Monday, 7 January 2019

Plain Dress

In researching this post I am indebted to the PhD thesis The Relinquishment of Plain dress: British Quaker women's abandonment of Plain Quaker attire, 1860–1914 by Hannah Rumball of the University of Brighton (2016).
A painting of a late eighteenth century Quaker meeting in London, showing plain dress.
A painting apparently of Gracechurch Street Meeting in London
(no longer extant), circa 1770. Artist anonymous.
One of the most distinctive things about Quakers, for a significant chunk of our history, was our plain dress. Like several other sorts of nonconformists, this gravitated towards a fairly consistent set of clothing, a distinctive grey cloth. This might be seen as typified by the Quaker Oats logo, in its various incarnations over the years, though it has been suggested that whoever was behind the branding of Quaker Oats (not, by the way, an actual Quaker company – they were just trading on the reputation of Quakers) got us mixed up with Mennonites.
The traditional Quaker dress in England was very practical. Indeed, the goals of Friends' choice of clothing were to be practical and little else. It was to be humble, not concerned with fashion, and eschewing fripperies and ostentation. This was a matter of virtue in itself, and of demonstrating virtue in the world, as Fox is said to have set out on many occasions, including this epistle (numbered 250 in at least some collections):
Friends, Keep out of the vain fashions of the world; do not let your eyes, minds, and spirits run after every fashion (in apparel) of the nations; for that will lead you away from the solid life into unity with that spirit that leads to follow the fashions of the nations, after every fashion of apparel that gets up. But mind that which is sober and modest, and keep to your plain fashions, that in this you may judge the world, whose minds and eyes are in, 'what they shall put on, and what they shall eat.' And Friends who see the world so often altering their fashions, if you follow them, and run into them, you cannot judge the world in that, but rather the world will judge you.”
Now, Fox said many things in epistles, and we need not attribute any particular authority to his words, not greater than that of anyone else's spiritual insights. This one, however, or at least the idea it represents, was deeply influential on Friends. Plain dress was the convention through the 19th century, though there were often those, especially the young who eschewed it. They might be tutted at and talked about, but they were not cast out for wearing – as in the case of young Elizabeth Gurney (known after her marriage as Elizabeth Fry). She and her sisters were what was known as “gay Friends”, rejecting the sombre sobriety (but not, I understand, the literal sobriety) of traditional Quakers. Betsy herself is often reported to have worn purple boots with scarlet laces – cause for comment in itself, but she even wore them to Meeting for Worship!
While plain dress was originally a matter of what to avoid, rather than what to wear, it quickly developed into a virtual uniform for Friends. Originally, it was a very practical uniform, based on inexpensive but practical and hard-wearing clothing suitable for any occupation that Friends were likely to find themselves in. This was especially true while Quakers were excluded from the professions, and while they rejected the expectations of what might be termed “polite society”. Hard-wearing, and for men offering decent freedom of movement. Women also had less restrictive dress, with corsetry creeping in during the early 19th century (as a subtle alteration of plain dress expectations) and becoming more widespread only after the abandonment of even the form of plain dress rules in 1860. Of course, there was still an expectation of some tendency towards plainness, but it was now purely a matter peer pressure (or, more often, pressure from those older or more long-standing in the Society) and individual interpretation.
Cautions about the expectation of plainness of dress (and speech and furniture) were around from fairly early in the life of the Religious Society of Friends, with Margaret Fox (formerly Fell) cautioning in 1698,
It’s a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into the observation of outward things which may be easily done. For they can soon get into an outward garb, to be all alike outwardly. But this will not make them into true Christians: it’s the spirit that gives life.” (Quaker Faith & Practice 20.30)
Still, it was a formal expectation, if not always honoured, for some time. Quaker Meeting for Church Affairs were, at the time (and until 1896), separate for men and women, and it was these bodies that were responsible for enforcement. I have found less information for men than for women, but it is clear that many Women's Monthly Meetings were unwilling to rigidly enforce expectations – and it appears to have been common for women of sufficient means to wear garments that were outwardly meeting Quaker expectations, but made of finer fabrics such as silk (either satin or plain woven) and cambric. Indeed, this was a matter sufficiently recognised by people in general that it was referred to in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, published 1819:
In defiance of conventual [sic] rules, and the edicts of popes and councils, the sleeves of this dignitary were lined and turned up with rich furs, his mantle secured at the throat with a golden clasp, and the whole dress proper to his order as much refined upon and ornamented, as that of a quaker [sic] beauty of the present day, who, while she retains the garb and costume of her sect continues to give to its simplicity, by the choice of materials and the mode of disposing them, a certain air of coquettish attraction, savouring but too much of the vanities of the world.” (Ivanhoe, Chapter 2)
This was undesirable, as a matter of principle, because it highlighted the economic differences between Friends, though accepted because, it seems at least in part, because those in Women's business meetings felt it understandable and were sympathetic – and given the tendency for the wealthy to be influential, even among Friends at that time, it is likely that weighty Friends would have to discipline their own close relatives if the expectations were enforced.
