My first encounters with Plain people were Mennonites and Conservative Quakers, who had varying degrees of Plain dress. The women covered their hair with prayer caps, snoods or kerchiefs. All of the women wore long dresses of modest cut and quiet colours or patterns. The men wore either traditional “Amish” clothing or moderate American styles. Some had beards, others didn’t. The unifying element was that they were convicted to follow Scripture in how they presented themselves to the world. Even if it wasn’t immediately apparent that they were Mennonite or Quaker, it was apparent that they were quiet, modest people.
My day dress says Plain and Christian to most people. To some it says Hopelessly Historic, although it isn’t some slavish imitation of costume from the past. It is modern Plain, made of whatever fabric seemed to work the best in the quietest colours I could find. Some of my clothes are just thrift store buys, simple jumpers and blouses – I like three-quarters sleeves, covering the elbow but not dragging into washwater or other work.
I wear no jewelry. I have from time to time worn a wedding ring and a silver cross, but they feel awkward to me now. Well, not the marriage itself which the ring symbolized, for my husband is a tremendous blessing, but the heavy ring which I had to constantly remove for fear of damaging it or losing it in the garden. Everyone who is vaguely Christian in background can wear a cross as a piece of jewelry. People wear them more for sentimental reasons than as a proclamation of faith. A little silver cross on a slim chain is perhaps a weak symbol of faith. The cross should be hard to carry, as one Christian wrote: There is no handle on the cross.
Even if a Christian is not convicted to wear outwardly and obviously Plain dress in the Quaker or Mennonite tradition, the Apostle reminds us (even today) that we are not of the world while we are in it. Other Christian traditions advocate and sometimes insist on conservative dress while in church or on church business. Certainly, the ethnic Orthodox churches expect women to wear skirts and kerchiefs, and men to dress soberly and modestly. ( I don’t have to describe immodest dress for men, do I? You know it when you see it, and in my case, I quickly look heavenward, or at least in another direction. Men, the shirtless look is just wrong. No one wants to see that.)
For myself, the basic Plain dress for women is a sober-coloured fabric, opaque, with sleeves and no more than an inch below the collarbone. The skirt is below the knees. Nothing clings. This is covered with a shawl, vest, neck-kerchief or apron. There is an underskirt or slip below. The stockings are dark and opaque, the shoes plain or, at best, boots. Boots are good.
I cover my head in public pretty much all the time. If a prayer cap is inappropriate, then I wear a white veil (quite long) or a scarf. I have my neo-hippie outfit for times when I have to seriously blend in – travelling alone on a bus, for instance. This is a long blue Indian skirt (not a print) in a crinkly fabric, a longsleeved white loose blouse, and a paisley scarf. I’m not trying to hide my Christianity, but sometimes incognito is important, especially if I don’t want to hear the are-you-Amish and are-you-a-nun questions too many times.