Plain Dress – Some Reflections

A guest piece by "Melynda Huskey"
When I was a kid, I yearned for plain dress like the kids in Obadiah's family wore. I loved the idea of a Quaker uniform and couldn't imagine why we didn't still have one... And now, at nearly 40, after 35 years of balancing my convictions and my world, I'm still hankering after a truly distinctive and Quakerly plainness.

I've been much afflicted on the subject of plain dress for the last several months, thanks to Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson, a British Abolitionist and close, even fond, observer of Friends, wrote a three-volume disquisition on Quaker testimonies, culture, and behavior (in 1811, if my memory serves me). There's a lot in Clarkson to think about, but his section on Quaker garb was particularly interesting to me. Not because I intend to take up a green apron any time soon (did you know that was a badge of Quaker womanhood for nearly two centuries?), but because he provides what a present-day anthropologist would describe as a functionalist analysis of the meaning of plain dress: it served as a badge of membership, keeping its wearers peculiar and in visible communion with one another, while communicating a core value of the tradition.
When I was a kid, I yearned for plain dress like the kids in Obadiah's family wore. I loved the idea of a Quaker uniform and couldn't imagine why we didn't still have one. Whenever I asked my mom about it, she would patiently explain that an outward conformity in plain dress called attention to itself as much as any worldly outfit did, and that Quakers should dress as plainly as was suitable and possible to their work in the world. It made sense, but I was still sorry.
And now, at nearly 40, after 35 years of balancing my convictions and my world, I'm still hankering after a truly distinctive and Quakerly plainness. What isn't any clearer to me is what that might look like now.
After all, what are the options? According to my partner, the distinctive elements of contemporary Quaker garb are high-water pants for Friends over 40 and grimy hands and feet for Friends under 40. This obviously jaundiced view aside, there doesn't seem to be much to distinguish Friends from, say, Methodists, Unitarians, or members of the local food co-op. A little denim, a little khaki, some suede sport mocs, some sandals and funky socks, batik and chunky jewelry. It's not obviously worldly, but it's not set apart, either. There is no testimony in our current dress.
On the other hand, anything too visibly a costume obviously isn't right; I can't appropriate the Mennonite dress-and-prayer-cap, for example. And my heart rises up against the whole range of "modest" clothing presently available--floral prairie dresses and pinafores, sailor dresses, denim jumpers, and head coverings--all with nursing apertures and maternity inserts, and marketed by companies with terrifying names like "Daddy's Little Princess,"� "King's Daughters," and "Lilies of the Field." No Prairie Madonna drag for me. No messy, time-consuming, attention-requiring long hair; no endless supply of tights and nylons and slips; no cold legs in the winter snow and ice. No squeezing myself into a gender ideology which was foreign to Friends from the very beginning.
It seems to me that contemporary plain dress ought to be distinctive without being theatrical; it should be practical and self-effacing. It should be produced under non-exploitive conditions. It should be the same every day, without variation introduced for the sake of variation, and suitable for every occasion It should be tidy and well-kept--Quakers were once known for the scrupulous neatness of their attire and their homes. And it should communicate clearly that we are called and set apart.
But what garments they might be that would accomplish that, I cannot say. I'm stymied. Friends, share your light.
The author Melynda Huskey can be reached at ""

h4. See: "Resources on Quaker Plain Dress":
bq. *Note from Martin Kelley:* I'm starting to collect stories from other Friends and fellow-religious on issues like plain dress, the testimonies and faith renewal. This is part of that project.

