This is a list of testimonies, guides, books and resources on the Christian testimony of plainness, historical and present. It focuses on the traditionalist Quaker understanding of plainness but it's not restricted to Quaker notions: you'll find links and discussions to the related concepts of modest dress and simple dress.
Advised, that all Friends, both old and young, keep out of the world's corrupt language, manners, vain and needless things and fashions, in apparel, buildings, and furniture of houses, some of which are immodest, indecent, and unbecoming. And that they avoid immoderation in the use of lawful things, which though innocent in themselves, may thereby become hurtful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind, than for real usefulness. Early Quaker Advice.

The "New Plain"

In late 2004, Rich the "Brooklyn Quaker" dubbed a new wave of plain dressing Quaker bloggers the New Plain. Here are some of those early posts:
The Quaker Jane website has become the best source of information on the why's and how's of this new wave of plain dressing Friends.

Posts and websites on Plainness

  • Discussion thread on Quaker Plainness on QuakerRoots
  • Short History of Conservative Friends: Most plain dressing Friends today are part of the Wilburite/Conservative tradition. This online essay does an excellent job showing this branch of Friends and is a good counterpoint to histories that downplay the Wilburite influence in contemporary Quakerism.
  • Anabaptists.Org and Throughout most of the last 350 years, Friends have been the most visible and well-known plain dressers, but today the Amish, Mennonites and other Anabaptists have most faithfully carried on the tradition. Quakers have a lot to learn from these traditions. These sites are put together by a Conservative Mennonite in Oregon. His wife makes plain dresses, for sale through the bookstore.

Clothing Sources

Literary Plainness

  • Friends accomplished in the ministry were often encouraged to write journals of their lives in their later years. These journals had a distinct function: they were to serve as education and witness on how to live a proper Quaker life. As such, they also had a distinct literary form, and writers almost always gave an account of their conversion to plain dress. This usually accompanied a profound convincement experience, wherein the writer felt led to cast aside worldly fashions and vanity. Howard Brinton wrote about some of the literary forms of the classic Quaker Journals.

Books on Plainness or of interest to Plain Friends, a short bibliography

  • The Quaker: A Study in Costume. By Amelia Gummere, 1901 (out of print, generally available used for around $50). As the subtitle suggests, Gummere is critical of the "costumes" of plain dressing Quakers. She argued that Friends needed to cast aside the musty peculiarisms of the past to embrace the coming socialist world of the Twentieth Century. Although unsympatheic, this is the most-frequently referenced book on Quaker plain dress. To get a sense of the turn-of-the-century Quaker embrace of modernity, I recommend Jerry Frost's excellent talk at the 2001 FGC Gathering, "Three Twentieth-Century Revolutions."
  • "Why Do They Dress That Way?" By Stephen Scott, Good Books, Intercourse, PA, 1986, 1997, available from Anabaptist Bookstore. A well-written and sympathetic introduction to modern-day religious groups that continue to wear plain dress.
  • Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumptions
  • Meeting House and Couting House: Tolles' book has some reference to plainness.
  • The Book of Faith and Practice of your own Yearly Meeting
  • The Authority of Our Meetings is the Power of God by Paul Lacey (PHP#365, 2003)
  • Being Faithful as Friends: Individually and Corporately by Deborah Fisch (Beachon Hill Friends House, 2006)
  • Convinced Quakerism by Ben Pink Dandelion (Southeastern Yearly Meeting, 2003)
  • A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister: Advice to Ministers and Elders Among the People Called Quakers by Samuel Bownas 1676-1753 (Pendle Hill Publications and Tract Association of Friends, 1989)
  • Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order by Lloyd Lee Wilson (Quaker Press of FGC, 2001, originally published 1993)
  • An Experiment in Faith: Quaker Women Transcending Differences by Margery Post Abbott (PHP#323)
  • Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community by Sandra L. Cronk (PHP #297)
  • Holy Surrender by Lloyd Lee Wilson (New England Yearly Meeting, 2006)
  • Members One of Another by Thomas Gates (PHP #371, 2004)
  • On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry by Brian Drayton (Quaker Press of FGC, 2006)
  • A Plain Life: Walking My Belief by Scott Savage (Ballantine Books, 2000)
  • Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire (Sorin Books, 2001)
  • Quaker Treasures by Marty Grundy (Beacon Hill Friends House, 2002)
  • Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience among Friends by Howard Brinton (Pendle Hill, 1972)
  • The Quakers in America by Thomas Hamm (Columbia University Press, 2003)
  • Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly (HarperCollins, 1996)
  • Walk Worthy of Your Calling: Quakers and the Traveling Ministry by Margery Post Abbott and Peggy Senger-Parsons (Friends United Press, 2004)

