A guest piece by "Melynda Huskey":mailto:email@example.com
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 "firstname.lastname@example.org":mailto:email@example.com
h4. See: "Resources on Quaker Plain Dress":http://www.nonviolence.org/Quaker/plain_dress.php
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.