Quaker Plain II: Plain Dress

When I wrote “Quaker Plain I,” I had no idea it would be the most-read essay yet on “Letters From The Street.” Nor the most-commented. Yet so it was.

Now, I hope it was clear in context that plainness encompasses a wider scope than clothing. So I was a bit surprised that dress took up so much of the reaction. Probably shouldn’t have been. Reading around on various blogs concerned with plainness, it’s a frequent topic.

I didn’t plan to address the concern this soon, but I’m going to. If it is that present in so many minds, then it deserves consideration. While my main concern is to learn what plainness means in our contemporary context, looking at specific examples may well help to draw that out.

OK. I hope we all know there’s no standard for plain dress among 21st century Friends. We are, to a great extent, on our own. We can’t tell each other what to do, but we can learn from each other.

So, in the absence of clear direction, I want to talk about some guidelines that have been helpful for me.

First, dressing plain is a spiritual discipline. Like any important feature of our lives, it has overtones in other areas, such as the political, economic, or cultural realms. I’m not saying we shouldn’t address those; we just might. But primarily, we do it because it depends upon and enriches our relationship with God.

How does this happen? As Quakers, we try to follow the Spirit in all of our lives, and to make each moment sacramental. There are many ways to do this; one of them is by being conscious of our clothing choices and allow God to guide us, even in this mundane way.

A commenter on the last essay said, “God doesn’t care how we dress.” Yes, and No. I don’t think it is terribly important to God whether I wear khakis or Quaker grey. I doubt if He cares whether I wear a broadbrim or a ball cap. I’m sure He couldn’t care less about the number of pleats in a woman’s bonnet, or whether she prefers a bonnet to a scarf. In that sense, our friend is quite right. Our Lord has bigger fish to fry.

And, Yes He does. He cares about the most mundane items of our lives, down to the number of hairs on our heads. How can both of these statements be true? Because He doesn’t care about khakis as khakis; He won’t strike me down or lift me up for wearing one thing or another. He cares about how the choices I make reflect our relationship. Every last choice, not just clothes or whether I tithe or whether our babies have water sprinkled on their foreheads or whether we eat fish on Friday. When I let Him into every aspect of my life, I have to be prepared to be led in ways that may seem peculiar, especially in our materialistic, indulgent, and individualistic society (which, for brevity’s sake, I am going to call “the world” from now on.) And if that means that I feel led to dress a certain way in order to hold faith with God, so be it. Your opinion of that is none of my business.

In former times, Friends used to talk a great deal about “the hedge.” This was a reference to how our distinctive testimonies and practices separated us from “the world”. I’m going to digress for a bit here, and then get back to the point.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the newcomer often feels grateful for the anonymity part of the program. He thinks it protects him from having other people know that he is coming to meetings, that he is an alcoholic, that his social status will not be sullied.

Ha. Little does he know, although he usually finds out when he gets to the “making amends” phase of the program (Steps 8 and 9), that most people already have no doubt whatsoever about his drinking. Whatever damage may have been caused to his social status has already been caused by his own behavior. Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and working the Steps, far from besmirching his image, inclines most people he knows to think better of him. But if thinking that anonymity protects him from the scorn of others helps to soothe those anxious, timid newcomer feelings, so be it. Whatever it takes to get someone in the door and get them active, right?

What he finds out as he progresses is that anonymity is not meant as a protection for him. It is an expression of a spiritual principle that lies at the heart of the program: humility. Humility, as practiced in AA, has to do with unpretentiousness. The alcoholic has already suffered from an ego that has made him feel both better than and worse than he really is. Humility makes him “right-sized.” Neither better nor worse, just him as he really is, a garden-variety drunk trudging the road to happy destiny. He is anonymous because he doesn’t go around making a big deal of his involvement with AA, not because he is afraid for people to know. His ego, always a problem while drinking, is both in check and at peace.

