Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Plain" Clothing

I spent most of last week at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about an hour's drive from my home.  Though I enjoyed it greatly, I won't be writing about it here, because it has nothing to do with historic costume.

However, after the event closed on Sunday, I took a spare hour to visit a nearby tourist attraction called "The Amish House and Farm."  This turned out to be a surviving farm from two hundred years ago, equipped as it might have been when the last family to live there, an Amish family, was in residence. Some items of clothing of the types Amish folk wore, and still wear, were in evidence.  It was more than enough to remind me of how little I know about the special clothing the Amish and other, related sects such as the various Mennonite congregations, choose to wear--even though I live quite close to them.

The Amish and Mennonites are slightly different flavors of Protestant Anabaptist sects that left Switzerland and Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries to escape religious persecution.  Pennsylvania, which was founded as a British colony by Sir William Penn, made a practice of taking such religious dissenters in--largely because Penn himself, as a member of the Society of Friends (i.e., "Quakers") was himself a dissenter and founded the colony in part to give similarly-minded people a place where they could worship in peace. 

So the Anabaptists settled, and multiplied, and ultimately spread West, into what is now the State of Ohio (which was originally part of the territory ceded to Penn for his colony, incidentally) and elsewhere in the continental U.S.  As time passed and folk with more mainstream religious beliefs started moving West as well, the Amish and Mennonite communities adopted specific attire that they considered appropriately "plain"--i.e., modest in ways that ignored mainstream fashion but that distinctively signaled their membership in the particular sect that they were part of.  Mostly they did this by hanging onto individual items of dress, once fashionable, that had been long discarded by the mainstream world.

At the gift shop in the Amish House, I found an interesting book, written by a man born into a nearby mainstream community who converted to one of the Plain Sects:

Scott, Stephen.  Why Do They Dress This Way? (Good Books, rev. ed 1997).  ISBN: 1-56148-240-4.

Mr. Scott's book is partly a defense of plain clothing, but it also contains charts demonstrating the (slight) variations in caps and aprons, coats and hats among the "plain" people, and gives a bit of the history to help one understand how "plain" clothing came to be what it is now.

As for what plain clothing looks like, for those of my readers who do not live in America or other places where such people also live, this site shows "plain dress" as worn by the few members of the Society of Friends who still wear it. Most Quakers in America now dress like everyone else, but the Quaker Jane site  to which I provided the URL in the previous sentence gives a good idea of the general appearance of plain dress, though the details differ from sect to sect.

It is difficult obtaining photographs of the Amish themselves, because they believe that photographs of people violate the Biblical command prohibiting "graven images".  That is why the photographs you see of the Amish either show them from the back (i.e., were taken without their consent/knowledge) or are of children (who have not yet been baptized into their church and thus are not bound by the same rules). This site gives a brief summary of basic Amish dress, along with some photographs that, based on my knowledge of Amish beliefs, might actually be genuine pictures of Amish folks.

Because I grew up living near the section of Pennsylvania that has long been home to Amish and Mennonite communities, I'm kind of accustomed to the fact that there are folk living near us who are working hard to live much as their ancestors lived centuries ago (the Amish, in particular, resist the use of electricity and certain kinds of machines that require its use, and use horse-drawn carriages for transportation--which makes driving in Lancaster County interesting for the rest of us sometimes). However, when my attention is focused on it, I find myself intrigued by their lifestyle and clothing. I've cited the book in case the subject interests any readers enough to lead them to find out more about it.


  1. Excellent book, you're right.

    I'm a Quaker and wore plain dress for a number of years, as did several of my friends. All of us have now, independently of each other, transitioned into plain (simple, solid and mostly dark colors) but not "peculiar plain" (i.e. distinct from modern fashions). While the "witness" of wearing distinct clothing is valuable, I think we found that in fact it was a major distraction for people interacting with us.

  2. Hi, Chris! Thanks for your perspective on plain dress.