How I became Plain
I regret the “getting to know you’re a good person” period of every first encounter. What if they could see me in some kind of uniform that said, “This is a person who is helpful,” or, “Trust this person”? I thought about the time I stopped in the blowing snow one night, when I saw a car parked on the edge of the highway, someone sitting inside. When I knocked on the window, the elderly man didn’t want to lower it. I yelled, “May I help you?” and “I live just up the road, do you need a phone?” Finally he rolled down the window, allowed me to give him a ride home, and used my grandpa’s telephone to get his car towed. While we waited for his son to pick him up and meet the tow truck, we gave him coffee and warmed him up. He admitted he was afraid to open the window, afraid he’d be robbed, and had sat for hours hoping his car would start.
What if he had been too afraid to open the window? I probably would not have called the police. He would have sat there on the side of the road until he was missed.
Me, of all people, I thought. He was afraid of me. Of being robbed by me.
What kind of outfit says “Trust me, I’m a decent person?”
What is the uniform of a friendly Quaker?
Most communities that are Plain have a fairly tight code, written and memorized, that gives every required measurement, from the thickness of the women’s hose (denier), to the width of the brim on a man’s wool hat. To keep themselves separate, recognizable as members of their own group, these guidelines are available so that the followers can factually know exactly what is required and acceptable.
Plain Quakers do not have such rules. Our persuasion to be Plain comes to us individually, as a Leading, and our own intuition of what feels right, looks right, is all we need. I have met several Plain Quakers, and we all dress completely differently, I think. But when I arrived early in the small town where one Plain Friend lives, I shopped at two quilt stores and the grocery market, and in all three places, people approached me and said, you must be here visiting so-and-so! I don’t think we look at all alike—but there was some common visual ground that was instantly recognized by people who knew her, that I was from “her group.”
Most Plain Quakers dress in solid or somber colors, the more traditional wear grey (historically a Quaker color for clothing). We don’t have a Quaker Hat Store, so women solve that problem by selecting a kerchief, a veil, a prayer cap used in other Plain communities, or make their own, or use a scarf, or adapt until they are comfortable. I’ve seen braids hanging down behind the prayer cap, hair all the way up (like mine), a tiny veil the size of a spread hand pinned on top of loose curls, and everything in-between. But when I started out, I didn’t have a lot of information at all, only this nagging, won’t-go-away thinking about it.
Simplicity and modesty would be the key, I decided. I would be guided by the Simplicity Testimony. Simple would mean no stripes or plaids or polka dots. Simple would be a minimum number of seams, only what was needed to keep it from looking like a bag with your arms sticking out the sides. There would be no ornamentation like sequins or trims or bound buttonholes or useless collars or silly ruffles. And modest—modest so that fabrics were not sheer or cheap in appearance.
The skirts would need to be longer, long sleeves except when seasonally stupid. Shoes should be fairly flat, I thought, and sensible—to protect the feet, not to garner come-hither comments on a shapely leg! All black hose. Thickly gathered petticoats, so static wouldn’t allow even the wool skirts to cling to my body. Some kind of shawl or sweater would hide my ample bust if allowed to hang loosely and not brought in at the waist.
I would cover my head, I decided. I would not let my long hair hang down, it would either be braided, or up completely under a scarf or cap. I couldn’t visualize what I wanted. I looked at hundreds of pictures, considered headgear worn at my Society for Creative Anachronism events, mob hats from my early American history research, simple handkerchiefs, a long stretchy headscarf from the Middle Eastern grocery where I shopped for dried fruits and feta cheese. Nothing seemed right. They would slide off, or pull my hair out when I pinned them. They made my head hot and sweaty. One hat made Frankenstein-like stitch marks across my forehead—I began to wonder if I did need brain surgery! This was all so strange to me, and I felt completely alone in this quest.
I could justify this change in so many ways. Ecologically, financially, but most of all, I just listened to my inner voice, and what pleased me and seemed good, I allowed. What seemed discordant to my voice, I gave away or recycled. Once again in life, thrift stores and fabric stores provided my garb.
These thoughts were there after my first Meeting, popping into my head when I was rummage-sale and thrift-store shopping. While buying fleece to tie a coverlet for one of my seniors, I bought some brown linen that was on sale. While shopping at a recycling center for crafting supplies, I saw a roll of blue denim which came home with me, too. I started looking at more images of Quaker people as I read the literature, and paid special note when aprons, shawls, and hats were mentioned.