And, given the nature of drunks in general, anonymity also protects the Fellowship of AA. It ensures that one person, or group of people, will not try to hog the spotlight and give an impression of AA that is inadequate, limited, or just plain wrong. It ensures that, if some highly visible person such as an actor or sports figure should join AA and then get drunk again, the lapse will not be laid at AA’s feet.

Now, let’s think about the hedge. For some, the hedge may have been a guarantor of their sanctity. If they talked, dressed, and acted as Quakers were supposed to, then they would not be as likely to fall away from the faith they had found. Less likely to sin, less likely to offend. Yes, the hedge functioned that way, to protect the individual from himself. But that was not the most important function of the hedge.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson explains in his book of essays on Gospel Order, becoming a Quaker meant assimilating a point of view in which God’s creation is known as perfect, and in which one thinks and feels and behaves in such a way as to live within that perfection. The hedge was not there so much to protect us from “the world”, as to remind us that we are not part of it, that we are part of the order of creation as God intended. It reminds us to live, not “as though” the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality, but because the Sermon on the Mount is our present reality. In most churches, the Kingdom is something in the future, or perhaps after death. Not so for Friends. The Kingdom is now.

The hedge could be abused, and was abused, as an instrument of control by the Quaker establishment. It gradually ceased to perform the function that it was intended to serve. And so, during a period of time around a century ago, the various bits and pieces of the hedge were relinquished. In some ways this is good. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity is sterile. As a good physician may sometimes discontinue all medications in order to start fresh with a clear picture of what is needed, perhaps the Society of Friends needed to clear its own decks of the accretions of centuries and look at itself anew.

The problem with that is that the true purpose for the hedge, that of facilitating our assimilation into the Present Kingdom, was allowed to vaporize as well. Friends became more and more assimilated to “the world.” Materialism and individualism have made gross inroads into our thoughts, our feelings, our mores, our activities. In the immortal words of the cartoon figure Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”, “Whatevah … I do what I want.”

Back to AA for a moment. The AA member who makes the most of the program soon learns that it is wonderful not to be on his own any more. Not only does he have a Higher Power to rely upon for guidance, he has a sponsor and the rest of the fellowship. A word that is often heard in the rooms of AA is “transparent.” The committed member tries to live a life that is transparent to other members. He doesn’t hide from them. His life is an open book. He seeks feedback on choices he has to make. He welcomes — perhaps after some struggle, for the ego is tamed but not absent — warnings from others when he is unaware of making bad choices. He knows that there are some things he cannot do on his own, and many that it is better not to do on his own even if he could.

Nearly the sole remnant of this kind of thinking in the Society of Friends is the Clearness Committee, and this is a rarity. Eldering and oversight have very limited scope. Despite the lessons learned early and harshly by such as James Naylor, who found in the most painful of ways that anointing his own leadings above all others could lead to perverse consequences, we have to a large extent returned to that same state. How many people seek to test their leadings by laying them before the Meeting? How many humbly submit to its collective leading in response?

We much prefer to follow the example of John Woolman, who maintained his testimonies even in the face of opposition. Or so we think. If we read Woolman’s Journal carefully, we find that he had a more submissive attitude than many modern Friends think. For instance, when he went to England at the end of his life to carry his message about slavery, and was told by London Yearly Meeting that they considered his mission complete before he even started, he shed tears of sadness that he could not share the message as he had thought he would. He did not go ahead and preach anti-slavery sermons in defiance of their stricture. He wept, and he submitted. Seen much of that lately?

And so, plainness is a part of the hedge, and I believe that we need to re-create this hedge in a way that is meaningful for us, now. Clothing certainly is a part of this, because it is something we do every day. We need to think about what we wear, just as we think about what we eat. I remember the boycotts of iceberg lettuce in the early 70s, in support of the United Farmworkers’ campaign to humanize the treatment of agricultural laborers. It didn’t take much to give up iceberg lettuce, but it got many of us thinking about how such seemingly small choices can have such over-arching meanings.

