Gohn Brothers, broadfalls, & men’s plain dress

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.

Broadfalls

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

Coats

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.

Suspenders

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

Hats

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.

Avoiding Plain Dress Designer Clothing

A guest piece by “David,” originally posted on the Plain and Modest Dress Yahoo Group.

From: “mquadd” <mquadd@y…>
Date: Wed Jul 21, 2004
Subject: Introduction and questions

Hi. My name is David and I attend but am not a member of the Friends Meeting here. I was actually raised as an Episcopalian although I had several uncles who were birth-right Quakers. I grew up (for my first 10 years) in Chester County, PA which traditionally was an area with a high concentration of Quakers. I would expect that this is no longer true as the area has become quite suburban with a big influx of new residents. Nonetheless, I grew up attending meeting now and then with relatives at various meetings in Chester County and northern Deleware. That was in the 1960s and was a time when some people, mostly older people (people most likely born in the 1800s meaning these people were in their 70s or 80s in the 1960s), still used plain talk. Even in the 1960s, in a fairly rural area, this was more of an excepting than the rule and was limited to the oldest members of the meeting and never used outside the Quaker community. Those who used plain talk never used it outside of the Quaker community–home, Friends, and meeting. As far as I know, they never used this type of talk for business or relations or outside the community.

At age 10 we moved to Lancaster County. At that time, many Memmonites who now no longer dress plain or wear coverings did still did both of these. I went to school with many Mennonite kids. In addition I became friends with several Old Order Amish families (and one Beachy family) with whom I am still friends. That was 35 years ago, I have witnessed the plain testimony weaken in each of these groups including the Old Order Amish. I actually spent much of my childhood and teenage years hanging out with one paticular Old Order Amish family as way to escape the insanity of having drug addicted and alcoholic parents. In their very simple and unstated Christianity, they were very willing to provide food, shelter, and love to a very confused boy (me).

Anyway, the Lancaster Conference Mennonites (now part of the largest Mennonite group) seem to be totally mainstream. Perhaps there are some who still follow the former order. The Beachy Amish now dress like conservative Mennonites and less and less like Amish. Finally, I was watched the Amish allow lots of modern changes in their discipline although their basic clothing is pretty much unchanged but sun glasses are now allowed and many Amish girls and women pluck their eyebrows–both not allowed in the 1970s. By the way, in the late 1960s they had already adopted cotton-poly blends for both clothing and quilts!

The reason for that, perhaps odd, biographical sketch is to give some background on my exposure to plain groups and, more importantly, plain thought. I have toyed with the idea of plain dressing although I can’t give a clear reason why I feel this. Is it a calling or am I just crazy? I do know that the stability I found in that Amish house in the 1970s most likely had a giant influence on me (a happy Amish family where I had fun vs. living in a family that was in the self-distruct mode due to addiction). I also I have clear memories of having Quaker teachers in elemently school and vanity and worldliness was a bad thing. It was during the height of the Viet Nam war, so there was this odd hippy-Quaker thing going on with some of my teachers. I am sure some of you who were around the RSF in the 1960s can relate. So here I am still toying with these ideas and still attempting to define my own religious feelings at the middle of my life (I am 45).

Here are a few things I do know that apply to me. First, I feel very at odds with our society that focuses on the most superfical things. Our society spends BILLIONS on make-up, hair dye, plastic surgery, breast inplants, push-up bras, designer clothes (that are no different that basic clothes except the label and might even be of lower quality)…. People are judged on the these issues. Character and morality (a loaded term that seems to have been highjacked by the rightwing and ultraconservatives)seems to be secondary to these very superficial things. What we tell ourselves and our children is that we are not adequate as we are. We have to change our body and then drape it was overly priced clothes to count. The outside is more important that the inside. This is sick. It is distructive. It is a sin.

Beyond that, my feelings about plain dressing get less clear. Is a uniform what I am seeking? Those groups who were very uniform clothing tend to be insular and often attact as much attention to themselves as a belly shirt and designer jeans! If you doubt this, go to Lancaster County and attempt to drive on Rt. 340. The attraction that the plain people attract in that area rivals any movie star or rock concert. Lancaster gets literally millions of tourists each year. So is that type of uniform dressing that is quite distinct serving a good purpose? I am not sure but am just offering a question rather than a judgement. Other groups that dress quite plain such as ultra-orthodox Jews are not so much a tourist attraction but clearly are insular and seperate from the larger society. Many people view this as being “stand off-ish” which I hope is nobody’s goal. I have heard people apply this type of judgement to plain christian groups also.

