Dressing Plain and Simple

A counselor at a Pennsylvania Community College stopped wearing her white prayer cap after experiencing hostility to her Christian identity from some students, a hostility she described as preventing her from helping them.  The Assistant Principal of a Mennonite High School testified to the slow erosion of plain dress among faculty and students.  The dress code for faculty had been made optional a few years ago and traditional plain dress among the instructors began to disappear.  Some teachers still wore it, but most opted for an acceptable simplicity in “modern” dress.  The students had to observe no more than what is considered a normal dress code for most high schools in the nation.

Both plain dress and religious habits have been under public censure for over a century.  Quakers largely abandoned plain dress over 100 years ago, while many Mennonites who maintained such dress far into the twentieth century now show signs of creeping abandonment.  Clerical garb is rarely worn by mainline Protestant clergy, and Vatican II led to wide changes of dress among American Catholic religious orders, with many orders updating, and some even jettisoning, their traditional habits.

However, in the last 20 years, some groups have shown renewed interest in plain dress and religious habits, embracing the witness this clothing makes.  From new Catholic orders like Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, through some Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations, to certain Quaker and Mennonite assemblies – each group has rejected the vapid liberalism that embraces the politics, dominant culture, and degraded values of the present day. 

            My chief concern in writing this paper is to examine the spiritual dimensions – both negative and positive – of plain dress, doing so generally from a Conservative Quaker perspective, though I also intend to draw observations from other faith contexts where these appear useful and illuminating.  As a starting point, I will review the substance (or lack of it) in the arguments set forth against plain and/or religious dress by those who have chosen to abandon it.  Second, I will delineate the spiritual difference between Quakers who choose to don plain dress and those Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities who require it of their members – for this difference is significant.  Third, I will review the spiritual dangers facing men and women who “go plain” for the wrong reasons, before I enumerate certain signs that some may be spiritually called by their Lord to dress plain.  It will be obvious from this discussion that I am not advocating plain dress for all – for some yes, but simple dress for most.  Our original Friends were quite clear that our Lord does not desire outward uniformity or regimentation, but inward obedience to His commandments.  I’ll conclude by noting several important values of plain dress, values not often touched on by its modern supporters and detractors.

1.      Modern Arguments Against Plain (or Religious) Dress

2.      Quaker versus Amish Emphasis on Plain Dress

3.      The Spiritual Dangers of Plain Dress

4.      Signs That One Might Be Called to Plain Dress

5.      Arguments for Plain Dress

6.      What We Must Avoid in Going Plain

1.      Modern Arguments Against Plain (or Religious) Dress

A Friar, Bernardo Finelli1, writing in 1983, summarized many of the reasons that people gave for abandoning distinctive religious dress, or for wearing it only for selected religious functions.  “Some of the reasons they give,” he noted, are “’We can better approach people when we are like them; we will not offend people who are not of our Faith; it is very uncomfortable to wear a habit because it is cumbersome.  You should not wear the habit to certain places or the people who see you will be scandalized.’  These are among many of the reasons I have heard personally from many different Religious,” Finelli observed.

Among those who are not church officials (i.e., “professional Religious”), the reasons against dressing plain have a somewhat similar ring.  Perhaps a motivation for some of the abandonment stems from each generation’s desire to differentiate itself from its elders: an attitude that twentieth century Western media strongly encouraged.  Others simply bow to the desire to “fit in,” to avoid the rejection and hostility of those in the World who may resent both faith and people of faith.  Often this avoidance is justified by explanations that carry a certain level of self-righteousness and accusation against those who choose to go plain.  “We have accepted the World’s dress and fashions because we’re more approachable if we dress like others, rather than wearing a sign of separation that makes people reticent about approaching us.”  The accusation is that those who wear religious signs and symbols have caused their own alienation by trying to be “holier than everyone else.”

