so much depends

on a blue dress hanging behind the attic door

very plain blue dress

Nicholas likes this shade of blue. I made this from the Friends pattern, but made a one-piece bodice with a placket at the neckline. This saved some fabric, because I had bought remnants to make this.

blue dress with black tunic apron

This little tunic-style apron is so easy to make. The pattern called for edging it with bias and lining it, but I used a single layer of fabric and turned the outer edge and neckline. It’s a good choice if you need an apron quickly – since it uses a little more than a yard of cotton fabric. The ties are bias tape stitched down. I will add pockets at some time. I cut this from a vintage seventies-era pattern; I remember my grandmother owning this one, but I don’t remember that she ever wore an apron. She was quite the fashionable lady!

The Cost of Plain

A thread came up on facebook about the cost of dressing Plain, in the traditional sense, with Plainers, modest dressers and traditional Quakers chiming in. Is it expensive to dress Plain?

At first I had trouble affording Plain dress, so I modified and adapted my own clothes. This wasn’t hard for me, since I was working clergy, and I had a lot of basic black in modest cut. I bought a few compatible secondhand pieces, but put off cape dresses for several years. While three of my black dresses are still going strong – one is about fifteen years old – some of it wore through, particularly the denim. Denim dresses got made over into aprons, but even they have given up the ghost now. I decided to get cape dresses, and a pattern – a major investment for me. I wanted the dresses and particularly the capes and aprons to see how to make them. I’m glad I did that, because the dressmaking process is a bit complicated, and I’m still in  the midst of it!

My findings: EBay is a good source for secondhand, wellmade and wellkept dresses and caps. It is no more expensive than a city consignment shop, although a little more than expensive than the Sally Ann store. I learned a lot from the pieces I bought.

As to the cost of fabric – well! Here in Canada, a metre of good cotton can cost CAN$10-$15, and a cape dress takes about four metres for me, if the cape and apron match the dress. One solution was to buy a more expensive fabric for the dress, and a lighter weight contrasting fabric for the cape and apron. Remnants can sometimes supply enough fabric for the apron or even both cape and apron, if there’s a couple of metres of the same. Remnants here run about CAN$2 a metre, sometimes less. I unbundle the remnant and examine it before purchasing, so I don’t find a big stain, tear, or join in it when I get home. (If I’m not taking it, I refold and roll it back into its elastic or sleeve. I worked in a fabric store when I was young – the remnant bin was always the bugbear!)

The back racks and bargain rooms of most fabric stores will yield good fruit when alloted enough time. I’ve had to be a bit flexible on what I get – few solids make it to the bargain bin. I’ve bought some prints now, in subtle tones and patterns. Think “Little House.”

In Maine where I used to live, the Amish and Mennonite women would arrive at the discount stores by busloads to buy fabric. A little detective work might find a discounter who buys mill ends or outdated fabric store bolts. In Maine this was Marden’s. I know that most metropolitan areas have such a warehouse discounter, and if a group of friends set a date, they could carpool there and bargain hunt for fabric and notions. (Plain girls day out!) Len’s is the go-to discount fabric store here in Ontario, but Fabricland and Fabricville across eastern Canada have bargain rooms and remnant bins. Certainly don’t overlook the remnants to make waist aprons and bonnets!

For little girls and big girls who aren’t so Plain, a not so great fabric can be improved with an inexpensive trim, making a discount fabric a much better buy. I do this with the children’s clothes I make. It can lengthen a skirt a bit – pillowcase edging, which is often beautiful cutwork, can add an inch or more.

Let me know if you have more ideas on the frugality of simple dress.

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.

Modest Brides – Virtue is Not Suspended for One Day!

“Just this once,” was my occasional plea to my mother when I was young, when I wanted to get a ride to a friend’s house, stay up late, or wear a dress she considered entirely wrong for a Christian girl. She rarely gave in. Mom knew that “just once” would become “just once again” and pretty soon the floodgates were open because if it was right “just once” it meant it must be right all the time.

Modesty does not get suspended for a wedding day. The bridal shop may be luxurious, the sales associate just like a best friend, the dresses beguiling in their flattering elegance – but modesty is always expected for a Christian.

We guard the image of God that is us. “In His likeness He made them, male and female.” A woman is just as much “like” God as a man is. We are not lesser beings in His eyes, we are never merchandise on display, or objects to be admired like art. We are in His image, the holiest of icons.