As one who at one time wore broadcloth pants and a broadbrim hat, I honor those whose leading takes them in this direction. It is not relevant to ask whether they are “right” or “wrong”, as some seem to approach the subject. The question is, are they truly led, and have they measured their leading against those who are most suited to serve as guides in these matters? I hope that they seek out the community of others who are re-discovering plainness, because (as in AA) there are some things which are truly best done among others. For one thing, it is so easy for ego to masquerade as the inmost self, and confuse the issue of what one’s true leading is. For another, when setting out on a course which is so foreign to the direction we receive every day from “the world,” there is comfort as well as guidance in the community of others of like mind. Thank God for this Internet which can bring us together from all geographical quarters, who might otherwise never have met.

For the rest of us, who wish to be plain but who do not adopt the older style of dress, what do we do? There were some wonderful comments on the last post which addressed this issue. I think it is likely that most of us would agree, for instance, that displaying brand names prominently is not plain (although at this very moment I have on a t-shirt that says “Campmor” on it.) Putting “Hollister” or “Aeropostale” on the chest or sleeve of my garment does not make it warmer, last longer, shed dirt better, or any such function. It is strictly and solely to appeal to the status-seeking impulse which is so much at the heart of “the world.”

Next, we might think about price. This is a little trickier. It is not always true that the less expensive an item is, the more plain it is. This is often not the case. Many years ago, when I had very little money, I used an amount that was kind of painful to buy a Woolrich woolen shirt. That shirt became a cool-weather jacket and a light-rain jacket as well as a warm shirt for cold weather. It wore like iron. I got many, many years of use out of it. A less expensive shirt would not have served all of those functions, nor lasted as long. A friend of mine calls the kind of “economy” which buys the cheap item in disregard of suitability as “jumping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Well said.

That being said, it is still a valid principle to spend less rather than more, if plain is what you are after. Won’t a Chevy get you around as well as a Benz? Will a good used car do just as well as a new one? In some cases, the answer might be “No.” This is where discernment is necessary, and having others to help make the decision will lead to a better outcome.

Solids rather than patterns? Muted rather than bright, conspicuous colors? Probably, most of the time. Let’s not divest ourselves of all beauty, though.

Manufacture: like my woolen shirt, clothes that are durable are more suitable than those that have to be replaced every time you turn around. In the long run, they use less of the world’s resources.

Style: clothes with classic lines, that will not look silly as soon as the fad passes, are pretty much de rigueur for plain folks. Trying to follow fashion is very much a “worldly” preoccupation. I don’t see any wiggle room on this one. A much older friend, who had attended Olney Friends School in the 1940s, told me once of a Quaker woman who was elderly at that time. She had continued to wear the old-style Quaker plain dress which she had grown up with. She said to him “I’ve been at the height of fashion three times in my life.” This story always brings a smile to my face. That’s a gal I want to emulate.

I haven’t said anything yet about origins: place of manufacture, sweat shops, child labor, etc. I know those things are important. I also know they are more complex than they appear on the surface. For instance, of course I am against the exploitation of children for economic gain. And yet, in that country and under those circumstances, that child’s labor may be what is keeping her younger siblings from literally starving to death. And so, a boycott of such goods would be a selfish exercise of my own ideological purity at the expense of a gruesome tragedy from which I am insulated. I’m open to suggestions on this one. I don’t see any way to go besides a case-by-case decision. Who said living plain was going to be easy?

And that feels like it is as far as I can go with the issue of plain clothing. There were some fine comments last time, and I hope that this essay will spark even more. If it doesn’t help you, I know it will help me.

Quaker Plain I

There are so many things I think of to write about. I don’t really know how I select what to focus on. It is not always what seems most important, or even more pressing. Something inside just says, “This. Now.” And I pretty much go along with that.

