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.


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.

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!

So I’ve decided to write down all the con­ver­sa­tions or ques­tions I get about my dress this week. I should men­tion that I actu­ally prefer curi­ous ques­tions to the strange star­ing I some­times get. So here we go:

  • While ring­ing up a Gath­er­ing store order: some­one I’ve known for years asked me whether my cloth­ing was “a the­o­log­i­cal state­ment or if it was just com­fort­able.”
  • While trou­bleshoot­ing the store com­put­ers and answer­ing a cell­phone call from the office: com­pared to a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter named “Cos­mic Pos­sum,” who was described to me as some­one able to seem­lessly live in both the past and mod­ern world (at the time the ref­er­ence was made I was work­ing two com­put­ers and tak­ing a cell phone call.
  • Walk­ing by the din­ing hall, an older Friend called out “Looks good!” I said “Huh?”, he replied “that’s a good out­fit!”


  • “Nice out­fit” again, this time from Nils P. As soon as he said it I warned him that I was keep­ing this log and that he should expect to see him­self in it.
  • I talked a lit­tle bit about dress with a friend from Bal­ti­more Yearly Meet­ing, a gay Friend involved with FLGCQBC who is iden­ti­fy­ing more and more as con­ser­v­a­tive and think­ing about going plain. One con­cern he raised was avoid­ing sweat­shop labor. (I pointed out that plain dress is a cot­tage indus­try and that the seam­stresses are usu­ally local and believ­ers.) He also doesn’t want to look “like a farmer” as he walks around the city of Bal­ti­more. (I talked about how I have lim­its as to how plain I go and don’t want this to be a his­tor­i­cal out­fit but one which peo­ple might actu­ally be able to see them­selves adopt­ing. I also talked about how I still want to iden­tify on some level with urban anar­chist cul­ture, which has a sort of plain aes­thetic.)


  • An extended con­ver­sa­tion with a book­store cus­tomer from Cal­i­for­nia. She began by ask­ing if I’m doing plain dress for the same rea­sons as another plain dresser here, who I’ve seen but not met yet. We began talk­ing about moti­va­tions and what it’s like and how it is for women, espe­cially who lead active lives. I talked about my wife’s Julie’s prac­tice, which includes leo­tards when she’s work­ing at a gym­nas­tics coach. We also talked about dif­fer­ent kinds of Quak­er­sIt was a great con­ver­sa­tion.
  • While sit­ting on a book­store couch blog­ging: “You’re look­ing very dis­tin­guished here, with facial hair and susspenders. Is this what mar­ried life does? You’re look­ing very Quak­erly. Does thee also have a hat?”


  • I spent sick mostly in bed…
  • I did have a brief, fever-fed con­ver­sa­tion with some of the other plain dress­ing youths and soon-to-be plain dress­ing youth. It’s not about dress, but about being Quaker and about how we live as Friends.


  • I had an extended con­ver­sa­tion with a cou­ple who run the Equal Exchange table about plain dress, Gohn Broth­ers cat­a­log and avoid­ing sweatshop-made cloth­ing for union-made cloth­ing. There’s a lot of peo­ple inter­ested in this and the issues really con­nect with sim­plic­ity and jus­tice issues.

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.

Con­tinue read­ing

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

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. 

In friend­ship,
Mar­tin Kel­ley
Atlantic City Area MM, NJ

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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.
  • 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