Saturday, 10 May 2014

Observant dress thoughts now


Observant dress. The Amish and Conservative Mennonites wear it, monks and nuns wear it, some Conservative Quakers wear it – also Hutterites, the Bruderhof community and no doubt some others.

The question in my mind is, observant of what?

The intention, from what I’ve put together through extensive reading and thinking, is a witness to a chosen way of life. I cannot now remember who said it – a sister expressing her mind on the subject in a forum discussion thread, I think – but I read a story of someone’s journey into Plain dress in which she talked about a woman in distress approaching a Plain-dressed woman in a shopping mall, asking for counsel and prayer, the troubled individual saying she felt this Plain-dressed woman looked like someone who knew how to pray. And the sister telling the story said that was what woke the sense of call in her – that she longed to be the kind of woman people would turn to because she looked like a woman who prayed.

There’s a theme developed in the story Thee, Hannah, of Hannah’s reluctance to wear the distinctive Quaker style of bonnet. First she is ashamed of it, but then comes to realize it marks her out as a safe person for someone in trouble to turn to. And that’s the point of observant dress – it’s a witness, it marks the wearer out as part of a particular group, standing for a particular thing.

The phrase “look like” comes into this a lot.

Cistercian monks today, whose habit has changed not one whit since the establishment of their order in the 11th century, look like the original brothers. This necessarily means their dress is anachronistic – it belongs to another time and place.  By this means it becomes evocative of a particular tradition, a way of doing and believing the Catholic faith.

Franciscan monks want to look like St Francis, and Poor Clares want to look like Clare of Assisi.

That sister whose story I read online wanted to look like a woman who prays – not just be one, but advertise it by looking like it; a walking, talking, living offering of an opportunity.

Plain dressing groups want to look like people of faith, signaling their values of modesty, humility and Christian belief, silent advertisements for the Gospel, signs of contradiction in a world losing its way. They want to look like Amish/Quakers/Mennonites/Old Order River Brethren/Hutterites always have.

Going back to the roots, what did the first Cistercian monks look like? What did St Francis and St Clare look like? What did the first Quakers and Shakers and Amish and Mennonites look like? What did Jesus look like, for that matter?

As I understand it, they didn’t look like anything at all; indeed that was part of the point of the original groups. They wore the jeans and T-shirts of their day – the everyday hard-wearing practical clothes favoured by ordinary working people.
This is what troubles me a bit. The original members of the groups in question looked like everyone else, where the point of observant dress is to look different. The “observant” part is a witness to separation, being called out of the world and set aside. It’s a witness to belonging to a separate and holy tradition.

Whatever else observant dress says to the world, it says (loud and clear) “We are not like you.” To many, it says no more than that.

And this is where I have come to feel troubled by it.

The nub of the incarnation is the setting aside of what separated divinity from humanity, Jesus coming to live among us as one of us. What did Jesus look like? He looked like us. In similar wise the garb of the early Franciscans/Amish etc was a conscious adoption of the dress of the hoi-polloi – which at least has a clear correspondence to the mission of Jesus coming among us as one of us.

St Francis, for example, stripped naked and left the elegant, fashionable and expensive clothes, in which he had always delighted, at the feet of his father (a well-to-do cloth merchant). He laid aside the apparel of wealth and privilege, choosing instead to wear the garb of a beggar.  I can see the connection between that and what Jesus did.

I love the monastic habit, I love Plain dress – it thrills my soul, observant dress is beautiful to me. But if I’m absolutely honest I have to admit it seems to be doing the opposite of what those it is intended to look like were originally doing.  Not coming into the midst of the people as one of them, but coming out of the midst of the people to become 'one of us' – a separated group, holy unto the Lord.

