The New Plain?
Two of the links that I included in my first post are to blogs by New York City Friends who have an interest in "plain" clothes. Depending on your prior knowledge of Quakerism (or lack thereof) this may surprise you either because:
- You thought all Quakers dressed "plain" already, like the man on the Quaker Oats box, or the Amish believers who many people confuse with Quakers.
- You thought it was a myth with no historical foundation at all that Quakers dress any differently than anyone else.
- You don't expect seriously spiritual people to get hung up with issues like how you dress.
The truth, as usual, is more complex than either (1) or (2) above would suggest. Most Friends today do not dress "plain" in the sense that our ancestors did. When my Friend Larry appears at Meeting in his broad-brimmed black hat and his vest and collarless coat, he stands out as unique. The other Quaker men who are present favor blue jeans or slacks and sports shirts or workshirts. Many (before they met Larry) were probably unaware tht Quakers once really did look so much like the Amish that we don't like to be confused with.
One hundred and fifty years years ago, however, almost all the male Friends in meeting would dress a lot more like the Larry of today than like their own non-Quaker contemporaries. Plainness has has a complicated history among Friends.
In the very first years of Quakerism (say 1648 - 1700) there was no unique Quaker costume, but Friends did try to stay clear of any adornment they considered gaudy, immodest, vain, or frivolous, and they consciously abstained from modifying their clothing in order to keep up with fashion. In this they were quite different from certain other social groups of the time and quite similar to others. Think of the "Cavaliers" (generally high-church aristocrats with a fondness for foppery) vs the "Roundheads" (straight-laced Puritans) of the late 17th century. The Quakers were more like the Roundheads in this way, though in other ways, such as the crucial one of theology, they were anything but Puritan. My point here is that Quakers at first dressed pretty much like other "sober people" of the time. (One exception was George Fox, whose hommemade "leather breeches" were unique. Fox is generally credited as being the founder or originator of Quakerism, and his example was followed by other Friends in many things, but for some reason the leather breeches never caught on.)
By the early 1700's the situation had evolved. As other people changed their modes of dress and Quakers didn't (at least so much) Quaker clothing came to look more and more conspicuous. Quakers were pretty unpopular in some circles and their distinctive clothing made them easily identifiable targets for mockery and scorn. You might think this would be an incentive to Friends to try to blend in more with the ways of the world, but it actually had the opposite effect. Dressing plain and putting up with the world's disapproval became a marker of Quaker committment and of loyalty to the Quaker movement. It was seen, in fact, as a way of taking up the cross. Any Friends who might be tempted to compromise on this point earned the disapproval of their Meetings and could even be disowned if they persisted. Gradually, the definitions of what was and was not plain became much more defined. This continued to be the case until well into the 19th century. But in the last half of the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century most meetings stopped enforcing the older dress codes and most individual Friends stopped wearing their broad-brimmed hats, their bonnets, and their black or gray attire. Plainness persisted as an attractive ideal, but it was not spelled out in detail. Friends could dress pretty much in any way they wanted, but what they wanted (in most Meetings) was generally less flashy and ornate, less expensive, less formal, and more comfortable than what "fashion" would dictate.
So where does Larry come in? Or our new Friend Amanda? Outwardly they are starting to look a lot like our Quaker ancestors. But in my opinion they represent something new. A kind of "plainness" that differs from the plainness of 19th century Quakers in several ways.
- The New Plain is voluntary rather than mandatory. There is no committee of elders measuring hat brims. If anything, the New Plain may be a tad defiant of the prevailing Quaker ethos.
- The New Plain is more individualistic than communal. To dress this way inevitably sets one apart, not only from the wider society, but also from most Quakers themselves. Friends in the 1700's expected to look different from "the world", but they emphatically did not want to appear "singular" among their Friends.
- The New Plain is improvised in its details. Since the Quaker community provides no guidelines, and there is no contemporary tradition to support their choice, these Friends have to make up their plainness as they go along: choosing fabrics, finding just the right hats, etc.
- The New Plain justifies itself with new arguments, drawing in part on the Quaker past, but also reflecting contemporary realities.
- The New Plain, while it is deeply serious, also incorporates irony and humour.
In my next post, I hope to illustrate these points a little more - using examples not only from Larry and Amanda's blogs, but from some other contemporary "plain Friends" and from some in the recent past, such as William Bacon Evans of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Anna Curtis of New York Yearly Meeting, both of whom died in the mid twentieth century.