  • Mar­tin Kelley

    Hi Melyn­da: I cer­tain­ly under­stand wor­ry­ing about what our style might trans­mit to the world; I’ve edit­ed my wardrobe because of people’s unex­pect­ed com­ments. Plain dress is trick­i­er for women, with the whole pol­i­tics of patri­archy and fem­i­nism to deal with. That said, nurs­ing aper­tures can be very con­ve­nient and the King’s Daugh­ters have made some very nice clothes for Julie.
    Your post focus­es on plain dress as a kind of iden­ti­fi­able uni­form, which is cer­tain­ly one func­tion it can play. But you didn’t talk about the whole obe­di­ence issue. Here’s a sce­nario for you: What if the spir­it of Christ came down and told you to wear some­thing real­ly real­ly dorky, some­thing so prairie that it would make his­tor­i­cal rein­ac­tors blush? What if all Quak­er women band­ed togeth­er to declare the den­im jumper our twenty-first cen­tu­ry plain dress uni­form? Would you wear it?
    Where’s the line between indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and cor­po­rate wit­ness and between obe­di­ence and embar­ras­ment? I’m real­ly ask­ing, I’m not sure myself! I do know I don’t want a uni­form that peo­ple don uncon­scious­ly, that the last thing we need is anoth­er way to be out­ward­ly right­eous but inward­ly false.

  • Melyn­da Huskey

    Mar­tin, your ques­tion about obe­di­ence is a pro­found one. I hope with all my heart that if Christ said to me, “Put on your sailor dress and fol­low me,” that I wouldn’t think twice before I donned the garb. And if, through some dis­cern­ment process that was faith­ful to the lead­ings of the Spir­it, den­im jumpers became the green aprons of the 21st cen­tu­ry, I’d put on my jumper along with the sis­ters with a hum­ble heart and even rejoice in it.
    In fact, that would make things a lot eas­i­er, wouldn’t it? What’s miss­ing in my own reflec­tions on this sub­ject is the cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment that might keep me hon­est: my sin­gu­lar deci­sions about what clothes I wear sim­ply can­not reflect a shared tes­ti­mo­ny of the Soci­ety. And that’s what I want to find in not just plain dress, but in every tes­ti­mo­ny as we enact them: my light – aug­ment­ed, clar­i­fied, reflect­ed, cor­rect­ed – in a com­mu­ni­ty that’s seek­ing to be faith­ful to the Spir­it in every way. Not a stale his­tori­cism, not a notion­al flit­ting from fad to fad, but a dynam­ic tra­di­tion­al­ism that is ground­ed in a sta­ble, flex­i­ble, intel­li­gent under­stand­ing of God’s revealed will.
    I sure­ly didn’t mean to offend Julie – or any­one – with my com­ments about “The King’s Daugh­ters.” I just can’t pic­ture a web­site sell­ing white shirts and black pants that would call itself “The King’s Sons” or “Jesus’s Lit­tle Princes,” and I think the infan­tiliz­ing and his­tori­ciz­ing impuls­es of those busi­ness­es speaks to the ways in which plain dress is loaded for 21st cen­tu­ry women.
    The plain dress of 18th- and 19th-century women Friends was rea­son­ably con­tem­po­rary, if not fash­ion­able – and it updat­ed itself (slow­ly and carefully)in response to chang­ing fash­ions. It also addressed issues of jus­tice. In putting aside all my jew­el­ry (not that there was much!), I am faith­ful to a scrip­tur­al man­date to avoid those adorn­ments, but I am also mind­ful of the destruc­tion of the nat­ur­al world and the exploita­tion of min­ers and oth­er work­ers that is required to pro­duce such jew­el­ry. (Nev­er­the­less, I still wear my wed­ding band!)
    Plain cloth­ing ought, at the very least, to be pro­duced with­out exploit­ing oth­ers – so the sim­plic­i­ty and cheap­ness of Wal­mart and many oth­er mass-produced clothes is out. I may have to spend more, have less, and take much more care with it. It should reflect con­tem­po­rary cloth­ing, be prac­ti­cal for what I do, and give a silent but omni-present tes­ti­mo­ny. And it should also free me from think­ing about what I’ve got on all the time.
    It may come down to khakis and plain tee-shirts, socks and plain shoes – and a gray dress for funer­als, wed­dings, school pro­grams, and oth­er fes­tal occasions.
    At least, that’s where I seem to be head­ed. I notice that, although I am bur­dened on this sub­ject, I have not received a lead­ing that I have any clar­i­ty about. In fact, I’m using this con­ver­sa­tion as a kind of impromp­tu Clear­ness Com­mit­tee. Thanks!