A key component of my own life purpose is the calling to simplicity. For a while, I wore Plain dress, and I tried to convince myself it expressed simplicity. Honestly, it didn’t. It had to be specially sourced (or made at home, which is fine but expensive - regular clothes on eBay are a darned sight cheaper), everything had to be ironed, for modesty skirts and dresses needed petticoats and the right kind of underpants (bloomers). There were the kapps and the hairpins etc, then shawls or kerchiefs and some sort of solution to wearing long cotton dresses in cold, wet, foggy England. And aprons – several of.  Many Plain women feel it immodest and proud to venture out without an apron. My Plain wardrobe needed a good-sized clothes rail and a couple of drawers at least.

I just have to travel light – it feels urgent in my soul to do that. Watching and listening to regular modern people, I discover that jeans can take you anywhere (well – except the Ritz, but hey). Jeans to church, jeans to a party, jeans on the beach, jeans to dig the garden. Skinny jeans can dress up or dress down, and fold up small in a drawer. Three pairs of skinny jeans and you’re good to go.

I am familiar with the argument that all trousers are men’s garb and verboten for women. As I have huge feet, hands and head, and am tall and broad-shouldered, I’ve actually worn men’s clothes and shoes much of my life – even dressing Plain, I had to wear men’s shoes and gloves. And women’s jeans don’t look like men’s, so wearing women's jeans is not wearing the garb of a man. Besides which, personally this gender divide does not hold much power in my heart. There is no witness with my spirit that it is important. I respect it is important to others – just not to me.

And I’m familiar with the opinion that jeans are immodest because they make a woman’s figure apparent. But I think if you come across an Amish woman on a windy day, you’ll find you can see clearly delineated her legs, her breasts, if that’s what you’re looking for. Besides, to me this is not what modesty is really about. Some tribes of the world stroll about stark naked and it doesn’t mean they aren’t modest or would be morally improved in flowing dresses with high necklines. It’s a cultural thing. So, I like to wear clothes which decently cover me, in sturdy fabrics, not have my flesh on display; and that feels modest enough, to me.

Plain – yes, I want to be Plain. I want a Plain heart; to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with my God. I want to travel light and occupy the smallest possible space on earth, walk lightly on the earth. And I don’t want to look like anything; I want to be, not look like. I want to be hidden, unobtrusive, quiet, not draw attention to myself. I want to slip quietly along the edges of things.

As for helping people in trouble and making known the Gospel, so far as within me lies I want to do that – to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every man, as George Fox put it.

I do want to wear observant dress, but I want my togs to be observant of the same things as Jesus’s clothes were observant of – and the clothes of the first Franciscans, Cistercians, Amish, Quakers and all the rest. Ordinariness. Lowliness. Working-class-ness. Modesty in the sense of being unexceptional and of slender means.

It was with a sense of sadness and withdrawal that I laid aside my lovely long dresses, the aprons and kapps, the petticoats and long underwear – sad because I think they are so darling and so beautiful. I fall in love with the Amish and traditionally dressed monastics every time I look at them. But it’s an aesthetic love affair, not a spiritual one if I am really honest. I – personally, maybe not you – find I can better practice the presence of God in the holy ordinary.





33 comments:

Deborah said...

I think that all makes jolly good sense Pen :-D

Rememebr all you need are three skirts and a bunch of tops in one drawer ;-D

Suze said...

This is an amazing post. You have pointed out several things which were probably never the intention of the original brothers etc. I had never considered these.

Like you I am yearning simplicity but a so attached to the world. Personally I have a long way to go.

As Deborah says three skirts and tops…well I basically have three home made cotton skirts and simple tees. I cannot afford fancy clothing and am comfortable with what I wear. My huge stumbling block is about hair. I see so many women with long hair and Paul talks about a females and their hair but I have extremely oily, lanky locks which need daily washing. Over the years I have accepted that long hair is not for me but boy does it haunt me.

Love your posts because I always learn.

judymorrisart said...

ah yes; holy not holier. Also in some strange knight move type thinking your post reminds me of the fact (often posted on fb) that Jesus was not a christian.
To be holy, for me, is the realization that everything is holy.....or as you put it, holy ordinary. As I began to understand God, what I wore barely mattered xxx

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Hi friends - waving! xx

Jenna said...

