Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think I look just awful. Old, grim, overweight, and kind of slightly sour. Blessed with an overall vaguely purplish hue. Dear me. As things were, when this happened, I used to try to do something about it – lose weight, change my hair cut, put on make-up, buy some new clothes. And what was the result? I looked in the mirror and saw – an old, grim, marginally thinner, slightly sour face surrounded by a different haircut and new clothes that didn’t look quite how I’d imagined they would. What a waste of money. A facelift? Would a facelift do it? We should have asked Michael Jackson while we had the chance.
Sometimes when a woman has a new baby, it won’t stop crying. Having jiggled it and walked it and patted it, she (and all her advisers) decide to change its food. ‘Put him on the bottle, dear.’ She does. He still cries. But she feels a bit better somehow, like there was something she could do.
We are what we are and things are as they are. What we wear won’t make us beautiful and bottlefeeding won’t make cranky babies peaceful. Changing things gives us a temporary feeling of power over our situation that makes us feel better for a while.
I love Plain dress. I think it is beautiful; but I have to concede that it doesn’t make me beautiful – I look in the mirror and I just look like me, only in Plain dress.
I have met quite a few people now who think Plain dress is not beautiful, and nor is anyone who wears it. They find it disconcerting and vaguely threatening too. My mother came to stay a few days ago, with a friend. As they walked in my house, with no preamble, the friend said to me:
‘You’re looking very… er… very… well, shall I say traditional, today!’
‘Very austere.’ (my mother’s contribution).
I was wearing a green poloneck soft fleece top, a taupe jumper (pinafore dress UK) with dark red buttons, a green and cream checked kapp, and a red and white checked apron. Jazzy, possibly – but austere?
The last retreat I took, we had a session about Plain dress and some of the people in my group left me in no doubt of their views – ugly, frumpy, inconsiderate (because other people have to look at us) etc etc. What surprised me, and I had to be very careful in my response as a result, was that the people so loud in their criticisms evidently thought they themselves looked elegant: I know this, because they said so. They told me that they (unlike Plain dressing people) took great care over their appearance and felt it a responsibility to society to do so. The thing is, had they not told me so, I wouldn’t have known.
Joanie wrote a comment here a few days ago with a little cry for help. She was feeling frumpy, and Plain dress wasn’t helping. Her determination was flagging.
Some days I feel frumpy in Plain dress, but I have looked at other people and my own eyes tell me that hair lacquer and dye, crusts of mascara, artificial colour in my cheeks, red lipstick, and drifts of face powder
a r e n o t t h e a n s w e rIt’s not the Plain dress. It’s the woman. Look at this person. Would she look better in tight jeans and a crop top? I ate out at an Italian restaurant the other night. A crowd of teenagers, excited and voluble were out together having a party. One young lady stood up to shout across the room at her friend. She was wearing a bright red backless mini-dress with, somewhat surprisingly, her regular bra underneath. She has advice to give Amish teenagers on dress and deportment? I think not.
Some days, we just feel ugly and inadequate. I don’t know why. It’s being human. That’s the deal. As we get older we sag, we lose tone, our skin and hair and eyes look dull, everything slides south. We can stay thin, which is good for us but looks a bit ascetic, or we can get fat, which looks plump and cheerful to other people but makes us feel like failure writ large.
What makes us feel good is being loved, being liked – friendship and affection and acceptance. What makes us look good is kindness, laughter, gentleness and joy in life.
Sometimes we worry about our menfolk. The first time I had a serious go at Plain dress, I became seized with anxiety that my husband didn’t fancy me any more. He probably didn’t, but it was more likely because he was tired or worried about work or something. I thought the problem was my clothes, so I should fix it by wearing different ones.
I don’t think that any more. I think it is likely that while I was anxious about it I was probably crabby and defensive, going round with a haunted look on my face. This is dramatic but not attractive.
I think now that I can wear what I like and it won’t make much difference to my marriage. What makes me attractive is if I am joyous and cheerful, kind and loving, patient and fun – and if I am interested in him and laugh at his jokes and admire his achievements.