Old-style Quaker clothing rack at a museum in Ironbridge,
England. Photo by Matt Brown, reproduced under license
At the same time, where it was observed – or the superficial form of it observed – it is understood that it was often out of fear of disapproval or, potentially in more extreme cases, disownment by their Meeting. Where plain dress has any spiritual virtue, it is as an expression of sincere inward conviction. That might be for the virtue of plain dress in itself, or for its value in avoiding visible signs of economic privilege, but it would still be an expression of that conviction. If it is being done purely for fear of disapproval or sanction, it has no spiritual virtue. As a result of these factors, and others, it was optional according to some sources as early as 1858, and certainly by 1861.
It is worth noting, as a brief aside, that the expectation of plain dress was also tied up in the expectation of plain speech, though the understanding of what this entailed was also very variable. When Friends in Britain today speak of “speaking plainly”, they mean without excessive ornamentation, without artifice, with directness; historically, it meant these things, yet also the idiosyncratic use of ordinal numbers for days and months, or anachronistic use of the t-form singular second person pronoun (“thee-ing and thou-ing”). Personally, I consider those elements contrary to the elements of plain speaking that we still advocate today. However, one must remember that these traditions had been maintained through the “quietist” period of Quaker history, when we were looking inward and separating ourselves from “the world”. Being “a peculiar people” was well-served by looking and sounding, well, peculiar – in both the old sense of the word, and its modern vernacular meaning.
In terms of our modern oral tradition, of how we teach one another our Quaker history, there are other factors mentioned as justifying the abandonment of “Quaker plain” dress. Whether they were developed after the fact or genuinely a factor in the consideration of the matter in the mid nineteenth century, however, I have been unable to determine. These include that fact that, particularly for those who would seek to minimise their outlay on clothes, maintaining those standards would be more expensive than following usual social norms. The types of clothes that were worn generally had also moved on, with the development of more flexible clothes for women, or clothes for the new sorts of occupations being introduced. If a plain standard were to be maintained, it would have had to move with the times in any case. It is also often suggested that off-the-shelf clothing was a factor in the shift, though this seems unlikely as it was not widespread until the 20th century.
And so I come to today. I am firmly of the view that the initial impetus factors towards plain dress were not misguided. It becoming a rigid uniform that did not move with the times served far less purpose, unless you support the idea of outward markings to set us aside from the world. I do not, but I know some Friends do, and keep to traditional plain dress as best they can today – wool coats, hats and bonnets, the works. Others find some new standard not the same as the old, but equally obviously standing out from the ordinary. I have no quarrel with them doing so; I do not question the validity of their leading. It makes sense to me that the Spirit does not lead us all in the same way. I would resist a suggestion that all Friends, or all Friends in my Yearly Meeting, should do so, but that does not seem likely.
However, that does not mean we should abandon what I consider the most important principles and ideals of plain dress. We should resist ostentation and excessive ornamentation, we should think about how our dress might show our privilege, we should think about the message our clothing sends. We shouldn't show off wealth in how we dress, we shouldn't reinforce cultural perceptions about the superiority of designer brands. Paying more for clothing because it will last, because it is better ethically (see below), because it is more comfortable – this is all laudable. But if that means the clothes are visibly “designer”, with an embroidered polo player on the breast or distinctive check patterns that will be widely recognised, it is doing harm, sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious. We should not dress among our Friends in ways that seem to set some of us above others, that advertise our better circumstances – and nor should we do so in the wider world. We should be patterns and examples, in this case of the non-necessity of such ostentation and ornamentation. It's good sometimes to look nice, but it needn't be in a way that can cause such problems. We can all have our individual style without it being, or coming across as, a competition – one of the flaws of fashion culture that, for example, school uniform policies seek to tackle.