Pen, I watched your Plain journey even as it portrayed my own. I haven't given up long skirts and loose tops. I find I like how much more pretty a woman is when she's wearing something along those lines. I just went through our very brutal winter this past in skirts without ever being cold, even. :)

I was kind of neutral on the jeans thing until I recently transcribed a few focus groups about a leading jeans brand. What I heard about the goal of how the wearers wanted to look and also some notions about some snobbery concerning how expensive of jeans one is able to afford these days--made me NOT want to identify with that. Just sayin'.

As my thoughts have evolved on Plain dress, I find it served me well to do it, meaning there was a deeper reason than just what scrap of fabric adorns me. My wardrobe has updated from strictly "Plain" to what I would term modest in keeping with my Torah-observance. I find it also helps my HSP-ness to have a much more limited palette of choices in my closet. My crazy hair is up under a scarf or tichel or a podwig (!)to keep that simple, too.

Ganeidaz Knot said...

I always find these discussions fascinating because my call to plain & simple dress began & ended with the head covering. What I wear has not changed in 50 years. I am a pants & Ts girl, with jumpers & jackets in the cold weather but I will make 2 observations because how Jesus was dressed comes up over Passover/Easter.

Firstly we know from the soldiers at the cross that Jesus owned one distinctive item of clothing: an outer garment woven in a single piece. This was a high priestly garment & I expect it wasn't cheap because these things never are.

Secondly: we also know Mary mistook him for the gardener on the Sunday morning. Being me I investigated what the gardeners of the time wore & lo & behold they wore garments similar to the High Priest on the day of atonement! White linen robe & pants, bare feet, turban & a linen belt.

There are times when our clothing matters, times when it says more than just covering our bodies. Jesus might have hob~nobbed with the hoi poloi but one of them He was not! His clothing made that point loud & clear on at least 2 occasions.

So, as in all things, we must each listen hard to what the Spirit is saying to us personally on matters of dress as in all else then act in obedience to His directives.

Lynda said...

I love your post, but have to confess that by the time I get to the end of it I've forgotten what you said at the start :)

I guess the word that comes to my mind when I think of how I dress and the impression that it gives, is that I want that impression to be 'approachability' (is that a word?).

I have decided to dress to my own 'style'...my family would have another word for it :)

Like you, I have tried the plain dress route, but found it too restrictive (especially when thinking of the conservative Mennonites I was with and their cape dress/Mennonite bonnet only).

I still always wear long dresses/skirts (just because I like them) and do dress modestly (because I do not like to 'parade my flesh'), but other than that...my style is my own and I am very comfortable with it.

I buy just about all my clothes at op shops/thrift stores...so that I can spent my pennies on books and knitting yarn :)

I want other people to feel they can approach me for whatever reason, and I feel I am approachable by wearing clothes I feel comfortable in, being open and friendly...and smiling :)

I hope you can find your niche my friend. xx

(Micah 6:8 is probably my favourite verse in the Bible).

Lynda said...

Oh yes...forgot to say...and I'm comfortable with my long grey hair too. Maybe not for everyone I know (and maybe people think it's not for me either), but I've (almost) gotten to the stage where I'm not bothered by what other people think :) xx

Alice Y. said...

Thanks for writing this Pen, I share many of your thoughts on this issue it seems.

I feel an urgent need not to support the exploitative labour practices of global industrialism. I still depend on those to some extent, but I am learning and working, and I think in a few years I may be able to make or mend what I need. It is a trial to me to look singular and stand out, but I hope I am willing to do so in service to my understanding of the call of God's justice.

ripplesinthewind said...

