Picture: M. C.-P.
Over the past few months I have, with great interest, periodically been reading up on a small movement among liberal Friends in the United States termed “The New Plain”.
Traditional plain dress is one of the things Quakers are well-known (and misunderstood) for. Up until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Quakers stuck to a very rigid set of rules about how they dressed. Originally, this arose from testimony: It was done in an effort to be plain or, as is more popular today, “simple”.
However, this had arisen in the 17th century, when colourful, ornamented and elaborate clothing was an indicator of wealth, rather than something you could get at the nearest shop for the same price as something entirely plain in black and white.
So, over time, this form of “plain dress” became little more than a form without substance, an ostentatious thing that everyone did simply because everyone else was doing it. Of course, Quakers having arisen in part out of George Fox’s rebellion against the “form without substance” he considered to be the so-called outward sacraments (of baptism, the eucharist etc), this was highly hypocritical, and so we did away with it.
It is very difficult to argue that this decision wasn’t perfectly sound. A practice originally intended to make us look ordinary had set us apart from the world and, what’s more, lost its spiritual meaning for many. So, the point of “the New Plain” clearly isn’t to say: “This was a plainer form of dress, so let’s return to this particular way of living plainly.”
Instead, there are many other reasons that would encourage someone from adopting a certain style of dress that is both plain and modest-looking while at the same time not being simply a reflection of society’s common approach to fashion.
I have come to the conclusion that this is something I would like to try. I have been sitting with it for a relatively long time (about 3 months) and testing for myself whether I felt it was a genuine leading or simply an affectation. As this feeling has stuck with me, I decided to talk to other people about it, and while I have received some tough questions and doubts, the feedback I got was actually mostly positive – from both Friends and non-Friends alike.
I have gone with a head-covering that bears little to no resemblance to traditional Friends plain dress. It’s partially a rejection of the sexism of the apostle Paul, who said that women should wear head-coverings because they demonstrate obedience, and men shouldn’t, for that exact same reason. I revile the notion that women are in any way subordinate to men – we are all equal in God. Most of all I find it is obvious enough not to be ignored, and yet plain enough not to be a pretense. It was also cheap, consisting of a £5 buff and a gifted hat.
So, now I have decided to go with it. Here are the reasons why:
1. Devotion – Though it might be very minor compared to, say, becoming an ecumenical accompanier in Palestine, or chaining myself to a fence at a nuclear weapons base, adopting a highly unusual form of dress is, in a way, an act of ministry, of devotion.
By expressing my discipleship, my commitment to leading a life in the Spirit, in such an obvious and outward way, I open myself to inquiry, scrutiny, even criticism. In accepting this possible burden, I demonstrate in a way, outward and minor though it may be, my commitment to your faith.
2. Discipline – It is fairly impossible to adopt an obvious form of devotional dress and not notice. By constantly bearing with me an obvious reminder of my faith, I am more often reminded to hold myself to certain standards of behaviour and living.
To me, being convinced and becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends entails a subjection to the corporately discerned discipline, as well as a covenant with God. Hopefully, this demonstration of my faith will lead me to scrutinising more of my own behaviour and holding myself to a higher standard. After all, if I outwardly express that I am devoted to God, I should also be inwardly so – otherwise, I’d be dishonest.
3. Self-Expression – The fact that I am Quaker is central to my life. Our faith, we are told, is not a notion but a way. Of course I can wear a little “Quakers” badge, and occasionally people will notice and inquire what it means. But many people wear badges for many different reasons – I wear a political badge as well, for example.
But my faith is far more significant to my sense of self than my political thought. Political thought is an exercise of the mind, even though it is based on a morality which, for me, comes from faith. In any event, it is thus not as fundamental to my sense of self as my faith is. Therefore, I want to express my commitment to my faith in a more significant way.
Finally, I would like to address some concerns and questions others have raised.
It’s ostentatious; it violates the testimony of simplicity – Outward forms aren’t inherently ostentatious. The problem with outward forms is when they lack substance; there is nothing wrong with outward forms in themselves. I found an interesting passage in Geoffrey Durham’s Spirit of the Quakers which talks about just this: If we reject all outward forms simply because they are outward forms, that in itself is an outward form; but worse: an empty one.
Shaking hands after Meeting for Worship is an outward form. Saying “I hope so” rather than “Yes” in Meeting for Worship for Church Affairs is an outward form. Refusing to swear oaths is an outward form. The important thing is, whatever forms we engage in, that they have meaning – substance – to us, and that we do not forget that meaning.
It’s weird – Hm, yeah, it probably is. It’s also “weird” to oppose the monarchy or to advocate nuclear disarmament, if we define “weird” as “not normal” and “normal” as “what most people do”. But since when has that ever mattered? And why should it? Advice 38: “Do not let your […] fear of seeming peculiar determine your decisions.”
You’re not wearing authentic plain dress – Indeed not, because that isn’t the point. I’m not trying to emulate historical Quakers, I’m trying to find a practical way of accomplishing the above-stated goals through the medium of dress. Whether or not my shirt has a collar or my hat a broad brim is inconsequential to that.
Will you be doing this forever? I don’t know. Quite possibly. Quite possibly not. I am, to put it in Quaker terms, testing this leading, only by going ahead with it. It will not harm anyone, and if I end up deciding that no, in fact this isn’t something I feel led to continue doing, then so be it.
That is the approach I take to all my habits, and even my beliefs. Advices and Queries tell us to be open to new light from wherever it may come, and to think it possible that we are mistaken. I currently consider myself Christian, and state that I believe in God. Even that may, at some point, change. As may thus my decision to wear a devotional headdress.
Will you be wearing this headdress indoors? In public places, yes. At home/wherever I’m staying, I’m going to take it off. Also, if I’m far too hot, I’m swimming, or whenever else it would be seriously impractical. Whether or not I will take it off in churches, I don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t wish to offend anyone. On the other hand: Would Jews remove their kippahs in churches? Many probably wouldn’t. So, to this one, the answer is: I don’t know. I definitely intend to wear it during Meeting for Worship.
How have your family and friends reacted? My mother doesn’t mind, nor does my girlfriend. As for people from College, I have yet to see, since it’s currently the holidays. Some of them might find it amusing, some stupid, but most of them will probably just not really give damn.