That image of God needs to be honoured and not desecrated by being stared at and commented on by every non-believer that passes. “Holy things are for the holy,” is a common phrase used at the Lord’s Supper, and we who keep an orthodox view of the communion sacrament are careful to honour God’s presence with us as we receive the bread and wine. Some churches have the practice of taking the blessed bread and wine left from the altar and locking it up in a tabernacle or ambry, coverd with a curtain, a veiled place of protection. Yet these priests may not honour the very image of God before them and in themselves! Modesty, therefore, is more than a puritan attitude to prevent people from thinking about sex (people think about sex anyway) but a way of honouring God in Creation, by caring for God’s image.

Brides represent the Church Universal, the great establishment of God’s presence in our midst, the body of Christ. Can there by a greater responsibility? The chaste, pure bride is a model of the church as it approaches her love and master, Jesus Christ. The groom stands in His place to receive Her, and the two become one. It is a little passion play of the great divine love. Jesus expects His bride, the Church, to come before Him confessed and forgiven, united with Him in prayer and the love-feast of communion. Should a bride enacting this moment come before her love and husband like a woman who does not respect the image of God in herself and in him? A revealed body does not represent the quiet intimacy of life in Christ; it is worldly, vain, and self-worshipping.

Modesty is not suspended for the wedding day. It is emphasized. It can be the moment when a young woman who has been worldly and immodest, following the ways of fashion and keeping up with her friends, can publically make a change. 

The wedding is the beginning of a new life in God with a partner. Every household formed in His name is a little church in itself, growing in faith, and with the blessing of the Lord, in number. It is a light in the wilderness, an example to those who are seeking.

Modest Brides: Vintage Dresses

Women were more modest a few decades (and centuries) ago. Well, not always – the flappers of the twenties with short skirts and bobbed hair; the late Victorian lowcut dress, the Empire style we know from Jane Austen’s day – there have been different standards in different eras. Christian women of the most devout ideals, though, have always been expected to follow rules of modesty even when the rules of fashion were open to interpretation. My grandmothers wore skirts below the knee in the twenties and never bobbed their hair; my Victorian ancestresses, as far as I can tell, wore dresses buttoned up to the neck, covered with aprons. Before that, not many of them spoke English (or wrote anything down) so my guess is that they wore the modest chemise, bodice, full skirt and apron of their native Celtic lands. We were not fashionable people!

Modest brides look to the past for inspiration in a time of immodesty. Even the low-bosomed dresses of the fin de siecle and the Empire days can be modified to cover above the collarbone. Skirts were generally full, with lots of underpinnings and layers to keep fabric from clinging.

Gramma’s gown might be what a modest bride is looking to wear, but even fabric that is only fifty years old can be distressed, rotted, or otherwise unwearable. I learned a lot about textiles and old dresses when I was a museum curator. How fabric is stored makes a big difference in how long it lasts. Ideally, fabrics are stored flat, without creases, in a cool and dry environment. Sun, heat, metal hangers, cedar chests and mold can do as much damage as moths and small children playing dress-up. The other disappointment for a bride hoping to wear an heirloom dress might be how small that vintage dress is. Some mid-twentieth century gowns may be in a size 12 or larger, but before that, it was a rare bride who was over five feet tall and weighed more than a hundred pounds. Some wedding dresses made before the American Civil War will fit ten year old girls now.

Old gowns are hard to let out. The stitching line may be weak, the fabric starting to tear along the stress points. Matching fabric may be impossible, especially with gowns made before the nineteen-sixties. Losing fifteen pounds to get into a small dress might seem feasible, but shrinking three inches in height is not. Bones at shoulders, hips and rib don’t get any smaller.

So that’s the first thing to consider when buying a vintage gown – will it fit without alterations? The second thing to consider is whether the dress is or can be made wearable, with any missing pieces such as fasteners replaced. Missing lace can be replaced – often it got re-used. Hooks and eyes and buttons can be found to match. Swaths cut out of the skirt would be nigh imposible to replace. Third, can a distressed fabric be reinforced? This is what museums sometimes do with display pieces – matching backing fabric is let into shoulders or waists to hold the old stitches together. This can be done even with pieces to be worn.

But a dress that is too small is just that – light cottons, linens and wool will stretch to some extent, but heavy fabrics such as damask and brocade simply do not give at all. Brides in past eras would compress bosom and waist to ridiculous measurements, which is unhealthy and so foreign to modern women that the idea of a tight-laced corset (i.e. Scarlett O’Hara) sounds like torture. It is.

There are some wonderful vintage vendors on line. Even if a bride doesn’t expect to buy a vintage dress, they are worth looking at for ideas. These are my favourites:

Antique Dress (http://www.antiquedress.com) has dresses of all eras for sale from mid-US$400 on up! They have an excellent photo gallery if a bride is looking for inspiration.

Bobby Dene’s Vintage Clothes has a good selection of wedding dresses,w ith nice photos and descriptions, and prices from US$300 up. (http://www.bobbydene.com).