Pen, I love the honesty in this - that about an aesthetic love affair. In the light of that, I admire your courage in putting away the beautiful dresses and petticoats. For myself, comfort and practicality is what matters most to me in clothing. I'm one of those people who can't bear itchy labels... or tightness. If I could wear pyjamas in the street without it being assumed that I'd escaped from hospital, I probably would! But you... you have a love of beautiful things... and it seems to me that this is a beautiful thing in itself. Therefore, I think it would be sad if, in your bid for simplicity (which I fully understand), you became so brutal with yourself that nothing beautiful remained in your wardrobe. It's important to be who we are. Where I live, people wear all manner of clothes. Flowing skirts and rainbow sweaters would be quite as ordinary as jeans :-) And then there is the whole question of who made the clothes and whether they got paid a fair wage... Just saying ;-)

Jules said...

wow! pen, excellent thoughts. I to think it makes sense. I am working on simplifying my wardrobe and life too. my ideal wardrobe, would be 3 every day dresses and skirts, 2 jumpers, a bunch of polo shirts and a couple of dresses and skirts for Church. I am also working on being more aware of my environment and what I can do to conserve energy, save money and grow in my backyard and while doing all this work on the spiritual aspects of these things and trying to pray more and be more thankful for God has given me.

artyuta said...

Hello Pen, you are a new friend to me. Your words make me feel at home - kindred. I had a week off school and the time to read the free ebook of yours 'The Clear Light of Day'. You paint with words the world as it is and the balance we seek within ourselves whilst coping with all that comes at us. I loved it and the world your story brought me into still lingers in my thoughts. Subsequently I have found your blog, a rare yet current voice calling to a life of simplicity. It speaks to me. I enjoy the way you discuss without judgement. To this post: Plain clothes are and were perhaps for those belonging to a religious order also a way to save their time and focus for God and the things of God and to not be distracted. As to 'looking like' followers of Jesus, he explained it. John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Hello Artyuta - good to meet you x

gail said...

Hello Pen, I too love those long dresses and petticoats and pinnies, but for me they are completely impractical. I agree with what you have written and it has caused me to look at plain dress differently. My main concern is that I actually have too many clothes because I have a friend who loves clothes and passes them on to me. It's hard for me to let go of perfectly good clothes because I convince myself that they will be worn at a later stage. I am now learning to just bless someone else with them. I agree with Deborah but need also would need some pants for working in the garden. Sorry if I got a bit off topic. A simple life and learning to follow the narrow path is what I desire and in doing so I would hope that others would see me as being someone they could approach for care and comfort.
Blessings Gail

Anne said...

Pen, I know of a group who prefer to keep their identity as Christian and their meeting house locations private.
They only wear a headcovering inside the meeting or at home for prayer. So there are some who don't believe it right to stick out around those who don't believe.

For those who do want to wear pants but not jeans, there are options like a simple elastic waist pair without a fly.

I understand so well on this issue, I have two sides both struggling for recognition and a strong leading towards simplicity. I think I am making some progress towards a compromise that I can live with finally! Wish we could have coffee and discuss!

Pen Wilcock said...


If you like, Anne, we can have an email conversation. If you leave a comment with your email address here I will contact you but not publish your comment on the blog. I'll be away for a day or two but could get back to you towards the end of the week. x

Anonymous said...

Pen~What a wonderful analysis. I live near many Amish and Mennonite and am a huge admirer of their lifestyle. I too practice simplicity to the best of my ability but have always felt unease about the clothing aspect. I do not feel drawn to speak with them normally because of just what you have written....They seem unapproachable to me. I am NOT saying that they are... they just seem to be in their own little world. I love your words. Have a blessed spring day:) Amy from Kentucky

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Hils 27 said...

Hi there, I'm new to this - just loved reading your Hawk and Dove series.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello friend - good to meet you! I'm so glad you enjoyed my stories! :0) xx

denice said...