  • Julie

    Hey Melyn­da,
    Just a thought: What if we were to turn this whole thing on its head? What I mean is, what if we were to assume that God want­ed us to dress plain­ly and mod­est­ly, unless we heard a direct call from Him to the con­trary? If it was me, I’d want to err on the side of cau­tion, dress plainly/modestly, and tru­ly “exper­i­ment” with this hunch. Then, if it became clear to me that this was com­plete­ly wrong after a fair peri­od of time, I could go back to my old ways. But it seems to me that we could look at this whole thing from the oth­er way around. Just a thought.

  • I start­ed plain dress­ing qui­et­ly, with­out fan­fare. Actu­al­ly even I didn’t real­ize at first that my desire to clear out my wardrobe of rat­ty jeans, etc., might be the­o­log­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. It was only after I spent a week with some con­scious plain dressers at the 2002 FGC Gath­er­ing that I was able to name this impulse. For the first month, the dress was just black pants. I was test­ing the lead­ing by doing it. Only one per­son real­ly seemed to notice until the sus­penders came on (for men this is real­ly all you need to have “the look”).
    One thing I noticed as I start­ed plain dress­ing was that a lot more Quak­ers do it than I had real­ized. Most don’t call it that, but it’s obvi­ous that the tra­di­tion lives on in our col­lec­tive sub­con­scious­ness once you know the clues to look for. Some of it is more than a lit­tle embar­ras­ing. I may not wear a den­im jumper but I did start wear­ing a rather-dorky Tilley hat after real­iz­ing this is part of an under­ground, often uncon­scious, plain dress uni­form (I still cringe when a cer­tain type of sixty-something sees me and cries “Is that a Tilley hat! I have a Tilley hat! I love my Tilley hat!”)
    I don’t think the final “uni­form” is impor­tant (as I under­stand, for much of our his­to­ry we didn’t have spe­cif­ic dress codes; I want to see Clarkson’s account as I think he was prob­a­bly refer­ring to a par­tic­u­lar class/moment). What mat­ters is the wrestling between the Spir­it, tra­di­tion and our own self-will. This work stretch­es our dis­cern­ment mus­cles & gets us ready to hear God’s call in oth­er arenas.

  • Joanie

    My hus­band and I ( for­mer Catholics) were heav­i­ly con­vict­ed some 8 yrs ago to go to a local Quak­er church and even­tu­al­ly we did and while there the Lord opened our eyes and gave us under­stand­ing of the Scrip­tures and we were saved. We grew quick­ly in the Word and began to feel the church wasn’t very Bib­li­cal, so we end­ed up vis­it­ing some 50 church­es before the Lord led us back to our orig­i­nal Quak­er church. My hus­band has acknowl­edged recent­ly the call to preach and our pas­tor is encour­ag­ing. Any­how, we have been mov­ing toward Plain liv­ing for 3- 4 yrs now. I do dress mod­est­ly, cov­er my head, and he wears a beard (the dress is only a part of what Plain liv­ing is about for us). We don’t believe in man­dat­ing dress codes, but there needs to be some stan­dards, though we should not infringe on the Holy Spirit’s ter­ri­to­ry in this regard. But the reveal­ing cloth­ing of many peo­ple who say they are chris­tians can­not pos­si­bly be the result of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with God! And we feel a sort of need to call the Quak­ers back to the Old Paths; the paths steeped in Scrip­ture ( you will agree, I am sure, that Bib­li­cal illit­er­a­cy is ram­pant. Noone seems to have time and that HAS to change for peo­ple to grow in the Lord.). My hus­band has been very moved by the tes­ti­monies of Fox, though he and I do not agree with him on every­thing. Our appear­ance seems to be a part of this over­all wit­ness, but exact­ly what it is to be we have not fig­ured out total­ly! I would pre­fer to be iden­ti­fied with oth­er Anabap­tist groups, but for now I wear sim­ple skirts, shirts, and ker­chiefs. I am not dowdy, but neat and pre­sentable. But I am very inter­est­ed in cape dress­es and aprons. I do have a cou­ple of bon­net type cov­er­ings com­ing which are not at all like the Amish or Menno’s. I am glad to find this site, and I had not found much on Quak­er cloth­ing. I had found some evi­dence a while back that the Men­non­ites got their cloth­ing ideas from the Quak­ers. I do think the Con­ner Prairie site has some inter­est­ing info on ear­ly Quak­erIndi­ana settlers.