Some argue more reasonably that plain and simple dress did not disappear: it simply took modern forms.  In the 1950s, it took the form of the gray flannel business suit and the business suit today represents a standard of plainness for millions of men.  Another “mutation” of plainness which appears everywhere is the outfit of blue jeans and T-shirts that millions upon millions of men and women of all ages wear as their daily dress, even on occasions that have been declared as semi-formal or formal.  Some who desire to demonstrate political solidarity with “the peasants and workers” have donned bib-overalls or the workman’s rugged work shirt and trousers.  Unisex fashions are plain enough even to blur the gender lines.  Yet, I do not want to imply that these modern fashions – even the most simple ones – are worn by most people for religious or even socially positive reasons like living simply.  The vast majority of simple dressers would sum up the reason for their wear in one word: comfort.  They make no statements, religious or otherwise, except those that might be printed on their T-shirts or tank tops.

Finally, the rampant, even violent, hostility  towards people of faith living under anti-religious and totalitarian regimes over the last century has added its weighty contribution to the abandonment of plain dress and religious habits.  Religious dress in many countries (like France, Mexico, the old Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe) in the twentieth century was interpreted as a sign that one was an enemy of the political state.  Even in Western democracies, disdain and censoriousness have characterized much worldly reaction to plain or religious dress, evidence of a steady erosion of faith within those democracies over the last century.  Such government activity is still evident today.  France, as recently as the last five years, enacted legislation prohibiting the wearing of obvious religious dress and symbols in schools and other public places.

When we evaluate the arguments against plain and simple dress, they fare rather poorly.  Most smack of a desire to conform to the World’s fashions or a wish to avoid the discomfort or outright hostility of being judged negatively for one’s faith and witness.  [return]

2.      Quaker versus Amish Emphasis on Plain Dress

A knowledge of the history of plain dress among Friends and of the difference between Quaker plainness and Amish/Mennonite plainness are important, especially for those among today’s Quakers who are beginning to suspect their motives for “acting like everybody else” and who sense a call to witness more deeply in word and action to their faith.

The first two Quaker generations between the 1650s and the 1690s in England and America stressed the wearing of serviceable, simple clothing without decoration and without regard to changes in fashion or class differences.  The motivation for such clothing came from the inward promptings of God’s Spirit, moving men and women to simpler lives that stressed the proper use of what their Creator had given them.  The emphasis was on plain and simple without outward regimentation through a uniformity of dress.  Later generations sought greater uniformity in dress for a number of outward reasons, ones that would be familiar to Old Order Amish and Mennonite communities.  These latter groups are known for their conformity to plain dress and its general uniformity, a conformity and uniformity supported by the outward expectations of the group.

Donald B. Kraybill, in his study The Riddle of Amish Culture [Revised Edition], identifies seven sociological functions that Amish plain dress serves:

The ethnic garb:
(1) signals that a member has yielded to the collective order,
(2) prevents dress from being used for self-adornment,
(3) promotes equality,
(4) creates a common consciousness that bolsters group identity,
(5) increases social control because members are expected to “act Amish” when in uniform,
(6) projects a united public front, which conceals diversity in other areas, and
(7) erects symbolic boundaries around the group – the equivalent of a cultural moat [58].

Outward expectations and pressure from family, friends, and church elders appear to be strong motivators for plainness among the Amish, though some may also be responding to an inward spiritual prompting from their Lord.

With far fewer positive outward motivators than plain Anabaptists have, our Quaker dress is rooted primarily in the inward dimension.  We seek inwardly for how Christ Jesus our Lord would have us live out our witness to His presence.  We recognize He may move some to don plain dress and will instruct others to dress with simplicity and modesty.  Our end is the same: obedience to the will of our Lord, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who knows what is most appropriate and useful for each of us.  Some are directed to go plain, while most are called simply to dress with simplicity.  Neither the one nor the other reflects a special or “more holy” status.  Neither one nor the other should receive the designation of “preferred outward expression” for our inward obedience to Christ’s presence and leading, for Christ Jesus does the preferring for each one of us.

