A few years ago I felt led to take up the ancient Quaker testimony of plain dressing. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my motivations but I want to give a little practical advice to other men who have heard or even gotten ahold of the “Gohn Bros.” catalog but don’t know just what to order. I certainly am not sanctioning a uniform for plain dress, I simply want to give those so inclined an idea of how to start.
Just as background: I’m a thirty-something Philadelphia native, brought up without any formal religion in a Philly suburb. I first started approaching Quakers (Friends) back in college. In my early twenties, I started working at a collectively-run pacifist book publishing house and living in what was then the sort of downscale hipster neighborhood of West Philadelphia. In 2002 I attended a week-long workshop that had some plain dressing Friends and felt the nudge to experiment. I’ve left Philadelphia to become a resident of a small farming town in South Jersey (what love will do) but I still spend a lot of time in the city and in decidedly urban settings. I don’t aim to be historically correct with my plain dress and I don’t want to simply “look like an Amish” person.
Gohn Brothers is a store in Indiana that sells “Amish and Plain Clothing.” It is currently celebrating it’s 100th year in business. It’s known for it’s simple print catalog, which is updated every few months. It does not have a website. You should get a copy of the catalog to get current clothing and shipping prices. It’s address is:
PO Box 1110, 105 S. Main St., Middlebury IN 46540
Phone: (574) 825-2400. Toll-free: 800-595-0031
When I first started “going plain,” I simply wore regular dark pants with suspenders found at a generic department store. It was important to me that I was wearing clothes I already had, and I wanted to be “Sears Plain,” by which I meant I didn’t want to go to any extremes to find plain clothing. When I first bought a pair of broadfalls (the zipperless pants favored by plain men), I didn’t wear them for months. Slowly I started started wearing them out and feeling more at ease in them. They were made of rugged denim, wore well and were quite comfortable.
As my pre-plain clothes have worn out, I’ve started replacing them with Gohn Brothers-produced broadfalls. They’re just as inexpensive as any cheaply-made jeans from Old Navy but they hold up and are presumably made in Indiana by seamstresses earning a decent wage.
Gohn Brothers offers many different weights and fabrics for their broadfall pants, numbering them for ease of ordering. I have bought two pair, both of which I like:
- #66: 10 oz. solid grey denim, 100% cotton: $22.98
- #92: 100% cotton blue jean denim (11 oz.): $24.98
Gohn Brothers produces a number of coats, also called “overshirts.” In these purchases I have tended to be more distinctly Quaker. I have two Coats:
- #225: 9oz. Poly, cotton. $41.98 at the time of this post. I have opted for a few alterations: A “regular cut” for $3.00, a “standup collar” for $2.00, “button holes with metal buttons” for $3.00 and a “quilted lining” for $5.00.
- #125 9 oz. Black drill denim. Poly/cotton. Unlined Jacket, black drill. Alterations: “standup collar” for $2.00. (for this I had the default “snaps” in place of buttons and the default “full cut”).
I’ve prefered the specialized “regular cut” coat over the standard “full cut.” The regular cut feels more like the standard suit jacket that most professional men wear to work, while the full cut felt more like a wind-breaker. I also prefer the buttons, as the snaps contributed to the wind-breaker feel.
Also known as “braces,” all you need are dark broadfalls and suspenders to really look “plain” to the world. “Tabbed” suspenders fit over buttons in your pants, while “clip-on’s” use alligator clips to fasten onto standard pants. Tabbed look better but I can’t help thinking of Michael Douglass in “Wall Street”; a lot of ordinary anabapist men I see have clip-on’s.
I’ve heard the story that there’s a good-hearted ribbing between the Iowa and North Carolina Conservative Quakers about whether thin or wide suspenders is more plain. I’ve started to throw my lot in with Iowa and have gotten the three-quarter inch suspenders. (Fashionistas will remember that thin suspenders were popular with a certain kind of high school geek in the mid-1980s–think Cameron in Ferris Beuler’s Day Off; fair disclosure requires that I admit that I wore them around Cheltenham High). Again Gohn Brothers:
- #550T 3/4″ tab. Black: $7.98
- #552C 3/4″ clip. Black: $6.98
While Gohn Brothers does hats, I haven’t bought any of theirs. Instead I’ve gone for the Tilley T3 hat. I’m not complete happy with this, as Tilley’s seem to be associated with a certain kind of clueless traveler, but I’ve noticed that there are a lot of men in my yearly meeting who wear them, I think as an unconscious nod toward plainness. The Tilley is also friendlier to bike commuters: its tie-down strings wrap easily around bike handlebars, and it’s very crushable and washable.
Not a Uniform
Again, let me stress: I am not trying to specify a modern plain dress uniform. The only time you should adopt plain dress is when you’re feeling actively led by it. Sometimes that leading is an intution, which is fine, but you need to follow it on your own terms. My practice has evolved over time and yours should too. I’ve become more plain since I started this witness simply because I had to replace worn clothes and couldn’t see spending more money for shoddier clothes than I could get at Gohn Brothers. You don’t need to get broadfalls to be “plain,” as “plainness” is as much a state of mind and an attitude toward God and your spiritual community as it a set of clothes. I think of it now as a spiritual discipline, one very fitting for our consumeristic times.
I’d love to hear from others about their plain dressing.