So, I would be very interested in hearing what drives others to dress plain? If you are a Quaker, what has been the reaction at your meeting? I once met a plain dressing Quaker who said that he had received more negative than positive reactions when visiting other meetings. Are there any meetings where all or most members dress plain? In my childhood experiences, there was no plain dressing in any Quaker meetings in Chester County or in Deleware. I have not even run into anyone who uses plain language for over 30 years except that one plain dressing man. Clearly, I know no Quakers who have been raised with the idea of plain dressing or plain language including some of my cousins who are worldly to say the least. What makes plain. I know of “black bumper Mennonites” who drive a black bumper Mercedes. Is that plain? Why is a Volvo often considered ok but a BMW is bad? They both cost $40K. Often I see this type of thinking in those who claim to follow a less than worldly life style. I think there is always a risk of falling into the mindset of some labels being good and others being bad. Once a particular brand, say a type of hat or type of jeans, is thought to be the proper “plain uniform” does that not become the designed clothing of the plain dressers? I am not sure. What I find is that once you jump into this topic, it becomes complicated and that is not the point.

One final question, what benefits do you recieve from plain dressing?
Thanks. David

Plain Quaker Dressing at FGC

As we got onto the campus of UMass Amherst to help set up for this year’s FGC Gathering, Julie & I realized that this is the first time we’ve been to this venue since we started plain dressing (last year we stayed home since Julie was very pregnant). FGC Friends tend to turn to the Lands End catalog for sartorial inspiration. Hippie culture is another font, both directly as tie-die shirts and in muted form as the tasteful fair-trade clothes that many older Friends prefer. Because the Gathering takes place in July and in sporadically air-conditioned buildings, people also dress for summer camp–khaki shorts & once colorful faded t-shirts are the de facto Gathering uniform. In this setting, just wearing long pants is cause for comment (“aren’t you hot like that?!”) Try broadfalls and a long-sleeve collarless shirt, or a long dress!

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Plain Dress Discussion on Yahoo

Julie, my wife, has just started a Yahoo group called PlainAndModestDress.
Here’s her description:

This group is for Christians interested in discussing issues of religious plain and modest dress. It is not necessary to have grown up in a plain or modestly dressing group. We are especially interested in the experiences of those who have come to this point as a sort of conversion or a “recovery” of tradition that has been lost. Traditional Catholics, Anabaptists, conservative Quakers, and other Christians welcome here. Theological points and demoninational differences are open for discussion (not argument), as are the specifics of what type of plain dress you have been called to. Discussion of headcovering is also allowed here, as are gender distinctions in dress. We may also share prayers for one another, as well as the challenges we face in trying to live in obedience to the Lord. This is not a forum in which to discuss the validity of Christianity–no blaspheming allowed.

There is much to be said about plain dress. This is not an easy witness. It forces us to deal with issues of submission and humility on a daily basis–just try to go to a convenience store and not feel self-consciously set apart. Explaining this new ‘style’ to one’s more worldly friends can be quite a challenge. These are eternal issues for those adopting plain dress and I laugh with comradeship when I read old Quaker journal accounts of going plain.
Even so, I have a bit of trepidation about a newsgroup on plain dress. I don’t want to fetishize plain dress by talking about it too much. The point shouldn’t be to formulate some sort of ‘uniform of the righteous,’ and adoption of this testimony shouldn’t be motivated by peer pressure or ambition, but by a calling from the Holy Spirit–this is the crux of what I understand Margaret Fell to have been saying when she called pressured plainness a “silly poor gospel”. (I should say that some non-Quaker do dress more as an identifying uniform, which is fine, just not necessarily the Quaker rationale).
But like any outward form or testimony (peace, Quaker process, etc.), taking up plain dress can be a fruitful course in religious education. I think back to being seventeen and bucking my father’s wish that I attend the Naval Academy–my “no” made me ask how else my beliefs about peace might need to be acted out in my life. It became a useful query. Plain dress has forced me to think anew about how I “consume” clothing and how I relate to mass marketing and the global clothing industry. It’s also kept me from ducking out on my faith, as I wear an identification of my beliefs.
So join the plain dress discussion or take a look at the ever-growing section of the site called Resources on Quaker Plain Dress, which includes “My Experiments with Plainness”, my early story about going plain.

Plain Dress–Some Reflections

A guest piece by “Melynda Huskey”:mailto:mghuskey@msn.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.

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My Experiments with Plainness

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 cliche 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.

In friendship,
Martin Kelley
Atlantic City Area MM, NJ
martink@martinkelley.com

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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.
  • Anabaptists.Org and Anabaptistbooks.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.