One of my own personal convictions about clothing, that I have held since before I ever heard of Quakers, is that we should not lie with our clothing. Many clothing choices in this world are about presenting an image of ourselves, and of course we tend to do that for our own advantage. There might be an occupational requirement, for good reasons or not, to wear certain clothes, but where we have freedom to choose our own clothing we should take care to present ourselves faithfully. That means not dressing just to fit in or satisfy the expectations of a social circle (though I recognise there can be good reasons to do that – it's all a matter of balance). It also means not dressing so as to create a certain impression in others to our advantage, unless we are sure that such an impression would be accurate. There are all sorts of ways that can be done, from wearing a suit when applying for a mortgage to wearing (or attempting to wear) “trendy” clothes when dealing with particular demographics (the latter is also usually counterproductive, but that's another matter).
Particularly relevant to women, at least in Britain, is concern about sexualised clothing. We shall set to one side the question of inappropriately sexualised clothing for prepubescent and newly pubescent girls. That is a separate, though very definite problem. In terms of the impetus to plain dress, we must be aware that there is a trend towards tight and/or revealing clothing that has been going on for quite some time, waxing and waning over several generations, and this relates to both the question of clothing as competition and to presenting yourself faithfully. I do not mean to suggest that women should be modest and cover up – I have come across few non-religious arguments for such a position that do not amount to being ultimately insulting towards men and blaming women for men's poor behaviour. I mean that if women wish to be “modest” and cover up, or do so for any other reason, they should be free to do so without expectation, and without assumptions being made. Women should also be free to dress in a “daring” manner, wear short skirts, low-cut tops, tight shorts, if that is what they truly wish to do to express themselves. We should be mindful in how we educate and support young people to avoid applying pressure, and to mitigate and help them – boys and girls – the pressure from the rest of society, regarding how women dress. Young women should know they don't have to dress a certain way to attract interest from whatever sort of person they wish to attract; those interested in women should know they should not expect anything particular in the way of dress from women. Everyone should know that we should not judge women, or anyone else (but there are particular issues regarding women and girls) on their clothing – but also that there are those who will make such judgements. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
In more modern ethical terms, we should think about the journey of our clothes, from the production of the fibre, the weaving, the final manufacture and the sale of the clothes. This is not entirely a new idea; an element of Friends' support for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade was the rejection of slave-produced goods, even where they were more convenient or cheaper than alternatives (though it should be noted that Quaker businesses and merchants had long profited from slave-produced goods before we reached that position). Nowadays, depending on your own ethical positions, this might mean wearing only natural fibres, or synthetics produced without petrochemicals. It might mean, where garments are made from natural fibres, they be organically grown. It might mean the rejection of fibres of animal origin. The employment conditions of those manufacturing the products, or of those selling the products, or the environmental impact of the dyeing process might also be considered. A particular issue that some people focus on currently is the tax status of the companies involved, whether they are paying tax in the country they are trading in – or indeed whether they are officially based in an offshore tax haven. Of course, these factors can end up competing with one another – and with health-related or occupational clothing requirements, or an individual's economic situation.
The question that remains is, how much expectation should we lay on one another in this area? We tend to shy away from laying expectations on one another in the liberal wing of the Religious Society of Friends, but it would be incorrect to say we do so not at all. If we knew that a Friend had adopted exploitative business practices, they might be counselled on it informally. If we knew that they were violent and/or abusive, we might seek to help them to change their behaviour. We shy away from disownment, but not entirely, and people might even be excluded from Meeting for Worship if their conduct is disruptive. In fact, I think we are perhaps too shy to lay expectations on one another, but it is a thorny issue.
That said, and taking the sort of issues in which I have known Friends to counsel, or even castigate one another, I think the yardstick for what we should expect of one another should be harm. Ethical issues should be balanced, and people have different priorities, but sweatshop products are clearly something that, when we buy new, we find ourselves complicit in harm. That one is clear, but I would also argue that we are doing direct harm that we often fail to see, and indirect harm by perpetuating social divisions and harmful social patterns, when we pander to fashion or wear visible designer clothes. I don't think this should be enforced by disownment, but part of the reason we gather together is to hold one another to account – and this is one area where we can do that, with love and a tender hand.
It's not the only one, but that will be a topic for future posts.
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