Friday, March 26, 2010

What is "Plain Dress"?

To most "English" (Amishspeak for "non-Plain" folk), "Plain dress" conjures up images of men in beards without mustaches; hair combed back and cut straight across the back of the neck; broadfall pants; collarless shirt, vest and coat; dark colors and blue or white shirts; suspenders; no zippers or buttons; women in prayer (head) coverings and outer bonnets; long dresses with long sleeves, shoulder capes and built-in aprons; etc. This is a form of dress that has evolved slowly and thoughtfully from the "fashion" of the early days of the denomination. They just stopped keeping up with the latest styles, and started making thoughtful, practical decisions about their clothing from a spiritual point of view.

To me, my evolution of an "urban stealth Plain" dress has been a personal journey with one little snippet of the Gospel story...told in slightly different words by different authors (Matt 18:25 etc.; Luke 16:22 etc.), later turned one way and another by different translators, but essentially summarized thus:

"Don't worry about what to wear; God knows you need clothes. Instead, seek the Kingdom of God, and He will take care of you."

Embedded in these texts by way of example is the lovely verse about "Consider the lilies of the field..." And the bean plants, and the lettuces, and the willow trees....

Before I had even really committed myself to be baptized as a Christian, I spent a lot of time "considering the lilies"...and the beans, etc. Transitioning from careers in corporate America to farming meant a lot of changes. One day I was out weeding beans, and found myself--I kid you not--worrying about the fact that I was wearing silver earrings that didn't "go with" my gold watch! And this scripture came to mind. And I realized how ridiculous I was, out there by myself in the bean patch, up to my elbows in weeds and dirt, worrying about what to wear!

The beans certainly didn't care. Nor did the birds of the field, nor the willows. Nor, almost certainly, did God care whether my earrings matched my watch.

My "mantra" became "The beans don't care!" as I started weaning myself away from the old, vain, frivolous concerns of the corporate work-world, and teaching myself to worry more about things that mattered--how I treated other people, that I prayed, that I was honest, how I nurtured my fledgling relationship with God.

"Don't worry about what to wear!" began to guide my clothing choices, rather than fashion or convention--not that I'd ever been very good at playing that game, anyhow! It really was a relief to stop playing it.

I started examining what I "worried" about in clothing. "Skirt or pants?" was one thing. Skirts meant that I was goofing off from the farmwork, and became reserved for summer nightwear. One less decision to make each time I dressed...the burden of worrying about what to wear began to ease.

The realities of my farm work--scratches, bug bites, sunburn, etc.--quickly showed the wisdom of long pants and long sleeves no matter what the weather. Soon my closet and drawers were noticably emptier, as the shorts and t-shirts followed the skirts to the thrift store. Shirt sleeves could be rolled up or down as needed, as could loose pants (hint: fold a pleat in the ankle, then roll up--they will stay secure just below the knee).

When the automatic washing machine quit, and I resorted to doing laundry in the wringer washer I use for washing wool, I discovered that buttons and zippers and fancy pockets on jeans made them hard to get through the wringer. Pants with simple side-seam pockets, elastic waists, and no zippers, buttons, or other trims not only washed easier, but were more comfortable for bending and squatting in the garden, and used less resources in their manufacture...also much easier and quicker to sew at home if I ever get the time.

Natural fibers were a natural step, too. Cotton is cool in the summer compared to synthetics; linen is even cooler. Ironing? Not so necessary if you hang the laundry on the clothesline and pull it into shape as you hang it. Shirts go from the washing machine to a hanger, where they are ready to go in the closet after an afternoon in the sun or near the woodstove or on the clothesline in the basement. Wool, of course, has long been my choice for outer wear--warm even when wet. Finely woven silk, I was told by someone on my Canadian adventure, prevents mosquitos from biting, so silk shirts made their way into my repertoire for summer wear.

I bought my clothes at thrift stores, mostly charities. So my clothing budget shrank, and became one with my support for those in need. That was a nice feeling. And shopping there put me in touch with the lives of those who were struggling to survive economically, as I heard their conversations with the cashiers and each other. I began to be less isolated from real people, started moving away from the "ivory tower" environment I'd been raised in.

I still found myself spending a lot of time with style...selecting blouses with pretty fabrics and fancy trims when I found them. After awhile, I started thinking about the waste of resources represented by printing multicolor patterns onto fabrics. How unnecessary! I started only buying yarn-dyed fabrics, and left off the lace edging and other ornaments. Mostly this meant button-front shirts with woven-in stripes or solid colors.

Color was my next focus. I still got up in the morning and tried to decide what color I was in the mood for...or what color the person I was visiting that day would like. Worry, worry, worry! I switched to black pants and black turtlenecks for winter, solid color shirts for summer.

With lighter weight and colored shirts and no bra (quit those DECADES ago for comfort reasons), modesty became more of an issue. I started selecting shirts with two chest pockets, which serve some of the same purpose as the shoulder cape in Plain dress. Similarly, I wear the shirt tail "out" so that I'm not showing off my trim waist to just anyone...also more comfortable, and cooler in summer.

So that's about where my "Urban Stealth Plain" dress is at today. Someone seeing me only occasionally probably would not notice anything odd about my dress, except maybe the long sleeves in summer. I might be momentarily mistaken for an artist or a gang member, but the covering takes care of that at second glance. And I no longer "worry about what to wear."

It's sure to evolve more. I'd like to buy fabric and evolve my own custom patterns (a hobby in high school) to sew for pants and work shirts. But that will take time I don't have right now.

When I took the job driving the city transit bus, I'd been wearing this "Plain dress" for a number of years. The company conceded that I could purchase my own elastic-waist pants (they will now partially reimburse me) as long as they were the regulation navy blue color. And they already allowed women to wear their uniform shirts "untucked". They clearly weren't enthusiastic about letting me wear the covering, but realized that was a silly fight to get themselves into.

On the job, it's been interesting to see people (read: drunken middle-aged men) react to seeing a woman in bus-driver uniform wearing a prayer covering. "Aren't you supposed to be wearing a skirt with that thing [the covering]? You should wear a skirt. I bet you look good in a skirt. Yeah, I'd REALLY like to see you in a skirt...."

Yeah, THAT'S why I don't wear skirts.

In such situations, I realize just how well God has guided me in my journey towards an "urban stealth plain dress" that lets me keep my focus on God, so He can take care of me. It's a way of dressing that witnesses to my faith while supporting me in faithful work, and places deeply-held values above vanity. It's a way of being "in the world but not of the world."

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