Margaret Fell’s Red Dress (2004)

I wrote this in Eighth Month 2004 for the Plainand­mod­est­dress dis­cus­sion group back when the red dress MacGuf­fin made it’s appear­ance on that board.

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!

  • Chron­i­cler

    Wow great work, MK! I regret that I hadn’t read this ear­li­er. It pro­vides some inter­est­ing insights into the issue. 

    It is true that Mar­garet com­plained that cloth­ing require­ments for every­one com­prised the sil­ly poor gospel. It is also true that those who usu­al­ly quote her on this A) think she meant that wear­ing plain clothes was the sil­ly poor gospel and B) often pre­fer that Friends blend into the wider Amer­i­can cul­ture. The ques­tion “what is the Lord is direct­ing thee to do?” usu­al­ly gets shift­ed away from the dis­cus­sion when that was at the cen­ter of what Mar­garet was try­ing to communicate. 

  • This is a nice­ly writ­ten essay. I admire the way you made your way through a maze of the­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal pit­falls with­out falling into any of them.

    I had nev­er heard or seen the “red dress” sto­ry, and I wouldn’t be the least sur­prised to find that it is apoc­ryphal, as it sounds rather out of char­ac­ter for Mar­garet Fell-Fox. What I had been giv­en to under­stand was that she refused to give up the style of dress that was con­ven­tion­al, though not showy, for a woman in her posi­tion — a mano­r­i­al lady in the Eng­lish North who had to over­see her estate, treat with the nation­al gov­ern­ment on behalf of an embat­tled move­ment, and deal with an end­less stream of hos­tile lawyers. I sus­pect that what hap­pened was a quar­rel between Mar­garet, who was sim­ply util­i­tar­i­an in her dress, and oth­er Friends who were more Puri­tan­i­cal­ly severe.

  • Mar­i­an Love

    I some­times enjoy putting on my go-to-meetin’ clothes because it makes a visu­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal state­ment that the time spent in Meet­ing is spe­cial and dif­fer­ent from oth­er times in the week. There are oth­er times when I think my jeans reflect the lack of class dis­tinc­tion that the plain dress rep­re­sent­ed in Eliz­a­bethan times. In short, my clothes are a reflec­tion of where my head is at the time. 

    My moth­er grew up in an Indi­ana Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty that was still tran­si­tion­ing from the plain dress and speech. She taught us that the rea­son for the change was that those cus­toms no longer served their orig­i­nal pur­pose. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the plain dress reflect­ed the home­spun clothes that work­ing class Eliz­a­bethans wore. (Col­ored dyes were very expen­sive.) Friends’ plain dress was an affir­ma­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment teach­ing that we are all one, and there­fore social­ly equal, in the spirit. 

    Like­wise, Eliz­a­bethan Eng­lish still reflect­ed dif­fer­ences between the famil­iar “thee” and the for­mal “you,” sim­i­lar to the Ger­man “tu” and “ihr”. Thee indi­cat­ed that the per­son with whom one was speak­ing was either fam­i­ly, or a friend with whom one was inti­mate. By using “thee” uni­ver­sal­ly, they were rein­forc­ing Friends com­mit­ment to all human­i­ty being fam­i­ly because of the uni­fy­ing spir­it artic­u­lat­ed in Jesus’ teach­ing. The lan­guage changed, but Friends didn’t until much later.

    There’s a Rufus Jones quote, which I may not remem­ber pre­cise­ly, but which is one of my favorites when dis­cussing reli­gion. As I remem­ber it, he said: “I’d rather be a smil­ing St. Fran­cis than a dour-faced old Quak­er who looks as if he’s been fed on a spir­i­tu­al diet of per­sim­mons.” I hope that when Friends dis­cuss the top­ic of dress and lan­guage that they will con­sid­er the self-effacing insight, and humor, of our elders.

    • Wow, Chron­i­cler Seth and Mar­shall Massey com­ment­ing and say­ing they like this!

      I always rec­om­mend read­ing through the old advices about plain­ness. They don’t describe any spe­cif­ic styles of cloth­ing, nor do they pro­scribe a dour dis­po­si­tion. They’re very clear that the plain­ness we need is plain­ness of the heart. Out­ward plain­ness is mere­ly a rec­om­mend­ed tool to achieve that inner state. 

      Did Friends in ear­li­er ages make a fetish out of plain dress? Cer­tain­ly. Every good prac­tice can be tak­en out of con­text. Any­thing we do should be part of an attempt to clear our­selves to hear God bet­ter but we for­get that and idol­ize the silence or the meet­ing­house archi­tec­ture or any oth­er out­ward form as a goal in and of itself. 

      There’s no rea­son that plain­ness as a tes­ti­mo­ny needs to be aban­doned. And there’s no rea­son to think it shouldn’t be a gener­ic Chris­t­ian tes­ti­mo­ny. Every­one from the most hard core tra­di­tion­al­ist Friend to the most out-there emer­gent church non-denominational Chris­t­ian would do well to con­sid­er the advices of plain­ness. What form plain­ness takes is con­tex­tu­al and will change and should change if we’ve reached a point where it’s source (The Source) is for­got­ten and it’s just become anoth­er fashion.