Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More About The New Plain

I started to talk, a few posts back, about the possibly suprising phenomenon of 21st century Quakers adopting something very like the dress of our Quaker ancestors: the broad brim hats, the collarless coats, etc. I made some general points about this and said I would expand them later.

Instead of sticking to the outline I started with, however, I'm going to step back a bit and record my own personal reactions to these new Plain Friends, with a focus on why I'm not becoming one of them.

My first reaction is that I'm glad to see them. I like the look. I even think it could become "fashionable" in our circles, though of course worrying about that would not be in the spirit of plainness. (I note that Amanda has a post called "Plain But Vain" or something like that, which is a good example of what I said about the element of irony and humor in The New Plain). But more than liking the look, I like the fact that these folks have revived the outward forms of "plainness" because in examining those forms I find an opportunity to rediscover the inner spirit of it.

Let me give an example. Friend Larry says that he dresses plain partly in order to not be using the products of slave labor in China. I hear myself thinking "But you can avoid using the products of slave labor and still wear contemporary designs". This leads to the next question: What about me? Am I avoiding the use of the products of slave labor? How often do I look at labels any more? How much trouble am I prepared to go through to find clothing that's not blood-stained? The Plain Friends do me a service by prompting me to think of such things. Note, though, that this can happen becaus I already know a little about where they are coming from and what the tradition behind their plainness is. I don't think that the "world's people" get the same message.

I have my own kind of "plainness" or simplicity in clothing. Part of my concern is wastefulness: both of natural resources and of my own funds. I limit the number of clothing items I own at any one time, and try to keep wearing the same things for as many years as possible. Recently I accidentally left a pen in a pocket when I did the laundry. The resulting (thankfully small) ink stains on a pair of light-colored pants have not discouraged me from wearing those pants to work and to Meeting on Sunday.

I'm pretty indifferent to fashion (deliberately) and also to clothing aesthetics (because I'm aesthetically challenged). Being indifferent to fashion is different from being hostile to it, though. When I do get around to buying something new, I don't reject anything just because other people are buying it this year too.

I actually did wear a broad-brimmed "Quaker" hat for a few years in my mid-twenties. I was a tad self-conscious (but also proud) about its conspicuous distinctiveness, but I lived on the Lower East Side at the time and noted that all kinds of unique clothing, sometimes bordering on costume, was commonly seen on the streets, so I didn't really feel radically out of place.

One of the things that eventually led to my hanging up the hat was that I found it promoted some misunderstandings and stereotypes about Quakerism. People I talked to thought that I "had to" wear the hat because of some Quaker rule. It helped them place Quakers in their minds as a "quaint" people whose lifestyle decisions were governed by a peculiar tradition, as opposed to a radical people of faith whose way of life truly challenges the values of the dominant society.

I may (or may not - I've learned that my intentions for this blog can change rather rapidly) have more to say in another post about the relationship already to alluded to of plain dress to vanity and to pride.


Blogger Lorcan said...

It is nice to know that some folks understand my witness, (and can I say our witness?), as the blogs are showing many of us are led along by the same concerns.

Thee is very much correct that people, at first, believe us to be in a sort of Quaker Burka. Now as I say this, I must say I am sure that I and many who do not wear a Burka don't get the whole Burka thing as well! But, I find this "You have to wear that?" a really good starting point to be present to the questioner as well as the question.

There truly ARE a number of misconceptions about Quaker quaintness, as well as Quaker goodness. The same conversation that starts, "Where do you keep your buggy in New York?" can also begin, "You Quakers are SUCH good people!" Each calls for a conversation to help folks to know the greater corporate body of Friends as well as the quaint or fashionable little subset of Very Plain Friends. But it also calls us to look inside. I find myself telling folks Quakers are not ideal community of saints just as we are not Amish with buttons.

The language of our clothing invites people in ... like another witness. Why do we stand silently for peace at the Washington Square Arch each month? Well, it is not for the purely spiritual power of prayer, we DO hand out flyers.

Our clothing's asks this generation to turn from the Me generation to the Thee generation, one questioning heart at a time. In fact, like Friends of the past, the fact that some of us pay attention to the cut of our jacket, and the state of our hat, and the polish of our shoes leads some to say (no kidding) I'd become a Quaker for the neat clothes! Anything to start the conversation towards the warmth of the light.

One dear fellow in a store to which I go on occasions loves to tell me about how he, in his way, is plain but does not believe in God. As he tells me this, each time, and we speak of why his is led to be plain in his way (not the Quaker "style" of plain) I point to the sense that he is drawn to plain for his concern for a world beyond his shell, and that is the first step in understanding the unity of God. Quaker or not, he thinks of his place in the family of humanity.

I was going to kid thee about thy clothes, to keep up the point that we Plain Friends are the ones in the Meeting with the best jokes, but the thought of our Friend John Maynard (plainer than most in most ways, I must admit, even WITHOUT his having a big hat)! leads me to realize the vanity in kidding thee. The crown (or big Black Hat) for the laughing heart of the meeting goes to him.

Thyne in the light


5:58 AM, December 23, 2004  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Happy Christmas, Richard! Lor and Genie

7:39 AM, December 25, 2004  
Blogger Closed said...

This is interesting. Where might I read more on this? Though not Quaker, I've been wondering about simple dress that is not merely antiquated but also not trendy as of late as part of a whole shift in lifestyle. I may have to make such clothing myself? St. Augustine once noted how fashion makes us slaves, and I'm inclined to agree. I'm not aesthetically challenged in the least, perhaps fitting certain stereotypes, but as I rest more in the Light of Christ, I find such things to be less of a concern, and I find my internal impulses/passions to buy this or that to impress so and so not worthy of acting upon. This is the advantage of a simple style of dress such as Quaker dress or the monastic habit.