So it is with this post. I have thought a lot about the Quaker testimony of plainness, for many years; probably since I started worshiping with Friends, 40 or so years ago. I don’t know why, given some of the other topics that I am working on for this blog, this is the one that has come to the surface for me, but it has.

Most modern Friends talk about simplicity. I get that. That’s the way I’ve talked about it, and thought about it, most often. Simplicity is … well, simple. It doesn’t take a lot of explanation, it just needs to be done. I’ve heard some disagreement about what simplicity might mean in a certain time, at a certain place, but I have never heard any serious disagreement about whether simplicity is desirable or not. I’ve never heard much disagreement about what it means, in general. I reckon that’s a good thing. Seems like there ought to be some stuff that we just agree on without much fuss, when there is so little of that to be found among us.

For instance, as I write, I am deeply saddened by the impending split in Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which I was a member in the 1980’s. “Why can’t we all just get along?” is not an adequate response. There are real issues of grave importance on both “sides” (and that’s one of those other topics I am working on that seem both more important and more urgent than this one).Neither “side” seems to be able to see the profound significance of the other’s stance. They are both largely right, about something. They are both terribly wrong, about something. And for some reason, it has come to this: time has run out on trying to bridge those differences and seek mutual understanding and reconciliation.

How can a religious society which professes peace as one of its premier testimonies, be so given to internecine warfare? Oh, that is such a rhetorical question. I know why, or at least a lot of the why. Some of it is to be found in a previous essay called People Are Corruptible.

But the new one, the essay on the split in IYM and what it says about Quakers in general, is still in process. Today, I want to talk about plainness.

So as I said, I’ve been thinking, praying, meditating, and seeking Light on this matter for 40 years or so. Honestly, during most of that time I’ve been pretty certain what simplicity meant to me. Some of that hasn’t changed. Let’s see if I can tease out some of the common threads.

1.) Materialism: Bad.

Oh, I need to say more about that? Okay. Materialism is another way of saying greed. Materialism means that I think I can make myself happy with property, money, things. It means that my primary orientation is to what I can own or control, rather than to relationships with others, with intellectual advance, or with spirituality. In practice, I find it means that I am willing to hurt others in order to get the things I want. It means that I am willing to allow my soul to wither so long as I have a big pile of stuff. Social status, affluence, and conspicuous consumption are seen as ultimately desirable, and all other values are given lip service at best, or scorned at worse.

This does not lend itself to serenity, justice, love, or awareness of God’s presence in my life.

2.) Humility: good.

Humility gets a bad rap in society at large. I almost said “modern society” but from what I can tell of history, it always has. There is a place for a healthy ego; a healthy ego mediates between my Self and the outside world. So far, so good. But when ego starts thinking it IS my self, trouble starts. Ego gets very good at justification, rationalization, blaming, excuse-making, forgetting, making mountains out of molehills, taking things personally, and a whole host of other errors. I call them errors because they are not true; they are what ego makes up to justify having put itself into an unnatural prominence, and to defend itself in that position.

Humility, on the other hand, keeps me right-sized. The term humility has its origin in the Latin Humilis, which is related to humus or earth. In other words, to be humble is to be grounded. Chogyam Trungpa used to talk about the incredible richness of earthiness, where both growth and decomposition take place at the same time. It is a richness, not of arrogance, status, or vanity, but of real qualities, both pleasant and unpleasant, and how they mingle together. Humility has no more to do with false modesty than it does with false pride. False modesty disguises self-centeredness behind a facade of deprecation, but it is still focused on “me me me” and not on “Self in relation to others and the world about me.”

True humility allows me to admit my talents as well as my flaws. Talents, because they were given to me; they don’t exalt my ego if I am honest about their real nature. Flaws, because an honest assessment reveals that I have them AND that this is the human condition. Doesn’t make me a bad person; just makes me a typical person.

