Quaker Plain II: Plain Dress

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

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.