8:45 PM, December 27, 2004  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I was happy to see Christopher's comment, though not sure I have much helpful information for him. Amanda's blog Of the Best Stuff But Plain or Larry's Plain in The City might be better places to start looking.
Amanda especially has some links to sources of plain clothing in something like the old Quaker style. If Christopher is interested in reaching back into history for a kindred spirit among Quakers, I'd recommend The Journal of John Woolman which should be available at most large libraries and is no doubt online somewhere also.
Meanwhile, I also tracked down Christopher's own blog, which is very interesting. He is apparently a Roman Catholic or at least very interested in Roman Catholic monastic/religious traditions and is also "queer" (which I take to mean "gay" or "homosexual"). He seems quite ecumenical or universal in his religious interests and mentions in one post having attended Strawberry Creek Friends Meeting. I wonder if he knows my friends Pam and Helen who are (or were the last I knew) members of that Meeting.
I intend to add a link to Christopher's blog to my own sidebar.

12:45 AM, December 28, 2004  
Blogger Lorcan said...

Another short observation....
"Friend Larry says that he dresses plain partly in order to not be using the products of slave labor in China. I hear myself thinking "But you can avoid using the products of slave labor and still wear contemporary designs".

Thee may in deed! And then wear a button saying, "Don't wear Chinese child labour" and another saying, "However, I love the Chinese people" and another saying, "Socialist Free Thinker" and another saying, "The Chinese government has done a disservice to Socialism!!!" And another saying, "But I love them ANYWAY!" and so on and so on, or wear a statement that I am a Friend. As to the rest of the world getting it, as Amanda and I passed a fellow who lives without a roof over his head, the other day, he called out, "Hey Quakerman! Got something for me today?" A fellow stopped me on the street and asked if I was a Friend. He said he was orphaned and raised by Friends, who did not dress plain, but, he recognized that I was not Amish. An English tourist couple asked me if I was a Quaker ... and so on, almost every day. Many ask is I am Amish, and that begins the discussion. Our witness grows.

And Christopher! Do drop in at our blog sites. There are so many plain people of different faiths. We have links to a number of people who make plain clothes.

Thyne in the light

5:41 AM, December 28, 2004  
Blogger Closed said...


Thanks for the blog links; I appreciate very much the Quaker blogs I've found through Joe G. and others. I don't know your Friends, as I've only been to the Strawberry Creek Meeting once. I do indeed mean "gay" or "homosexual" by using "queer", though I also play on the word to describe the downside up values of G-d's Shalom/Reign/Kindom. I was once RC, but I'm currently Anglican with a bent more toward Eastern Christianity, the Desert Elders, and such. I have read John Woolman's Journal before, but it may be time to check him out again.


Thanks for the invite. I will indeed stop by now that I've completed my work for the day.

7:11 PM, December 28, 2004  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi BQ,
A response to Christopher's query a few comments back: for over a year I've been maintaining a list of Resources on contemporary Quaker plain dress. It comes from various motivations and often comes out looking quite differently for each one who adopts it.

While justice issues and worries about simplicity might be important minor issues, Quaker plainness is first and foremost about one's relationship with God. It's about one's intent to be obedient and humble, to not be afraid of being identified as a religious person while at the same time not exulting in pride at being a religious person (a hard balancing act at times!).

From the old Faith and Practices comes the definition that plainness is a command to avoid "such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind." We are to adorn not ourselves, but the "gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things." (More in this post).

Anyway, I hope the Resources are helpful.

9:22 AM, December 29, 2004  
Blogger Jack Naka said...

I have a fashion shoes site. It pretty much covers fashion shoes related stuff. Check it out if you get time :-)

2:17 AM, October 06, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting thoughts.

While I do not dress plain, I definitely dress far, far more plain*ly* than most people I know. I don't really wear a lot of bright colors (mostly grey, brown, blue, olive, etc), I wear almost nothing that has designs/sayings/art on it, and I do not generally "dress up". When I shop, I shop for functionality (thus, despite being a woman, I actually own several pairs of mens pants, as they fit better, etc), and like you said, while I do not reject fashion, I do not go out of my way to follow it, either. I wear my clothes until they are too worn to wear (sadly, I am very rough on clothes, so they rarely last more than 2-3 years), and make an attempt to limit the amount of clothes that I own.

I am a teacher here in Korea, and one of my co-workers the other day said that she was surprised that I am so liberal, because she felt that I dress conservatively. To me, I do not dress conservatively - I wear mostly pants to work, I wear tank tops, etc - but to her, the lack of adornment, lack of bright colors, etc, she saw as conservative. It was an interesting and enlightening conversation.

2:32 AM, August 11, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although not a Quaker (I attend meeting on occasion, but would categorize myself as an atheist who shares certain Quaker convictions), I find the testimony of simplicity to be compelling. I do not wear a particular "plain" uniform, nor do I always refrain from wearing bright colors or patterns. Even so, I am often approached by people who believe me to be Amish. (I blame the long skirts and black stockings!) For me, plainness in clothing:

a) preserves modesty-- it is very hard to be mindful or diligent when one is perpetually worried about what one's clothing reveals or fails to conceal;

b) permits me to reduce my reliance on items produced in inhumane conditions, as I prefer when possible to sew for myself (although my budget unfortunately does not run to certified fair-trade organic piece goods, I do try to repurpose old clothes or to sew from thrifted materials);

c) permits me to reduce my ecological impact to some degree, as my purchased items are usually pre-loved, and as I try to avoid clothing that requires chemical cleaning; and

d) permits me to focus my resources on things that actually matter to me, rather than spending an undue amount of time worrying about clothing and fashion.

2:19 AM, October 04, 2008  

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