  • Ani­ta

    Hi Melyn­da ~ I’m fair­ly new to Quak­erism, hav­ing become con­vinced about two years ago. A plain and sim­ple life was but one thing that drew me to Friends, and I’ve strug­gled with the issues you write about ever since. I feel the need for mod­est dress and a cov­er, but when I have tried to adopt some of what seems to be “out there,” I’ve end­ed up feel­ing like a fraud or a pseudo-Mennonite. That seems to vio­late every­thing Friends stand for, so like many oth­ers, I’m at a loss for what to do. But I’ll be fol­low­ing oth­ers’ com­ments eager­ly. Bless­ings to you ~ Anita

  • Mary Lehrbaum

    Have you seen the pho­to of Jane on her head­cov­er­ing page of the Plain Jane website.
    I think she looks beau­ti­ful, sim­ple, mod­est and some­how very Quak­er in what she is wear­ing. I my self wear most­ly den­im jumpers, a turtle­neck and a small match­ing ker­chief because that is the type of Mod­est dress that my hus­band prefers.

  • Meagn

    I found your arti­cle here very serendip­i­tous­ly. I am not a mem­ber of any church (although I am a Deist), and have been dress­ing ‘plain’ for most of my life, albeit with­out a par­tic­u­lar plan to do so. I arrived at this sim­ply because I didn’t like con­tem­po­rary cloth­ing as I was grow­ing up (the very awk­ward tran­si­tion­al peri­od between the late 1960s/early 70s), and it has got­ten only very mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter since then. As a result, I’ve adopt­ed a sort of uni­form for dai­ly wear — pri­mar­i­ly sol­id col­ors, noth­ing that can’t be worn for many, many years. I also, rather unfor­tu­nate­ly for a shy and mod­est girl, had a fig­ure that attract­ed the wrong kind of atten­tion. Dress­ing plain­ly as much as pos­si­ble helped me keep my dig­ni­ty then, and now, as I approach 50 (I am 48). It’s ageless.
    This par­tic­u­lar pas­sage res­onat­ed with me: “And my heart ris­es up against the whole range of “mod­est” cloth­ing present­ly avail­able — flo­ral prairie dress­es and pinafores, sailor dress­es, den­im jumpers, and head cov­er­ings — all with nurs­ing aper­tures and mater­ni­ty inserts, and mar­ket­ed by com­pa­nies with ter­ri­fy­ing names like “Daddy’s Lit­tle Princess,” “King’s Daugh­ters,” and “Lilies of the Field.” ”
    While I don’t entire­ly know your rea­sons for dis­qui­et with this, I won­der if they are the same as mine? I very strong­ly believe in a woman’s iden­ti­ty that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly enmeshed with her fam­i­ly con­nec­tions or repro­duc­tive sta­tus; nor one that is sub­servient to or sub­ject to any will but her own con­science. I am wor­ried that if I express fur­ther inter­est in any sort of plain com­mu­ni­ty, I would be seen there as a third-class per­son because I have con­scious­ly cho­sen to not have chil­dren, and con­sid­er men to be my equal. Can any­one shed some light on this?
    Oth­er­wise — my dis­like of ugly, con­tem­po­rary cloth­ing has led me to a life­long, fas­ci­nat­ing hob­by — repro­duc­ing his­tor­i­cal cloth­ing. A busy life (full time, self-supporting work, doing all work and as much main­te­nance as pos­si­ble on a 98-year-old home by myself) pre­cludes dress­ing as pret­ti­ly (plain­ly) as I’d like much of the time — but plain dress and sim­ple liv­ing remain very close to my heart.
    If any­one could pro­vide me with fur­ther infor­ma­tion, I would be very grate­ful. Many thanks.