I studied and read more history, admiring the dark, somber garb of those who steered Friends, who helped determine our manner of worship, persisted in not being caught up in “fashion” or throwing away clothing that was still usable. They were, above all, modest and reserved, looking a little like Amish or Shakers. They looked as solid as rocks, as trustworthy as banks.
I was not required in any aspect of my life to be flashy, expensively dressed, or interested in attracting others of the opposite sex. I just wanted to be comfortable, clean, and presentable.
I reached into the closet and pulled out my favorite outfit. A longish, gathered black wool skirt, a dark burgundy turtleneck, and a cream-colored sweater—always worn with black stockings and flat black shoes. The sweater hung from the shoulders, helping to hide my ample bustline; the skirt was long enough, and fully cut enough, that it didn’t embarrass me even when I had to get into the back of my Ford-150 to help unload boxes from the food bank into the senior center. I hung this outfit on the door, in full view.
Then, using that as my baseline, I took out some of the bright red tartan wool items. Then I removed some paisley skirts, and some black and grey plaids. I took out all the polyester blends, the not-so-modest thinner things, the items with beads and trim. I took out two pairs of dressy “strappy” heels. And then a tight long black stretch skirt.
And I liked the muted, soft grays, browns, blacks, and whites that were left behind. Maroon stayed. Navy stayed. Soft mossy greens were allowed to be. Pink, purple, red, yellow, and chartreuse—out. Prints, plaids, stripes—gone. Artificial polyesters and rayons, bye-bye.
My jewelry, mostly earrings from my grandmother, went into a box and arty lumpy necklaces I’d made for myself went into a small box in the dresser. Later, they were given to two teachers about my age, who delighted in them and gave them a place of honor in front of new, excited minds learning sixth-grade math and high school art.
A three-day weekend came up, and after conferring with a like-minded Plain woman on the internet, I drove 400 miles to Shipshewana, Indiana, and brought home a prayer cap, shoes, stockings, hair pins and nets, and black wool fabric.
In Shipshewana, while I was trying on shoes, an Amish woman was also there, her purchases in a basket beside her, trying on slippers. She was watching me. I wore a long, grey wool skirt, black turtleneck, black jacket with no fastenings, and black tights.
“Are thee Amish?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“No, Quaker. We aren’t as organized as you folks, we don’t have a Quaker Prayer Cap Store,” I laughed, and lifted my new cap from my shopping basket.
“It is good.” She paused. “You will be plain?”
“Yes. I will be Plain,” I said.
She stood up, finished, my parting gift her generous, friendly smile.
Sunday afternoon, I hummed my grandmother’s old spirituals while I thoughtfully and carefully cut the buttons off my clothes and replaced them with the snaps and hook-and-eyes from Indiana. I sewed up the buttonholes of the cardigans and jackets. I studied historical pictures, cut a pattern and sewed a stiff-brimmed caped winter bonnet, and smiled as I modeled it for my husband.
I practiced different ways to fasten up my hair and secure it with the old-fashioned hairpins. It is not necessary that you take freshly washed hair and make a contest of getting it braided as tight as possible and then using ten or fourteen four inch bobby pins to wind it into an impenetrable bun on the back of your head. The first time I did that, I was in the bathroom at work before lunch time, taking it all apart—when the hair dried it nearly gave me a facelift. Now I only need four bobby pins and two stretchy bands, and I don’t braid it, but in those early days I had not relaxed yet!
I washed six pairs of black tights, and four pairs of black knee highs, and washed and ironed my new hankies. I made a black wool bonnet for the winter, that fit over my prayer cap.
I sewed two narrow organza ribbons onto the Prayer Cap.
“Look, Boo, it’s as pure and white as you,” I told my cat, who responded by brushing his cheek against it, marking it, and thereby me.
The next morning, my husband was perplexed.
“Aren’t you wearing your new things?” he asked.
“No. I’ll start wearing them when I start the new job.” The job I didn’t have yet. I eased into my wardrobe the dark stockings, the button-less skirts and jumpers, but the lace-up shoes and the prayer cap and the black bonnet, stayed on the upper shelf in the closet, ready. I could not explain why, but I wanted to wait until I was with “new” people, in a “new” place, to enact the external change in my appearance.
