it is not ostentatiously rich. Most modern Westerners admire the rich, and are fascinated by the lifestyle of the wealthy. Vacation resorts make a good deal of money promoting this fantasy. If this attitude was not widespread, there would be no lotteries, no Las Vegas, no People magazine. There are no Amish equivalents to these cultural phenomena.
Yet the Amish and other Old Order groups do not live as asthetes and monks. They are focussed on living a Christian life rather than a comfortable life. Some people are surprised and even shocked when they see an Amish home that has a recliner, a gas stove, and wall decor; they were expecting something more austere and self-denying. But Amish life isn’t about austerity; the self-denial takes other forms, such as a rejection of popular culture and anything that will fragment the family and their own Amish community. Electricity is rejected as being the conduit for radios, television, DVD players and now, the mindless popular entertainment of the internet; but a gas stove and refrigerator (if allowed in that district) are good for the family. The home telephone is rejected as a means for idle chatter and hurtful gossip; yet Amish business people (and some teens during rumspringa) use cell phones to stay in touch. The automobile as a family-owned personal conveyance is rejected, but most Amish will accept or hire a ride when needed for doctors’ appointments, shopping, or long-distance visiting.
I can understand all of this. The telephone is an instrument that spreads petty talk and divides friends; the automobile takes families to distant places where they are apart from community, and encourages young people to stay away from home; and I don’t think I need to say anything more about the unChristian intrusion of commercially produced television and films. The economy of the Amish is “ekkonomia” – management of the household. Early Church bishops and priests were admonished to practice good “ekkonomia” in their communities. The Amish still take that seriously.
There are old Anabaptist principles on what is good work. It must benefit the community. It must allow for parents to be home with their children as much as possible. It is not possible to practice good work if the industry in which one works is destructive. Pacifist Anabaptists would not assemble rifles, or build tanks, or sew military uniforms. They will assemble woodstoves, build RVs and bicycles, and sew coats. They do not like their young people to travel far from home to work, although carpenter groups did travel together. While most young mothers stay home with their children, others will work in retail or food service as they need to, if it does not interfere with being home with the children at crucial times of the day. (Many Amish women have home-based businesses, as well. This probably comes out of the background of an agrarian culture.)
Some underlying principles of Amish/Anabaptist economy are that the business owner should not earn much more than his workers – one old rule was that the owner should realize no more than four times what he pays the least paid of his employees. The business itself should keep its workers close to home, so that they can return to their families every evening.
Gellasenheit is the Amish concept of self-surrender, of standing humbly before God, of not trying to rise above one’s neighbours and friends. It is the reason for the Ordnung, the way of life of that community. “Gellasenheit” is avoiding self-idolatry, or of being too pleased with oneself, of staying away from anything that smells of status seeking and privilege. It isn’t false humility; if one is good at doing something that benefits the community, then one should do it. Those who practice gellasenheit, though, will not draw attention to what they have done; they will not boast or risk the criticism of the group for putting oneself forward.
It is also an Anabaptist principle to be sufficiently independent financially, of being able to carry one’s own weight in the community. Those who cannot because of disability, age or circumstances can be assured that they will receive the care they need. Being financially solvent, free of debt, and able to earn a living wage and provide sufficiently for family and neighbours in need are the goals of the Amish householder. Amish and Mennonites are always quietly rasing funds for those who are suffering. Collections are taken door to door, auctions held, thrift stores run, to benefit “the least of these.” Because the churches are either held in houses, or at most are small, low maintenance structures among some of the Mennonites, and the clergy, for the msost part, serve without stipend, monies raised within the church can be used for the benefit of the needy. “Charity begins at home” is often misquoted to justify keeping church funds within the immediate community rather than disperse them in the wider church-world; the Amish more typically exemplify this saying in its truer sense, that one learns to love and care for others first within one’s home group. (The charitable work of the larger Mennonite/Amish community benefits many worldwide, not just in their own home states, and not just among the followers of their particular kind of faith.)
This outreach is also part of the Amish/Mennonite witness of non-violence, “to do good and not evil.” The Amish witness is of the “two kingdoms” – a Christian cannot serve both God and Mammon (money, worldliness). The Christian lives first in God’s kingdom, and is only of necessity in the world. In 1530, an early Anabaptist, John of Leyden, wrote, “A believer’s church should be a community of faith that practiced mutual aid.” That is, the faithful were to care for one another, and as Christ admonished his followers, to care for the stranger as oneself, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church is truly not “every man for himself” but “every man for each other.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Someone asked recently how men can dress Plain, as to be distinguished from some guy in jeans and a blue shirt. Plain as a conviction of a Christian witness is a powerful statement. Plain attire is as much an identiification factor as a Franciscan’s brown robe or a priest’s white collar. I’ve found some images to help those who are Plain outside traditional Plain communities.