Kraybill, in his study of Amish dress, notes that “relinquishing control over the presentation and ornamentation of one’s body is a fundamental offering – the supreme* sign that the self has yielded to a higher authority” [The Riddle of Amish Culture 58].  While I agree that it is a fundamental offering, in terms of being basic or primary, Kraybill appears to overstate the significance of plain dress when he terms it “the supreme sign that the self has yielded to a higher authority.”  A sign yes, but nowhere near the extraordinary signs of sacrifice of one’s fortune or one’s life for one’s faith.  [return]

3.      The Spiritual Dangers of Plain Dress

There are serious dangers in plain dress, if it is worn for the wrong reasons, dangers that can lead us defame our brethren and sisters in Christ and make a stink of our faith.  Simon Watson,2 a Quaker in the United Kingdom, observes:

If there is one useful thing I have learnt (the hard way), it is the uselessness of just putting oneself into a ‘plain regime.’  This rapidly becomes a self-willed world of empty works.  The authentic plain life is not so much an emptying out of worldliness, but a filling up with Christ’s Spirit which in turn gives us something so enriching and beautiful that the things of the world, the colorful adornments and affectations of the wealthy, pale in comparison.

Plain dress neither confers nor signifies holiness in itself.  It should be worn as a result of obedience to God’s directing, remembering that our Lord emphasizes that our entire inward life is what is important, that the inside of the cup must be clean, that our hearts cannot be filled with death and unfaithfulness, as were the hearts of the Pharisees who were particularly meticulous about their religious clothing.  If Christ Jesus does not rule within us and direct our outward actions according to His will, our plain dress will be a sign of hypocrisy, which the world will sooner, rather than later, perceive.

Plain dress can lead to a Pharisaic legalism.  One of the best faith based arguments against plain dress was made by the seventeenth century Quaker minister and leader Margaret Fell, who did so in an eloquent and perceptive General Epistle to second and third generation Quakers bent on regimenting dress among the faithful.  Her admonition is worth studying, because it points up one of the great dangers in dressing plain for the wrong reasons.  She admonished against the growing tendency to stress regimented outward appearance, rather than inward spiritual obedience.  Like the Pharisees before them, Friends were in great danger of measuring one another by their outward clothing, rather than emphasizing the heart of holiness – and this was particularly dangerous for young people:

It is a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into the observation of outward things, which may be easily done, for they can soon get into an outward garb, to be all alike outwardly, but this will not make them true Christians: it’s the Spirit that gives life.

 She continues:

 Let us all take heed of touching anything like the ceremonies of the Jews [the outward legal practices of the Pharisees]; for that was displeasing unto Christ, for he came to bear witness against them…testified against their broad phylacteries…so that we may see how well he liked their outward ceremonies.  So let us keep to the rule and leading of the eternal Spirit, that God hath given us to be our teacher; and let that put on and off as is meet and serviceable for every one’s state and condition.  And let us take heed of limiting in such practices; for we are under the Gospel leading and guiding and teaching, which is a free spirit, which leads into unity and lowliness of mind the saints and servants of Christ, desiring to be established in the free Spirit, not bound or limited.

Plain dress can become a source of divisiveness, if the spirit of divisiveness is not guarded and spoken against.  If we begin to reject those who dress honestly, modestly, and simply, we stand in great spiritual danger and threaten the good unity of God’s people.  Likewise, if those who dress honesty, modestly, and simply reject those who dress plain, the spiritual danger and disunity is the same.

Plain dress can foster spiritual pride, an attitude of “look, I’m not like thee.”  I’m holier, better, et cetera.  If plain dress leads us to pharisaic pride, so that we pray: “God, thank you I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” we should in no way be wearing it.  We must always remember that we, like all people, are poor, broken, helpless, lost people without Christ Jesus.  If inwardly we are not on our knees praying “Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner” (Luke 18:9-14), we should avoid plain dress.  If such dress is motivated by spiritual pride, it is not a “relinquishing control over the presentation and ornamentation of one’s body,” but a rude taking control.  It is not a sign of yieldedness to God, but a sign of an unyielding Self.  It is not a fundamental offering to our Lord, but a fundamental insult to Him.

