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.