The flat black hat (or flat straw hat) is associated with Plain orders. The wide brimmed hat is practical and distinctive. This older man is wearing a placket shirt and a black jacket without lapels. His square beard and lack of mustache indicate that he is Anabaptist and married (or widowed). Why the lack of mustache? Either because the mustache was associated with military rank, or to indicate the setting aside of vanity. My husband has a full beard and mustache, because he finds shaving to be very difficult with his reduced vision, but he prefers the “peace” or “brethren” beard. Some Anabaptist groups have men start their beard when they married, and a few others when they are baptized.
This old postcard shows young men working at a barn raising. They are wearing “broadfalls” – old-fashioned button fly trousers – with suspenders. I’ve noticed that Amish and Mennonite men have their suspender buttons sewn outside the waist band, the opposite of what I was taught by my tailoring grandmothers, that suspender (or braces) buttons go inside the waist band. They are wearing long-sleeved shirts of the basic Oxford type, with the sleeves rolled up. Most Plain men now wear blue jeans or basic dress cut trousers in a dark colour. A few groups continue to wear broadfalls.
I would guess these men were photographed at a mud sale, or spring auction. They are more formally dressed in mutze (jacket), dark trousers and the black flat hat. Plain men do not wear neckties or belts, as both are considered indicators of fashion. Plain men used to wear just black boots, but I’ve noticed a number of even older men have taken to wearing workboots, Oxfords, and running shoes, all for practicality. My husband wears workboots, casual Oxfords, or plain black dress oxfords. He used to wear a pair of all black running shoes at work, since he was on his feet all day.
I made this plain black vest, Nicholas’s “Sunday meeting” attire, worn with a white banded collar shirt and black jeans.
We have been Plain long enough that we can’t imagine ourselves any other way. We aren’t quite as somber as we once were – Nicholas’s vision impairment has moved us toward brighter colours, especially for me. We both enjoy the freedom of Plain.
The neighbours aren’t used to it, though. As we disembarked in the parking lot – and at the roadside edge, since we were a bit late, as usual – a couple of vehicles slowed down, and the occupants turned back to look at us. His broad-brimmed black hat, my trim, tied bonnet and black shawl; hey, when did the Amish move to New Denmark? I wave when people stare like that. There is no reason to be hostile or unfriendly – they are curious, and I want to make a good impression for the next time they see us. And since that might be at the farmer’s market, I want them to have the idea in their heads thart we are open and approachable. And that isn’t just a marketing ploy, because we had a good ministry through the last farmer’s market where we sold. It is not a matter of making a few dollars, but of being witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ.
I know what the questions will be at the market: Are you Amish? Then what are you? Are there many like you? Do you dress like this all the time, or is it a costume just for the market? (No; Plain Anglican; a few; yes, we do, and no, it isn’t.) Because we are mistaken for Amish or Mennonites frequently, and I have no problem with that, we are conscious that we are held to a kind of responsibility by our choice, to avoid behaviour that would shame our Anabaptist brothers and sisters. Around the world, Plain means sober and quiet Christians, whether Anabaptist, Brethren or Quaker. Admittedly, good Christian behaviour isn’t much different, but there are things that a secularly dressed Christian can do without anyone saying, “Hey, did you see that?” Go to rock concerts; have a drink in a bar. We wouldn’t do that, as it would mislead people. (And you may be Plain or modest dressing, and say, “I have no trouble with that!” but that is your own decision. I’m not telling you what to do, just saying what we are comfortable doing.) We avoid loud or aggressive behaviour in public or while driving; I try to be extremely polite and helpful. We try to be the people of peace we are saying we are by our outward appearance.
Our daily life is as Plain as we can make it, with the addition of internet communication. We keep a phone line for emergencies. But we try to live as simply and as honestly as we can. We avoid luxury and ornamentation, as much as possible. We don’t need to show that God has blessed us with material goods, as we believe that excessive possessions are not a blessing, but a tie to the world we want to leave behind.
It’s not a matter of looking Plain, but of being Plain, all the way through.