So the practice of simplicity has allowed me to find a way to put these threads together in a way of life. By following a way of life, there is some self-correction that can occur. If I am off base, and if I am honest about observing and understanding what happens to me and around me, I will see that my ideas don’t match up to reality, and adjust them accordingly. For instance, if I tell myself I am living simply because I bought a Honda Accord instead of a Lexus, and then meet someone from a Third World country who is thrilled about having a bicycle that doesn’t break down, I just might readjust my notions of how simple my life really is.

There was a time, in the 80s, when I first encountered Conservative Friends, and I experimented with plainness. I was a member at the time of a Meeting that was located among a large population of German Baptist Brethren, also called Dunkards. Dunkards are “Old Order” in many ways, although they have accepted electrical appliances, cars, etc., as the Old Order Amish have not. Still, to an outward eye, you would not be able to tell a Dunkard from an Amish person. The differences are in the details — like how many pleats a lady’s bonnet has — and they can tell the difference, but the outsider would lump them all together. So being surrounded by this, plain dress did not seem so strange. And knowing of our Quaker heritage of dressing in a very similar fashion, and having been introduced to Conservative Friends, I moved somewhat in that direction. I adopted a style of dress that was similar to, but not imitative of, the Dunkards around me and of the few plain Friends who were still to be found in Ohio Yearly Meeting. I adopted, in private, the use of Thee and of the numbered days and months (First Day, Seventh Month, instead of Sunday or July.)

Time moved on and so did I. When I no longer resided within that community, these things began to feel more like peculiarities than like testimonies. What was their purpose? Was it really to live in that Spirit in which true humility resides, or did it actually call a lot of attention to me and to what a Quakerly guy I was? I did not find that I had to reject the impulses which moved me to make these experiments, nor to regret the style in which the experiments were carried out. What I had to do was realize that outside of community, a fellowship of like-minded others, this way of behaving did not accomplish what I felt called to express.

I gradually moved away from the emphasis on plainness, and back to calling it simplicty. What I had learned, stayed with me, but the perspective underwent a gradual and subtle shift.

Now, thirty years later, I am wondering about the wisdom of that. Many Friends are once again feeling the call to plainness. Do a web search on Convergent Friends and you will find a great deal of discussion going on concerning this topic. Some things are emerging from that discussion, and I think it is productive.

First, I want to say that my suspicion that it takes community to have a real, vital expression of plainness is proving to be accurate. It may be, in our current situation, that this community is more “virtual” than was possible before. People who might never have met can now, through internet social networking media, question each other, support each other, serve as role models for each other. As this discussion grows, and more people engage with the effort, I expect that actual (or “analog”) communities will grow, in which people in the same Yearly Meetings (and not just the Conservative ones), or even the same local Meetings, will be practicing plainness together, face to face and not just keyboard to keyboard.

Secondly, the current dialog is making the difference between plain and simple more distinct. We can be very “simple” without being plain. Like Helen Mallon said in a recent blog post, “Quakerism: an opportunity to wear ugly shoes and feel smug about it.” An excellent observation. You might also say “An opportunity to drink Free Trade coffee and feel smug about it.” We share this one with the Unitarian Universalists. (Smile.)

What is plainness, then, and why is it different from simplicity? I am struggling to answer this question, myself. While I find it useful to distinguish the two, it is hard to come up with a pat definition that can withstand all objections. I know this, though: plainness has more to do with trying to be humble than it does with trying to be good. And I think, this time around, I will leave it there. I will have more to say on the subject, as my own journey continues, and I will continue to learn more from the rest of the plain Quaker “community,” but for now that will have to do.

In “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, Geoffrey Rush’s character got a good laugh saying, “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.” Well, I’m not even at the guideline stage as yet. More of an intuition, really. But that part about humililty: I have a feeling that it lasts.

Let me put this as clearly as I can: Simplicity can used, very easily, as a way to enhance ego, which kills the spirit. Plainness, when practiced in community, makes egocentrism harder to pull off. Not impossible, but harder.

We’ll keep thinking, and praying, and meditating, and communicating, and practicing, and it will all evolve in time.