Friday, December 17, 2004

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:

  1. 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.
  2. You thought it was a myth with no historical foundation at all that Quakers dress any differently than anyone else.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The New Plain justifies itself with new arguments, drawing in part on the Quaker past, but also reflecting contemporary realities.
  5. 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.


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7 Comments:

Blogger Lorcan said...

I have thought of thy posting, and here are a few notes, not meant to argue points, but illustrate my conviction.

Many DO expect seriously spiritual people to worry about how one dresses, just as Friend Dali Lama or Friend (the) Pope! I have no worry about Friends who dress in blue jeans (other than most blue jeans are made by children in Asia) However, I am not going to work in the shipyard, as I once did, where I wore work clothes. Rather, I am going to a meeting for worship, and I dress as a witness of who I am ... well, in fact, I dress as a Quaker when going into court, and I carry a note from the Federal District Court Administration which recognizes the right to wear a hat as a witness to who we Friends are spiritually. I don't wish to seem argumentative, but I must say, when thee states that "we" do not want to be mistaken for Amish... I do not mind being confused with any other people, people who are aware that they are people of conscience, like our Amish Sisters and Brothers, or being confused with Doc Holiday, as some folks comment dressed like me ... we are all the children of light. "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. " Well, yes, Quakerism is always new in every moment. Amanda and I, and many plain Friends who set out on this witness before we knew each other, where responding to many of the same concerns which drove plain dress in the past. We find each other writing about rejection of slave made clothes, clothes which speak to things from which we stand aside... I have seen people come to meeting in military camouflage and cause less confusion that Quaker plain dress! We dress for the truth of who we are, Quakers. Thee writes... "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." This is, I am afraid, part of the oddity of our particular meeting. There is a desire to conform in our meeting, often to things which would surprise Friends in many other meetings. To be set apart from other Friends for a witness to Truth is indeed a symptom that our meeting is putting blocks in each other's way, and strengthens my conviction that the other, often young Friends who reject commodity dress are standing squarely in the light. Thee goes on to write, "
The New Plain justifies itself with new arguments, drawing in part on the Quaker past, but also reflecting contemporary realities." Well, yes again. China is the slave plantation of today, and I live today, not in 1830... in spite of my clothes!

Richard, the has the NERVE to say, "The New Plain, while it is deeply serious, also incorporates irony and humour." IT ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT!!!! (just kidding, IT DOES! Friend!)
I await thy reflections on Anna Curtis. She was a strong light in my childhood, and I have deeply fond memories of her.

Thy Friend and friend, Lorcan "Larry" Otway

3:39 PM, December 17, 2004  
Blogger Jack Naka said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:53 PM, October 05, 2005  
Blogger Richpoo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:41 AM, October 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,
I study an artist whos work is like that which God has drawn himself. characterisics of the artist is showing/telling in his own art/heart he learned to walk by God and left it with the common. My name in the Hebrew yeasher meaning A plain. How does mystical fit into clothing? When barely you can "feel His sensible presence" presenly God gives a very special grace by which they are enabled to feel.

3:41 PM, January 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Muslim woman, I admire the "new plain" and wish that there was a similar movement among spiritual-minded Muslims, who, though they worship God, have gone far from the path of simplicity that marked the prophets and their followers. I myself prefer simple and plain clothing as I feel it is more in tune with my values.
Peace to all.

5:48 AM, October 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once attended meeting years ago in plain dress, and many had no idea why I was dressed as I was. Some asked me if I was a Mennonite. Then again, some also had no idea who George Fox was - quite a few people came to meeting and participated, focusing mainly or only on the social implications of the Gospels, and some of those didn't even necessarily identify as Christian.

In another instance, I refused to remove my hat in a courthouse, during anti-nuke related proceedings. When I explained to the court that I was a Friend, another Friend sitting in front of me (from a different meeting) was mildly outraged that I put plain dress "before the task at hand", and that I (according to her) portrayed Quakers in a negative way. The court allowed me to wear the hat.

I am glad that more and more Friends are adopting forms of "noticeable" plain dress, as it does make a statement and is a witness. IT needn't be "historical" garb, but any truly "plain" garb - worn in the spirit of Gospel teachings - WILL stand out in whatever age it is worn. That makes us different, and different versus blending can be a powerful thing in a good sense.

8:52 AM, March 24, 2011  
Blogger Branch said...

If I recall correctly, Friends gave up the plain dress as almost a leap of faith. We wanted to live in the world because change comes from "within" and not apart from the world as outsiders. Yet we did not want to be "of" the world but rather keep our testimony of simplicity in our hearts. Each Friend must dress according to his or her own spiritual testimony.

Basically, if you can pull wearing just about anything under the sun and maintain your own personal testimony of simplicity, then that's "plain dress."

I will say this, I sometimes wish the Society of Friends had one or two subtle symbols that could subtly remind me and others of my "Quaker" self. Like others who where those bracelet that say "WWJD" (what would Jesus do). What a lovely reminder. I'm not christocentric so maybe something, uniquely Quaker, but subtle, really, really subtle. ; )

2:45 AM, September 10, 2012  

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