I wonder if it’s not a good time for the Margaret Fell story. She was one of the most important founders of the Quaker movement, a feisty, outspoken, hardworking and politically powerful early Friend who later married George Fox.
The story goes that one day Margaret wore a red dress to Meeting. Another Friend complained that it was gaudy. She shot back in a letter that it was a “silly poor gospel” to question her dress. In my branch of Friends, this story is endlessly repeated out of context to prove that “plain dress” isn’t really Quaker. (I haven’t looked up to see if I have the actual details correct – I’m telling the apocryphal version of this tale.)
Before declaring her Friend’s complaint “silly poor gospel” Margaret explains that Friends have set up monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting structures in order to discipline those walking out of line of the truth. She follows it by saying that we should be “covered with God’s eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light.”
It seems really clear here that Margaret is using this exchange as a teaching opportunity to demonstrate the process of gospel order. Individuals are charged with trying to follow Christ’s commands, and we should expect that these might lead to all sorts of seemingly-odd appearances (even red dresses!). What matters is NOT the outward form of plain dress, but the inward spiritual obedience that it (hopefully!) mirrors. Gospel order says it’s the Meeting’s role to double-guess individuals and labor with them and discipline them if need be. Individuals enforcing a dress code of conformity with snarky comments after meeting is legalism – it’s not gospel order and not proper Quaker process (I would argue it’s a variant of “detraction”).
This concern over legalism is something that is distinctly Quaker. Other faiths are fine with written down, clearly-articulated outward forms. Look at creeds for example: it’s considered fine for everyone to repeat a set phrasing of belief, even though we might know or suspect that not everyone in church is signing off on all the parts in it as they mutter along. Quakers are really sticklers on this and so avoid creeds altogether. In worship, you should only give ministry if you are actively moved of the Lord to deliver it and great care should be given that you don’t “outrun your Guide” or add unnecessary rhetorical flourishes.
This Plain and Modest Dress discussion group is meant for people of all sorts of religious backgrounds of course. It might be interesting some time to talk about the different assumptions and rationales each of our religious traditions bring to the plain dress question. I think this anti-legalism that would distinguish Friends.
For Friends, I don’t think the point is that we should have a formal list of acceptable colors – we shouldn’t get too obsessed over the “red or not red” question. I don’t suspect Margaret would want us spending too much time working out details of a standard pan-Quaker uniform. “Legalism” is a silly poor gospel for Friends. There’s a great people to be gathered and a lot of work to do. The plainness within is the fruit of our devotion and it can certainly shine through any outward color or fashion!
If I lived to see the day when all the Quakers were dressing alike and gossiping about how others were led to clothe themselves, I’d break out a red dress too! But then, come to think about it, I DO live in a Quaker world where there’s WAY TOO MUCH conformity in thought and dress and where there’s WAY TOO MUCH idle gossip when someone adopts plain dress. Where I live, suspenders and broadfalls might as well be a red dress!