[See also: Resources on Quaker Plainness]
This was a post I sent to the “Pearl” email list, which consists of members of the 2002 FGC Gathering workshop led by Lloyd Lee Wilson of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Eighth Month 20, 2002
I thought I’d share some of my journey in plain-ness since Gathering. There’s two parts to plain dress: simplicity and plain-ness.
The most important part of the simplicity work has been simplifying my wardrobe. It’s incredible how many clothes I have. I suspect I have a lot fewer than most Americans but there’s still tons, and never enough room in the closets & dressers (I do have small closets but still!). I’d like to get all my clothes into one or two dresser drawers and donate the rest to charity. Two pairs of pants, a couple of shirts, a few days worth of socks and undergarments. This requires that I wash everything frequently which means I hand-wash things but that’s okay. The point is to not worry or think about what I’m going to wear every morning. I’ve been to a wedding and a funeral since I started going plain and it was nice not having to fret about what to wear.
I also appreciate using less resources up by having fewer clothes. It’s hard to get away from products that don’t have some negative side effects (support of oil industry, spilling of chemical wastes into streams, killing of animals for hide, exploitation of people constructing the clothes at horrible wages & conditions). I try my best to balance these concerns but the best way is to reduce the use.
These motivations are simple-ness rather than plain-ness. But I am trying to be plain too. For men it’s pretty easy. My most common clothing since Gathering has been black pants, shoes and suspenders, and the combo seems to look pretty plain. There’s no historic authenticity. The pants are Levi-Dockers which I already own, the shoes non-leather ones from Payless, also already owned. The only purchase was suspenders from Sears. I bought black overalls too. My Dockers were victims of a minor bike accident last week (my scraped knee & elbow are healing well, thank you, and my bike is fine) and I’m replacing them with thicker pants that will hold up better to repeated washing & use. There’s irony in this, certainly. If I were being just simple, I’d wear out all the pants I have – despite their color – rather than buy new ones. I’d be wearing some bright & wacky pants, that’s for sure! But irony is part of any witness, especially in the beginning when there’s some lifestyle shifting that needs to happen. As a person living in the world I’m bound to have contradictions: they help me to not take myself too seriously and I try to accept them with grace and good humor.
But practicality in dress more important to me than historical authenticity. I don’t want to wear a hat since I bike every day and want to keep my head free for the helmet; it also feels like my doing it would go beyond the line into quaintness. The only type of clothing that’s new to my wardrobe is the suspenders and really they are as practical as a belt, just less common today. A few Civil War re-enactment buffs have smilingly observed that clip-on suspenders aren’t historically authentic but that’s perfectly okay with me. I also wear collars, that’s perfectly okay with me too.
The other thing that I’m clear about is that the commandment to plain dress is not necessarily eternal. It is situational, it is partly a response to the world and to Quakerdom and it does consciously refer to certain symbols. God is what’s eternal, and listening to the call of Christ within is the real commandment. If I were in a Quaker community that demanded plain dress, I expect I would feel led to break out the tie-die and bleach and manic-panic hair coloring. Dress is an outward form and like all outward forms and practices, it can easily become a false sacrament. If we embrace the form but forget the source (which I suspect lots of Nineteenth Century Friends did), then it’s time to cause a ruckus.
Every so often Friends need to look around and take stock of the state of the Society. At the turn of the 20th Century, they did that. There’s a fascinating anti-plain dress book from that time that argues that it’s a musty old tradition that should be swept away in light of the socialist ecumenical world of the future. I suspect I would have had much sympathy for the position at the time, especially if I were in a group of Friends who didn’t have the fire of the Spirit and wore their old clothes only because their parents had and it was expected of Quakers.
Today the situation is changed. We have many Friends who have blended in so well with modern suburban America that they’re indistinguishable in spirit or deed. They don’t want to have committee meeting on Saturdays or after Meeting since that would take up so much time, etc. They’re happy being Quakers as long as not much is expected and as long as there’s no challenge and no sacrifice required. We also have Friends who think that the peace testimony and witness is all there is (confusing the outward form with the source again, in my opinion). When a spiritual emptiness sets into a community there are two obvious ways out: 1) bring in the fads of the outside world (religious revivalism in the 19 Century, socialist ecumenicalsim in the 20th, Buddhism and sweat lodges in the 21st). or 2) re-examine the fire of previous generations and figure out what babies you threw away with the bathwater in the last rebellion against empty outward form.
I think Quakers really found something special 350 years ago, or rediscovered it and that we are constantly rediscovering it. I have felt that power/ I know that there is still one, named Jesus Christ, who can speak to my condition and that the Spirit comes to teach the people directly. I’ll read old journals and put on old clothes to try to understand early Friends’ beliefs. The clothes aren’t important, I don’t want to give them too much weight. But there is a tradition of Quakers taking on plain dress upon some sort of deep spiritual convincement (it is so much of a cliché of old Quaker journals that literary types classify it as part of the essential structure of the journals). I see plain dress as a reminder we give ourselves that we are trying to live outside the worldliness of our times and serve the eternal. My witness to others is simply that I think Quakerism is something to commit oneself wholly to (yes, I’ll meet on a Saturday) and that there are some precious gifts in traditional Quaker faith & practice that could speak to the spiritual crisis many Friends feel today.
Atlantic City Area MM, NJ