  • Barb

    I too feel drawn to more sim­plic­i­ty and plain­ness in liv­ing. I great­ly admire those who can wear the more his­tor­i­cal cloth­ing, because it’s love­ly and has much that’s of val­ue today. Cape dress­es, for exam­ple, could be updat­ed for office wear. For me, though, the pure­ly his­tor­i­cal dress would be a cos­tume, not a con­vic­tion, so I find myself drawn to what the quak­er­jane web­site refers to as mod­ern plain attire. Also, I’ve reached the age where I sim­ply look bet­ter and health­i­er with almost no make­up. I work full time, am of man­age­r­i­al rank, so that will affect my choice of what to wear to send the mes­sage I’m try­ing to send. I feel that I’ve embarked on a promis­ing jour­ney by stop­ping to think about these things. Since I don’t come from a reli­gious back­ground like a Quak­er, I’m won­der­ing if this is per­haps a spir­i­tu­al lead­ing. I under­stand that a lot of women from diverse back­grounds are feel­ing sim­i­lar prompt­ings. Thank you for your website.

  • Paula

    I, too, have been a plain dress­er inter­mit­tent­ly, for 36 years. I love the prairie look, but it’s not prac­ti­cal. I end up step­ping on my skirts when I stand up after hav­ing bent down, and I almost fall over. I do all my yard work myself, which requires a lot of kneel­ing, bend­ing, push­ing a mow­er, reach­ing, heavy lift­ing, etc., as we all know, and must wear pants for this. Also, no one in my neigh­bor­hood dress­es plain­ly (sub­ur­bia), and if I were to wear dress­es exclu­sive­ly, I’d prob­a­bly get beat up. So, would that be suf­fer­ing for the name of Christ or suf­fer­ing unnec­es­sar­i­ly for being an odd­ball? No one in my church dress­es in the prairie style, either. I first was intro­duced to plain dress­ing while briefly being involved in a small Chris­t­ian cult in the ear­ly ‘70s. I guess the desire to dress that way nev­er left me. I do think that many times dress­es are far more mod­est around the hip area than pants could ever be. That is, if all you are doing is sit­ting, stand­ing and walk­ing. And snug fit­ting pants on us mid­dle aged women are most unflat­ter­ing. Wear­ing a skirt can hide many fig­ure imper­fec­tions and pre­vent men from star­ing. Curi­ous­ly, hard­ly any women in our large town ever wears skirts or dress­es. It’s almost exclu­sive­ly pants, at all times of the day. How did we women make the crossover into exclud­ing skirts, dress­es and jumpers from our wardrobes? I think it must have crept into our cul­ture very slow­ly and sub­tly. Sim­ple dress­ing, wear­ing khakis, jeans and sim­ple shirts with­out jew­el­ry can end up look­ing uni­sex or gender-confused. I don’t want to do that, either! With­out a doubt, we have 2 legs, the same as men, and pants are com­fort­able and con­ve­nient. So, I too am not sure just how to dress sim­ply, mod­est­ly and fem­i­nine­ly while wear­ing pants, lit­tle make up and no jew­el­ry. If the weather’s not too hot, I try to wear an open long blouse over a t-top, to pro­vide some mod­esty over the hips, but I think wear­ing dress­es exclu­sive­ly would make me an easy tar­get for harass­ment, no mat­ter what our pop cul­ture says about “tol­er­ance”!

  • flow­er­girl­dress­for­less

    Com­mu­nion Dress is worn by peo­ple all over the world. It’s for holy occa­sions. When young kids wear the com­mu­ni­ca­tion dress they look adorable.