Resources on Quaker Plain Dress

This is a list of testimonies, guides, books and resources on the Christian testimony of plainness, historical and present. It focuses on the traditionalist Quaker understanding of plainness but it’s not restricted to Quaker notions: you’ll find links and discussions to the related concepts of modest dress and simple dress.

If thou wilt be faith­ful in fol­low­ing that inward wit­ness that has been so long plead­ing with thee, thy sins shall all be for­given and I will be with thee and be thy pre­server.
–William Hobbs, quot­ed in Hamm’s Trans­for­ma­tion of Amer­i­can Quak­erism. (p.3)

Back in the sum­mer of 2002 my wife and I became inter­est­ed in Quak­er tra­di­tions of plain dress (here’s some idea of how we look the­se days). Try­ing to dis­cern the issues for myself, I found very lit­tle on the inter­net, so here’s my page with what­ev­er tes­ti­monies, tips and links I can find. I’m start­ing to col­lect sto­ries:

Literary Plainness

  • Friends accom­plished in the min­istry were often encour­aged to write jour­nals of their lives in their lat­er years. The­se jour­nals had a dis­tinct func­tion: they were to serve as edu­ca­tion and wit­ness on how to live a prop­er Quak­er life. As such, they also had a dis­tinct lit­er­ary form, and writ­ers almost always gave an account of their con­ver­sion to plain dress. This usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied a pro­found con­vince­ment expe­ri­ence, where­in the writer felt led to cast aside world­ly fash­ions and van­i­ty. Howard Brin­ton wrote about some of the lit­er­ary forms of the clas­sic Quak­er Jour­nals.

Books on Plainness, a short bibliography

  • The Quak­er: A Study in Cos­tume. By Amelia Gum­mere, 1901 (out of print, gen­er­al­ly avail­able used for around $50). As the sub­ti­tle sug­gests, Gum­mere is crit­i­cal of the “cos­tumes” of plain dress­ing Quak­ers. She argued that Friends need­ed to cast aside the musty pecu­liarisms of the past to embrace the com­ing social­ist world of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry. Although unsym­pa­the­ic, this is the most-frequently ref­er­enced book on Quak­er plain dress. To get a sense of the turn-of-the-century Quak­er embrace of moder­ni­ty, I rec­om­mend Jer­ry Frost’s excel­lent talk at the 2001 FGC Gath­er­ing, “Three Twentieth-Century Rev­o­lu­tions.”
  • “Why Do They Dress That Way?” By Stephen Scott, Good Books, Inter­course, PA, 1986, 1997, avail­able from Anabap­tist Book­store. A well-written and sym­pa­thet­ic intro­duc­tion to modern-day reli­gious groups that con­tin­ue to wear plain dress.
  • Quak­er Aes­thet­ics. Sub­ti­tled “Reflec­tions on a Quak­er Ethic in Amer­i­can Design and Con­sump­tions,” this is a 2003 col­lec­tion of essays put togeth­er by Emma Jones Lap­san­sky and Anne E. Ver­planck. There’s lots of good stuff in here: see Mary Anne Caton’s “The Aes­thet­ics of Absence: Quak­er Women’s Plain Dress in the Delaware Val­ley, 1790 – 1900” which does an excel­lent job cor­rect­ing some of Gummere’s stereo­types. Although I’ve only had time to skim this, Caton seems to be argu­ing that Friends’ def­i­n­i­tions of plain­ness were more open to inter­pre­ta­tion that we com­mon­ly assume and that our stereo­types of a Quak­er uni­form are based in part in a way of colo­nial re-enacting that began around the turn of the cen­tu­ry.
  • Meet­ing House and Cout­ing House: Tolles’ book has some ref­er­ence to plain­ness on page 126. Have to look into this.

Posts and websites on Plainness

  • Dis­cus­sion thread on Quak­er Plain­ness on Quak­er­Roots
  • Short His­to­ry of Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends: Most plain dress­ing Friends today are part of the Wilburite/Conservative tra­di­tion. This online essay does an excel­lent job show­ing this branch of Friends and is a good coun­ter­point to his­to­ries that down­play the Wilbu­rite influ­ence in con­tem­po­rary Quak­erism.
  • A num­ber of the blogs I list in my guide to Quak­er web­sites fre­quent­ly deal with issues of plain dress. See also: Quak­er Jane.
  • Anabap​tists​.Org and Anabap​tist​books​.com. Through­out most of the last 350 years, Friends have been the most vis­i­ble and well-known plain dressers, but today the Amish, Men­non­ites and oth­er Anabap­tists have most faith­ful­ly car­ried on the tra­di­tion. Quak­ers have a lot to learn from the­se tra­di­tions. The­se sites are put togeth­er by a Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite in Ore­gon. His wife makes plain dress­es, for sale through the book­store.

Clothing Sources

Online tutorials

  • My own guide to order­ing Quak­er plain men’s clothes from Gohn Broth­ers.
  • Pam

    I was brought up in a lib­er­al Quak­er home in Indi­ana. I under­stood the Quak­er prac­tice of “plain­ness” as mere­ly avoid­ing osten­ta­tion. I think this tra­di­tion was a reac­tion to the excess­es in lifestyle and cloth­ing of the wealthy dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry. Recall­ing that the ear­li­est Quak­ers were not wealthy peo­ple, they desired to be rec­og­nized for their devo­tion to their faith and inner light, not wealth and trap­pings, or lack there­of.

  • Hans

    Inter­est­ing to note that well-to-do Friends (and there were some) main­tained plain­ness in dress, but had no qualms in hav­ing their attire made from fab­rics asso­ci­at­ed with their social sta­tion. The Cush­ing House Muse­um in New­bury­port Mass., for exam­ple, has on a dis­play a plain, grey dress worn by one of the city’s 19th cen­tu­ry Friends — and it’s made of cost­ly (for the time)silk!
    Ear­ly Friends wore sim­pler ver­sions of what­ev­er every­one else was wear­ing and this set them (visu­al­ly) apart from the main­stream. In time, Quak­er garb became a uni­form of sorts. I believe that the lat­er, more “pre­scribed” dress was no less an inspi­ra­tion of the Spir­it than was the for­mer. Many Friends today, includ­ing young Friends, have con­scious­ly adopt­ed tra­di­tion­al look­ing “Quak­er dress”, and often cite its abil­i­ty to allow them to “wit­ness” and share the ways and beliefs of Friends.

  • @Hans: I’ve seen very nicely-made nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry cloth­ing but I have to won­der if this was the excep­tion even then. I’d be curi­ous if anyone’s read through the Cush­ing fam­i­ly diaries to see if they explained their choice of fab­ric? There might be a dis­cern­ment to a deci­sion that we too eas­i­ly brush off as pride and hypocrisy. But yes, there have cer­tain­ly been Friends more con­cerned with the out­ward form (and social/economic net­works) of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends than the need to stay hum­ble and close to the Inward Christ and have con­se­quent­ly made iron­ic choic­es like fan­cy plain dress­ing.