It isn’t the clothes. They say men respond to visual stimuli, and so they do – but it isn’t the clothes. It’s the look in the eye and the way a woman carries herself and the aura about her. Sofia Loren could swap with Norah Batty and it still wouldn’t make any difference.
A couple of years ago, after my first failed go at Plain dress, we were going away on a Christian conference and I was feeling nervous. I am very shy, very solitary and I don’t like leaving my home. So (some of you will empathise with this logic, others just feel bewildered) to make myself feel better I cut my hair. It had been growing quite nicely, and was shoulder length or so, and I cut it off into a chin-length bob. I thought it looked nice, and I was impressed I had cut it so well. Four days later it was time to go to the conference. Our travelling companions arrived, another couple. The man said ‘hello’ in a genial kind of way, the woman said: ‘Oh, I like your new haircut!’
New haircut? My husband looked at me bemused. ‘Your hair is different?’
Yes, men do kind of respond to visual stimuli; but maybe not the stimuli we’d had in mind.
Feeling frumpy – it comes and it goes. You can look beautiful in Plain dress and beautiful without it. Either way the beauty is not the gift of the clothes.
Having said all that, there are some things worth saying.
1) If you are very overweight, it is helpful to lose a few pounds. It’s good for health, good for morale, and it will make you feel less frumpy.
2) It is important to wear the colours that are right for you. Image consultants may not be very Plain, but they can advise you if you need it. Some colours will suit you, others will not. If you wear the colours that suit you, the effect is transformative.
3) Shapes need balancing. A big flappy skirt needs a neat top and a neat head. A big flappy skirt with a big floppy cardigan and a long flappy veil looks like an ambulant rummage sale.
4) A kind face, a ready smile and a joyous heart are always beautiful.
5) Even women who dress Plain have their unique style. Some tie their kapp strings tight, some leave them dangling; some go barefoot while others are in ankle boots. Some have faces beautiful because of the sweet seriousness of their composure; others are attractive because of the twinkle of laughter that’s always in their eyes. Even among old people – some have plump, soft, peaceful faces full of kindness; some have carved austere countenances full of quiet dignity. Make-up would not improve any of them. Find your style. Find your beauty. Accept yourself as you are.
Those of us who choose to dress Plain as a witness, as a spiritual discipline – observant dress – but are not members of Plain communities or fellowships, must expect to experience discouragement and distraction (well – like everyone else, I guess). I posted this back at the end of August, and the article I was quoting has helped me again and again when I have felt embarrassed or discouraged in dressing Plain.
In case the way it is expressed seems a bit weird and esoteric to you, what it is saying can be re-phrased as follows:
If you want to make a permanent change in your life, there is a series of steps to follow.
1) You come to a clear and certain mind about the new attitude or habit you would like to develop.
2) You read about it, find others who already practice it, look at pictures that make it vivid for you – fill and flood your imagination with the new state of mind and being.
3) You lock that into place in your imagination, holding it firmly before you, identifying yourself with it.
4) You make physical actual changes to bring it into physical reality (in the case of Plain dress, maybe chucking out your make-up and jewellery, beginning to dress Plain, sending your former garments away to someone who will appreciate them), burning your bridges.
5) You persevere. This last one is crucial. In this fifth and last step, you have to hold firm the new vision installed in your imagination, every day making choices consistent with it and keeping going in spite of remarks from other people, inner wobbles of your own, boredom or weariness. You keep going. In time it will become your habit – it is the point at which choice has grown into habit that you truly have made the change.
Choosing the Plain way attracts discouragements. Discouragements are cling-ons that pull you down. Combat them by reading, pictures, fellowship that will re-encourage you; and keep going. Make it hard for yourself to do otherwise, by getting rid of your former garb and life patterns. Keep going. Persevere.
Eventually you come through the tunnel. Eventually you can say, ‘I look frumpy dressed Plain? Yes. I probably do. So what?’ And maybe one day you will be able to get rid of the mirror.