Plain dress may in rare cases disguise a predatory evil.  Just as homosexual and heterosexual predators wore priests’ garb in the Catholic Church, so an occasional predator has donned plain dress in other religious circles.  As our Lord warned us, the wolf may don the sheep’s woolens.

I identify these dangers, not to discourage the taking of plain dress, not to argue against its wearing, but to emphasize that it must be done for the right reason: that our Lord wills it.  If plain dress is put on simply for the sake of meeting a group’s demands or expectations or to fit into the group, we do it not to obey God, but to obey the rules and commandments of men.  Before we “go plain,” we need to ask of the Lord, is this Thy will for me?  And we must make very sure that the answer we hear is His answer, not from our own romantic wishes or base desires.

            Moreover, we must recognize that our first call is to live and dress simply.  An attitude that scowls “thee is not dressed like me” tears down the Body of Christ by judging those who are living faithful lives.  Faye Chapman, in a little paper called “Conservative and Honest, but Not Plain,”2 emphasizes this point with forthright vigor:

…I must stand against any standardized external characteristic expectation that does not unify us in Him.  I think the issue of contemporary costuming to represent a moral position is important, but my leading is to the modest costume of the twenty-first century and not an earlier one.  I would like to believe that we all choose life styles out of spiritual leadings and that we have good explanation to offer to any drawn to ask questions about that life style because of the noticed differences.

 Given the rightness of Faye’s observations, how can we know whether we are called to be “plain,” as well as “simple?”  [return]

4.      Signs That One Might Be Called to Plain Dress

When the true leading towards plainness comes (true leading being not a self-willed leading), it is often with the following signs or characteristics:

One of the key signs that Plain Dress may be our Lord’s will for us is that there will be a cross in it.  For instance, John Woolman – an eighteenth century Quaker minister – was led to dress plainly as the majority of Friends of his time, but with a difference.  He was led to wear an un-dyed hat as a sign against slavery and as a way of avoiding supporting slavery through the use of the profitable West Indies hat dyes which slaves produced.  Woolman suffered considerable mortification, as fellow Quakers misinterpreted his dress and judged him amiss.  One of the most painful moments he records in his Journal was his arrival in England only to be humiliated by the response of those at the first Meeting of Ministry and Oversight he attended.  He nearly concluded that our Lord had brought him on the difficult journey across the Atlantic, only to have him suffer the humiliation of being rejected and sent back home, when he was moved by the Spirit to rise and speak in ministry.  As Friends listened, they realized their error in prejudging him by his dress and welcomed him.

A second key sign that plain dress may be our Lord’s will for someone is that the leading comes as a surprise.  Philip W. Helms,2 a Michigan Friend, records just such an experience:

Several years ago, I found myself strongly led to work toward greater simplicity in my life, including something approximating plain dress.  This leading came as a surprise, since I was then an urban Friend and member of a Liberal, university-town Monthly Meeting.  I work as an editor and photographer, which leaves me immersed in technology and travel.

A third sign of a true leading towards plainness is that it appears to one as “simply the right thing to do.”  Philip Helms's experience here is again instructive:

…I ultimately found that it simply felt like the right thing to do.  This aspect of my leadings has perhaps been the most difficult to explain to others: the sense that something is simply right, not necessarily supported by extensive or persuasive logic.  [return]

5.      Arguments for Plain Dress

Plain Dress as a sign – Being made a sign by our Lord is part of a very old prophetic tradition.  We need only consider the unusual behaviors that the prophet Ezekiel was called to act out as signs to the people of Israel and we will recognize that our Lord may lead some of His people in this direction.  To people sunk in a World of ostentation and loneliness, shallowness and materialism, plain or religious dress are signs that say: “there is another way,” “there is a different kind of life one can be leading,” “there’s another set of values, that just those of the World.”  Dress thus becomes a reminder to help men and women recollect and seek our lord.