Hi, Pen,

I just stumbled upon your blog while doing some research for a site I'm building, and I noticed your most recent comment about having wide feet, etc. A friend here in Ohio's Amish country has tapped me to help him distribute plain-dress socks and hosiery that's made specifically for conservative-dress folks in color, pattern, and (this is the part I like best), size. The man who owns the company that designs and makes the socks told me that women, especially plain-dress women, are having a terrible time finding socks that fit in regular retail stores, because most of those socks are made overseas and the standard is smaller. All of these socks are made in the U.S. and there's an extra-wide, extra-long style that meets the length needs for women who wear dresses/skirts, and are larger in the foot/calf/top band so women don't have to buy men's socks for them to be comfortable (which is what I've been doing--welcome to the club, huh?). Plus, if a sock is too small, it won't stay up. Anyway, if you're at all interested, you can check out the site. It's brand new and not yet perfect, but it's functional and has lots and lots of socks and hosiery to choose from. The site is https://millers-plain-clothing.myshopify.com. God bless you on your journey!

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Denice. I don't usually publish comments advertising commercial sites here, but I think this is different as some of my readers dress Plain and may find your link very helpful. God bless you and thanks for getting in touch. x

Jennifer Winters said...

"For a while, I wore Plain dress, and I tried to convince myself it expressed simplicity."

This is my issue when it comes to plain dress. Is it really simplicity? For me, wearing traditional plain clothing would not be simple because, for one thing, I hate sewing and it would also eat up family time to make my own clothes. Also, as a drama and lit professor, such clothing would be impractical. I think that sometimes a yearning to share what we have as Friends can lead to outward symbolic gestures that show an "otherness" rather than true simplicity.

What you said about early Quakers being the t-shirt and jeans crowd of their day really resounded with me. I prefer to keep my wardrobe small, practical, and ethical (as much as possible).When people comment on my simple clothing or my lack of jewelry, I usually tell them that "I'm built for comfort, not for speed", and then explain that I'm a Quaker.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Jennifer - I'm intrigued that people comment on your simple clothing and lack of jewellery. What kind of things do they say? I don't find folks notice what I'm wearing at all (unless they're just being forbearingly polite and I'm oblivious - which is a strong possibility!) Are you in the US? As a generalisation, I've noticed that soignée appearance is more common among Americans than Brits, so maybe simplicity of dress would stand out more (?)

Jennifer Winters said...

Hey Pen, It's not the Americans so much as the people from my husband's country. My husband is from Colombia and the people from his city are very posh, polished, and accessorized. I wear my hair short, very little makeup, no jewelry other than a thin wedding band and some non-precious necklaces, etc. We spend part of every year in South America and most of our friends here in South Florida are from my husband's city. I have had lots of questions about my hair and jewelry. I've even had family members and friends give me makeup and earrings, telling me that women really should "paint". My favorite story is when I was having a birthday party for my son. My mother-in-law was here. I showered, put on a t-shirt and khaki shorts, a little mascara, and combed my hair. When the first guest rang the doorbell, my MIL looked at me and said, "Jennifer! The guests are arriving! You need to get ready!"

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, wow! How people differ! You are living a simplicity testimony indeed. It must feel lonely sometimes. How interesting that your husband was drawn to you with your witness of the beauty of quiet and plain, rather than someone conforming to the expectations he grew up with.

Mrs. S said...

Oh Pen...it is always so good to visit. The comments have given me quite a chuckle especially the last one from Jennifer. I am from Colombia, so I know exactly what she means, when her MIL said...go get ready!

We South Americans, especially Colombians, are quite vain. As a woman, putting together a whole outfit before I go to the grocery store, was quite the norm for me.

So imagine the shock, when I began to dress plain and continue to do so. My mother took me shopping on my last trip to Florida to visit. She could not stand to see me in a long skirt and a tee any longer :D I laugh now, but I do know that I was the odd duck among all the finery...even in 90 degree weather.

I agree with the points that you made on this post. Simplicity and plain dressing should come from within. Today, here in the mountains, I still stand out, because long skirts or long dresses are just not the norm.