A letter came from my grandfather, with a check for a hundred dollars. I had written and told him my plans to “go plain” with the next job. He wrote, “I think you’ll make a pretty Quaker.” Between the lines, I knew he was happy I had found a place at last.
I did more internet research on clothing, and one site made me gasp, it had exactly, exactly the right hat—described as an Amish Prayer Cap. I instantly ordered two, and waited. When the “Amish” prayer caps arrived, they were just perfect, lightweight, see through, easy maintenance (rinse off when needed) and just the “look” I wanted. I put them into the closet, still not ready.
Two weeks went by.
One Friday, I volunteered all day at a faith-based homeless shelter in Middletown, Ohio, where I had interviewed for a Director’s position. I had been slowly introducing my button-less sweaters and somber colors into my wardrobe to replace the plaids, reds, and stripes that I gave away. I had two comfortable denim skirts, and made ten pinafores by turning around back-to-front denim dresses, splitting them up the back, and sewing a little “bridge” onto them between the shoulder blades. They protect my clothing from knees to neckline, and are open and airy in the back.
So I arrived to volunteer in prayer cap, ribbons loose, denim skirt, grey turtleneck, brown boiled wool sweater, and my “granny shoes.” I put on the apron and set myself on a variety of tasks during the day.
From the first person I greeted, there was politeness. A small child came up and hugged me around the legs and made me laugh. People really smiled, and many asked what church I went to. Several sat with me and told me their confessions—what was missing in their life, troubles with their spouse, their put-off dreams—and I shared myself with them.
I had not noticed this strong and friendly reaction when I wore a handkerchief pinned over my head, or when I used a longer white scarf tied at the back of my neck. My internet plain Quaker Friend had said, “The stiff cap will speak for thee.” She was absolutely right. Whether the handkerchief is too ordinary, or the head-covering scarf possibly too middle-eastern, they didn’t convey the message I intended. The stiff cap succeeded beautifully.
At a store that evening, the Lebanese clerk was very complimentary about “American women that aren’t afraid to show their religion” and that people should respect me--because he did. We discussed Ramadan, cheeses, children’s toys, and his long hours at the shop.
The next day, I donned my washed “interview” outfit again. I was far from home and wanted more positive feedback such as I received at the shelter and the store. I shopped in five places—was never asked for I.D. to accompany my debit card, was assisted very nicely with selecting merchandise, people smiled and were kind. A little girl in a fabric store tugged on my skirt and asked if I would help her find her mommy. A man at the gas station tipped his hat.
When I arrived at my grandfather’s home, he was very pleased with my appearance. The next morning, he introduced me around to folks at his church. He thanked the minister for advising me a year ago that the important thing was not to give up looking—that actively seeking God would lead me to the right place. The minister was positively beaming, and hugged me both when I arrived and when I left.
When I got home I was still wearing the prayer cap. My husband complimented how I looked (he had seen the cap, but not me wearing it). He asked if I would be wearing it to work the next day, and I said yes.
The next morning, I could tell my boss was pleased; she and I had talked about my wanting to “go plain” when I left this job for another. She is a Christian, and upon seeing me, said “You are wearing your hat!” and smiled warmly. I complimented her wooden cross and she promptly ordered me one from the craftsman who made it. I felt supported and accepted.
So now I am Plain.
The somber colors and simple, homemade clothes are economical, easy to care for, simple. Usually what I wear each week makes two loads of laundry—one black, blue, and darks; the other white handkerchiefs, petticoats, under things, turtlenecks.
The prayer cap is the only thing in my wardrobe not in most women’s closets—but it speaks to others of my commitment to my own changed state, and my hopes of improving myself so that I can be a better person. It’s for focusing on what’s right. It’s for reminding myself to be patient. The cap helps people recognize I’ll listen to them. It says I have spiritual beliefs and am able to face the world boldly wearing publicly my desire to serve others, to be a kind fellow human.
My apron, when I see it hanging on the wall or on myself, reminds me there is so much need out there, and that my skills can be used for so many good things for others.
At home, I wear jeans and turtlenecks and cover my hair with a scarf or kerchief when going up and down the stairs for laundry or carrying things in from the truck. When in for the night, I let my hair down, get a nightie and thick socks on, and all’s as it ever was.
I found a group that has Plain Quakers in it, and feel accepted and comfortable with both the Plain and just modestly-dressed folks I sit and listen with on First Days. They are full of helpful advice and there is much joy and laughter, hugging and smiling, when we meet to be together Listening.