The New Plain

By Elizabeth W, 22 February 2011

Sarah Benson Walker's bonnet

Bonnet belonging to Tasmanian Quaker Sarah Benson Walker: 1812-1893. { Photo: Gillian Ward © University of Tasmania }

I thought I’d write a few words about a trend I’ve been noticing on-line, some of the issues it raises, how I feel about it as a young female Quaker and perhaps open up a discussion.

The trend has been called ‘The New Plain’ and may be described as either a return to Quaker Plain Dress or an experiment with a new form of Plain Dress.

The main theory behind Plain Dress is that an interest in the fashions of the world is a distraction from God. Those who practise Plain Dress also describe a feeling of having been, “called”, sometimes much against their own wishes. In practice Plain Dress involves unpatterned fabrics with shirts and trousers for men and long-ish dresses, sometimes aprons and a head covering for women. This description is a simplification and those who practice ‘Plain Modern’ often find trousers and no head covering perfectly acceptable for women.

The little bit of cloth that makes up a head covering, in whatever style, is a very big issue: is a women with her hair covered being submissive to the will of God or to the traditions of a historically male dominated society? Must women cover their hair because they are too vain to opt for a sensible short haircut? Then there’s the bonnet. From my amblings through the internet I’ve found dozens of women who’ve been strongly called to a big, black, brimmed bonnet, just like the one in this picture. It seems a bonnet is a very potent sign of female Quaker identity in the blogosphere.

I can see many advantages of Plain Dress: no worries about what you wear each day, simplified laundry, wearing it is a constant reminder of your own ethics and it is a visible sign to the world that Quakers still exist. Plain Dress can also be very feminist; simple, practice clothes are the antithesis of much of today’s overtly sexual clothing. Indeed even clothing that isn’t obviously designed to increase a woman’s sexual allure is still designed to accentuate her body. For example men’s t-shirts are basically square, women’s are fitted to follow the curves of their body and fit closely against their body. So while Plain is definitely against the social grain it can also be liberating rather than a tool of subjection. As a religious minority it can also feel comforting to wear badges of identity because they create a sense of belonging, unity and home.

On the other hand I repeatedly hear the quote that an obsession with the form of Plain Dress is as much a, “silly, poor gospel” as an obsession with the latest trends in Kate Middleton-esque blue dresses and haircuts. There is also criticism of the trend towards anachronistic items such as the bonnet over simple but modern items bought second hand. Finally there is the complaint that Plain is so visible it’s a form of evangelism.

As a university student I noticed it was often the most intelligent and educated Muslim and Jewish women who would adopt the religiously observant dress of their tradition. So the appeal of Plain is not limited to Quakers, it is a very real and growing phenomena and one I think will become more visible. It is however a trend not linked to the demographic growth of religiosity: this is Plain by convincement.

Personally, I am interested, intrigued, attracted, repelled by and confused about Plain. If anyone would like to know more, talk to me or discuss any of the sources I’ve sadly not been able to cite please do contact me.

Elizabeth of Woking. 🙂