Yet, going plain as a sign is also one of the more spiritually risky acts one may undertake, for pride can easily be its primary motivation.  John the Baptist’s camel’s hair coat and locust diet, the difficult and physically trying signs that Ezekiel was called to act out, might be seen as just the right counterbalance to any temptation hidden in being a sign. 

Plain dress as a support to religious community.  Plain dress can be supportive of faithfulness, if worn for the right reason.  It can be the language of a community that supports and affirms the trust and right relationships our Lord desires of us.  Plain dress can be a visual affirmation of our common ground in Christ Jesus.  On the other hand, if we dress worldly, making sexually alluring statements of ourselves and declarations of our conspicuous and self-centered consumption, we will find that such worldly dress works against faithfulness and undermines community.

Plain dress as a discipline – I have most often heard this reason as one for going plain.  “It reminds me of who I am, who I’ve serving, and that I have to watch my words and actions.  People know by my dress I’m trying to live a faithful life and I’d better be doing so with God’s help.”  Going plain as a discipline is the other side of the coin from “going worldly” to escape the judgment of the watching World.

Plain dress can bring us into communication with people of the World.  Jack Smith, a plain Quaker living near Harrisonburg, VA, testifies that such communication “has been our experience in many parts of the world.  If we were not dressed plain, there are many positive experiences we would not have had….  We were even thought to be Quakers by an English woman while we waited on a railroad platform in the Midlands and she began a conversation with us and ended up inviting us to spend the overnight in her home!”

Plain dress as a humiliation to our own pride: The World tells us “look out for number one, be a leader, be a self-promoter, blow thy own trumpet, stand out in the crowd, it’s all about you!”  My own experience in being called to plainness is that it proved a humbling down, a firm lesson in humility.  In my region, I became just another one of the plain folk, folk that live here by the thousands.  My individualism disappeared.  Yes, I was different, but in a way that led people to say “O” or “Oh, oh,” “there’s one of those people,” rather than “doesn’t he look cool.”

Plain Dress can act to some extent as a protection against the World and its ways.  Such dress can act as a reminder to the wearer of the pure and chaste life to which we are called.  In a sex-soaked World which encourages men to view women as sex toys, a woman’s plainness can be a hedge against such bald and banal behavior.  Plainness serves as a warning sign to such men and a declaration of modesty before the World.  [return]

6.      What We Must Avoid in Going Plain

What we must avoid is a meaningless regimentation that emphasizes the outward over the inward, a legalistic Pharisaism that neglects the heart and soul of our faith.  We must be particularly circumspect about judging by outward appearance, for contemporary clothing is often conservative, modest, and useful, and its wearers are often as unconcerned about fashion and style as we are.  A study of plain and simple dress over the centuries shows that this has long been so.  Eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and Anabaptists were almost indistinguishable from one another by dress.  They almost all were plain and simple.  Today, as in the past, we are called to simplicity of dress, but only some are called to plainness.  To be called to plainness is not God’s sign of a special or marked dispensation, not a step up spiritually, but actually a humbling down.  Thus, our witness should be: simplicity first and foremost – plainness only if called by our Lord to carry that cross.  [return]


1Friar Finelli’s research was praised by Pope John Paul II as the latter re-emphasized traditional values among Catholic religious.  Before arguing for distinctive religious dress, Finelli captured well the arguments in the 1970s and 1980s against such dress.  [return]

2The full text of Faye Chapman’s, Philip Helms’s, and Simon Watson’s comments on plain and simple dress may be found at www.michiganquakers.org along with many other useful articles.  [Watson return]  [Chapman return]  [Helms return]


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