My favourite is probably Vintage Textile, a museum curator’s dream. (http://www.vintagetextile.com) They must haunt the auction houses! There are many Victorian and Edwardian style dresses, in collector’s quality. Their gallery does not list size, so the buyer needs to check the individual listings. These are on the high end and meant for collections, although many are described as wearable. Vintage Textile has great accessories and caps, mantles and shawls to make a modern dress more modest and certainly very special. Maybe a bride would rather put her money into an exquisite Kashmir shawl rather than a one-time only fancy white dress. There was one white Edwardian dress that I would gladly have worn if the occasion arose! And the shawls – well, Queen Victoria might have chosen one for a cool evening at Balmoral. They carry a few lace pieces and wedding veils that coudl be adapted to modern dress. Prices are moderate to high, since these are museum quality garments and textiles.

These are my caveats about buying a vintage dress or other textiles: Ask if you can put down a deposit and return the dres if it is not satisfactory, which may mean paying for it, and having the right to return it minus shipping costs within a certain time.

Ask how the piece was measured, especially if it is a dress or fitted garment. Was it measured flat, across the front or back, and the measurement doubled (that is, let’s say, 16″ from seam to seam across the bust, then doubled to  32″.) Or was it measured on a mannequin or model, who filled out the shaped bodice to give a measurement of 32″? Cut and darts can make a difference in how the bust or waist measurement is taken.

If a garment is sized, ask if that is the labelled size in the garment or if it is the equivalent modern size. Sizing varied wildly over the decades; what is a size 12 in one era is a size 8 in another.

Don’t buy shoes or accessories until you have the dress, in order to match the colour more accurately. White doesn’t stay white over the years, and beige can range from yellow to pink. I would try to order the dress to arrive at least one month before the wedding, in case alterations or repairs need to be done, and to find accessories.

Bridesmaids’ dresses should match in style with the brides’ dress, which can be a big consideration if the bride must have that special vintage dress. If the bride is wearing a cream Victorian dress with big picture hat and cathedral train, it looks a bit as if the bridesmaids came to the wrong party if they are in short hot pink jersey.

A vintage dress can be perfect in an older church setting. It can be economical and modest. It will honour the women who went before us to the altar and said, “I will.”

Wedding Reservations

No doubt, weddings are now a major industry. From tacky to elegant, from funky to sophisticated, every bride and groom have some idea of what they want (especially the brides.)

Maybe it started with Queen Victoria’s well-publicized wedding and the cheaper, more available laces and fine fabrics of the nineteenth century. My husband’s family has photos of some very elaborate wedding parties in the early twentieth century (although they were working-class East Enders). My family, Baptist since John Knox, apparently, didn’t have  elaborate weddings until the late 1960s.

I still have major reservations about the royal theme of most weddings. (Yes, I had one, and once that juggernaut got rolling, wished I hadn’t.)

Although I am writing these days about weddings, it is in the hope that we can restore some sanity to this situation. Big weddings and wedding dresses are simply not modest, thoughtful or economical. Weddings were once just part of the church scenery – families gathered, words said, blessings pronounced, there was a dinner party, and husband and wife went off home, happy and scared. Now it is more than being princess for a day – bride is princess for a year or more as she drags family and friends about looking for dresses, accessories, catering, locations. This bossiness and self-centeredness could get to be a very bad habit. This year, it’s the wedding – then the “perfect” house, the perfect job, the perfect wardrobe, glamourous vacations, and overachieving children. Even Christian women get caught up in this, believing that they have to prove God blessed them above others.

What happened to modest hearts, to young people raised to believe that their role in life is to serve others? (For the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and we follow Him.) Don’t get started with your children expecting elaborate birthday parties, loads of Christmas gifts, special vacations. Don’t try to compete with the world. We may have to live in it (or we would have no opportunity to witness) but we are not of it.

With all the commercial hype around weddings, even second and third weddings are becoming major productions.  Mature women are trying to get in on the scene, registering for gifts, buying white gowns and veils, inviting hundreds of guests. (Yes, this was my juggernaut, veering out of control as soon as I said the words: “Church wedding.”) Maybe it’s because older women have their own earnings and some stability, and like to prove that maybe they aren’t all that old, after all.  “Hey, I earned it, I can spend it any way I want.”

We’ve lost any sense that the white gown and the veil mean anything outside of spending a lot on a costume. We imagine that we have the resources and privilege of royalty, at least for one day. We imagine that it really is all about us. We’ve lost touch not only with the Christian origins of wedding, but our folk and ethnic customs and their meanings. We let the fashion industry take over one of the most important and intimate days of our lives.