Thank you so much for sharing Pen.

God Bless!

Maria

Jennifer Winters said...

Maria, Where do you live in Colombia? My husband's family are in Bogota and Pamplona.

Lucy Honeychurch said...

I really like how there are monastic and religious folk out there who have chosen to simply take on the clothing of their particular order or community. I question whether it is a case of them individually wanting to look historical, or whether they are simply following in humility the decision of their community. When you look at some of the scary waist coat ensembles chosen by monastic orders post Vatican 2 I can't help but think that it really is an act of humility and dying to self.
I'm sure sometimes people assume that those who wear religious attire spend much more time thinking about it than they actually do. Maybe the artists and dreamers (of which I am one) contemplate and fixate a lot more on things like aesthetics and belonging than those who simply get on with living their chosen path. Surely though personal faith won't last the test of time though if it were all about the frock?
From a purely selfish perspective I think it is a great sadness that most monastic orders in Australia don't wear the traditional habit. Lovely as it might be to quietly blend, I don't know who these people of God are. I literally can't pick them out, and I relish dialogue about Christianity and elements of the monastic faith. I want to tackle and bring down a Franciscan to engage in conversion about things like the living out of the beatitudes, community in Christ, poverty, love(a.k.a. that clinical and thus horrid word 'Social Justice'). Equally I would like to engage a Benedictine monastic in conversation about prayer and contemplation of God. But where are they? How would you know? That's not to say that I think everyone has to or should wear religious attire, but on a practical level, when they do, it just helps.
Anyway I love your thoughts Pen, and hope you continue to make us all consider what we do and why we do it.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Anonymous said...

How many times have I been back to this post, and have composed in my head a dozen different comments on it. :)
I dressed "plain" for a few years, and was raised very modest and feminine in dresses only before that. And then only recently have I wrestled with it, and am leaving it aside.
Ultimately, the main thing left in it I noticed was how people spoke of the attention dressing like that brought them. People held doors for them. People told them how pretty they looked all in dresses with their little girls. People smiled and said they looked pretty. People asked them which church they attended.
Or, people stared at them strangely, or made insensitive comments, and they considered it as carrying their cross for Christ. Or they were asked questions and given all these opportunities to explain how and why to dress in skirts and long sleeves and how to assemble one's hair and headgear for Jesus. Did the people to whom they explained really go from that better off? Was God glorified, or were egos gratified at all the attention they were constantly receiving.
I too feel such a guidance and need growing for true simplicity, for the modesty of a Christian witness that does not point to self but that really does make people wonder about JESUS.
When I reflected on a couple of years spent wearing jeans and shirts, blending in with the world to that extent as a modest middle aged kind of lady, I saw how even though my appearance was utterly unremarkable , how many people (in the new town to which I'd moved) nonetheless assumed me to be devout in my religion, even wondered if my background were Amish or convent, how many of them regularly brought up topic of the BIBLE, brought up their own moral struggles such as with relationships, suicidality, and so on. No long dress, no headcovering required for this, as I looked truly plain, ordinary as I was.
There ARE some people, in the world I mean, who are drawn to people who are dressed in some way religious. There are also so many who are repelled by that, for to them religion has been only hypocrisy and pain. I praise God to know there is space for all of us, that His hand is on all of us.

Anonymous said...

Last bit of comment - for all the "worldly" or mainstream Christians who dislike the observant dressing styles, they think it is ugly and I have never found from them the actual spiritual terrorism that exists on the other side of things, against women wearing trousers, daring to cut their hair, put on a bit of makeup, etc. I have come to feel there is just something very off when the balance has tipped to a spirituality that feels it must observe all these signs and appearances; in the fear it causes, the condemnation is spreads, not to mention the time it wastes away from actual fruits of the spirit, it does not even seem the spirit of God. There seems so little of Jesus there.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks for your thoughts, friend :0) xx