Monday, December 29, 2008

What I think about Plainness, for now

So, I have been led to adopt Plain dress, at least for now (I have no idea what will happen next year, or even tomorrow for that matter).  I was made aware of The New Plain among Quakers when I randomly came across Quaker Jane’s website (  At the time, I thought it was interesting, and I forwarded the link to my sister, a Religious Studies major.  We both thought the phenomenon was fascinating, intellectually speaking, I suppose.

But then, some time mid-October, I was hit.  It felt like a shove in the back, and it nearly knocked the wind out of me.  Suddenly, Plain dress seemed to possess me, and I spent many hours at my computer, reading Quaker blogs and writings about Plainness, poring over photographs of Plain people (both Quaker and Amish), and looking at catalogs of Plain clothes.  About that time, my computer was stolen from my room, just as my previous one had been only a few months earlier.  This was another forceful blow, and I felt like God was trying to teach me something, but I couldn’t really tell what.  Plain dress seemed to pounce on me, and it held me for a few weeks until I submitted to what was evidently God’s will for me.  In great relief I then set about Plaining my wardrobe.

I removed my watch and belt and began to give away clothes to friends left and right.  I got a grey-blue button-down shirt from Salvation Army and cut off the collar.  I ordered some Amish suspenders on-line, and sewed some buttons onto the waist of my dark blue Levi’s.  I brought out a thrift-shop brown tweed vest I already owned.  I shaved off my moustache and allowed my beard to grow. 

The next stage in what my friend called “the Plain initiative” came when I was able to catch my breath and really consider what Plainness meant to me.  I spent two-days’ wages on a collarless organic hemp shirt that had been made in Romania under strict EU labor standards.  Even the buttons were made from sustainably harvested tagua nut.  I resisted purchasing Amish broadfall trousers (most of which, I found, were polyester) and instead went for an option that was more regionally authentic for this California boy:  suspender pants in the Old West style made out of heavy-duty dark-brown cotton.  I bought a thick grey Irish wool sweater for the cold Northeastern winter.  I continued wearing the same vintage brown coat I had owned for a decade.  No machine-made or sweatshop-produced hat for me:  I ordered a handmade black broad-brimmed hat from a man who uses only historical methods and materials.  I also ordered a handmade Amish straw hat for the summer.  I wanted clothes that adhered to my standards of environmental and social justice.  I also wanted clothes that were sufficiently Plain without being Amish;  I didn’t want to be someone who was simply “in Amish costume.”  I wanted to be someone in Quaker clothing.

So, what does Plain dress mean to me, at this moment?  It seems to me that Plain men are much less identifiable than Plain women, who usually have their cape dresses, bonnets, and/or prayer caps.  When I’m not wearing my hat (and maybe even when I am), I suspect that I am more likely to be seen as someone with an idiosyncratic fashion sense than someone who is religiously Plain.  Therefore, I’m unsure of any witness I may have to the world.  So, for now, Plain dress is largely personal and inward:  it serves as a constant reminder to me to be “Quakerly” in everything I do, even everything I think.  I may write on this later.

In my readings, I have discovered that many Plain Friends find Plainness to be a rejection of fashion;  in fact, that was the way the first generations of Friends conceptualized Plain attire.  However, I have to admit that I was and still am a bit of a fashion junkie.  Many of my friends (as well as my mother) consider me to be their style consultant;  my mother has even admitted to thinking “what would Stephen say?” before making a purchase or stepping out of the house in an ‘experimental’ ensemble.  I do have a handful of fashion magazines on my shelf, as well as various books on clothing:  Fiberarts Design Book Six, How the West Was Worn, Fashionable Clothing from the Early 1960s, The Book of Kimono.  Before going Plain, my wardrobe consisted almost entirely of wonderful vintage pieces in styles that would be familiar to the 1950s and early 60s.  Even then, though, I was consciously making a statement with my clothing.  Purchasing exclusively secondhand clothing was my personal protest against wastefulness and wanton consumerism.  And yet, as I found mainstream fashion to be following in my footsteps, I began to seem more and more like yet another hipster fashionista in industrially produced faux-vintage.  I went along with it, however uncomfortably.

Actually, let me rephrase my earlier statement:  I am, I suppose, more of a clothing junkie.  That is, I don’t necessarily care for the whims of the fashion illuminati or the changeable currents of mainstream attire;  although I sometimes find those whims and currents interesting, what I do care for—actually, what I have a great passion for—are simply the aesthetics and sensations of clothing.  I love the visual and textural beauty of textiles, and I love the cloth-encased shapes of the human body.  I couldn’t deny myself these pleasures and still claim a joy of authenticity in my Plain dress.  So in my Plainness I have opted for the simple, the natural, the beautiful, and the pure:  my clothes are hemp, linen, cotton, and wool, and they are mostly hand-loomed, hand-knit, hand-formed, or vintage.  When I wear my shirt and sweater, for example, I can look at the luscious juxtaposition of fine linen and thick knotted wool at my wrist—both undyed—and revel in the beauty of the raw materials as God created them and the skilled hands of the artisans who molded those materials into their present forms.

So, I derive great aesthetic—even sensual—pleasure from my Plain clothes.  I am not ashamed of this fact.  This has been a wonderful, unexpected result of “the Plain initiative.”  The pleasure I get is based on their simplicity, a simplicity that allows the hand of God and the hand of the artisan to be radiantly apparent.  It is also the simplicity of quietness, for the earth tones and undyed fabrics are quiet and true.  After many years splashing about wildly in a sea of “how do I look?  how do I look?” I have returned to centeredness, to a core experience of fabric against skin, to what I really need out of clothes:  warmth and modesty, yes, but also a simple and naive quiet beauty.  The beauty of pure wool, of soft hemp, of honest forms and gentle hues.  These are things so effortless and true in their thing-ness that everything else seems gaudy and frenzied by comparison.

1 comment:

valerie hibbard said...

I have also experienced this "shove" and became plain two years ago; I am a convinced member of the Stillwater Meeting in Ohio.

If thee ever needs a sounding board, feel free to contact me,

Valerie Hibbard