Quotes on Plainness

Most of these were collected by Robin Mohr.
  • Philadelphia YM Minutes/1806 Book of Discipline: Advised, that all Friends, both old and young, keep out of the world's corrupt language, manners, vain and needless things and fashions, in apparel, buildings, and furniture of houses, some of which are immodest, indecent, and unbecoming. And that they avoid immoderation in the use of lawful things, which though innocent in themselves, may thereby become hurtful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind, than for real usefulness; and let tradesmen and others, members of our religious society, be admonished, that they be not accessary to these evils; for we ought to take up our daily cross, minding the grace of God which brings salvation, and teaches to deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously and godly, in this present world, that we may adorn the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in all things; so may we feel his blessing, and be instrumental in his hand for the good of others. -- 1682, 1694, 1695, 1766.

    We also tenderly advise, that Friends take heed, especially those who should be exemplary to others under their care, that they exercise plainness of speech without respect of persons, in all their converse among men; and not balk their testimony by a cowardly compliance, varying their language according to their company; a practice of very ill example, rendering those who use it contemptible, and looked upon as a kind of hypocrites, even by those with whom they so comply; this seems to be cautioned against by the apostle, when he advises, 1 Tim. "That the deacons be grave, not double tongued;" plainly importing that it is inconsistent with the gravity of the gospel. -- 1743.
  • Job Scott Journal 1831 (from Quaker Journals 22): Thus I went on frolicking and gaming, and spending my precious time in vanity. Often at night, or in the night, and sometimes near the break of day, I have returend home from my merry meetings grievously condemned, distressed, and ashamed; wishing I had not goine into such company, and resolving ot do so no more; but soon my resolution failed me, and away I went again and again; and thus continued making still greater strides in folly than before.
  • John Woolman, Journal, 1770s: Were all superfluities, and the desire of outward greatness laid aside, and the right use of things universally attended to, such a number of people might be supplyed in things usefull, as that moderate labour, with the Blessing of Heaven, would answer all good purpsoes relating to people and their Animals, and a Sufficient number have time to attend to proper Affairs of Civil Society.
  • From Rich Accetta-Evans,  December 17, 2004: In the very first years of Quakerism (say 1648 - 1700) there was no unique Quaker costume, but Friends did try to stay clear of any adornment they considered gaudy, immodest, vain, or frivolous, and they consciously abstained from modifying their clothing in order to keep up with fashion. In this they were quite different from certain other social groups of the time and quite similar to others. Think of the "Cavaliers" (generally high-church aristocrats with a fondness for foppery) vs the "Roundheads" (straight-laced Puritans) of the late 17th century. The Quakers were more like the Roundheads in this way, though in other ways, such as the crucial one of theology, they were anything but Puritan. My point here is that Quakers at first dressed pretty much like other "sober people" of the time. (One exception was George Fox, whose homemade "leather breeches" were unique. Fox is generally credited as being the founder or originator of Quakerism, and his example was followed by other Friends in many things, but for some reason the leather breeches never caught on.)

    By the early 1700's the situation had evolved. As other people changed their modes of dress and Quakers didn't (at least so much) Quaker clothing came to look more and more conspicuous. Quakers were pretty unpopular in some circles and their distinctive clothing made them easily identifiable targets for mockery and scorn. You might think this would be an incentive to Friends to try to blend in more with the ways of the world, but it actually had the opposite effect. Dressing plain and putting up with the world's disapproval became a marker of Quaker committment and of loyalty to the Quaker movement. It was seen, in fact, as a way of taking up the cross. Any Friends who might be tempted to compromise on this point earned the disapproval of their Meetings and could even be disowned if they persisted. Gradually, the definitions of what was and was not plain became much more defined. This continued to be the case until well into the 19th century. But in the last half of the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century most meetings stopped enforcing the older dress codes and most individual Friends stopped wearing their broad-brimmed hats, their bonnets, and their black or gray attire. Plainness persisted as an attractive ideal, but it was not spelled out in detail. Friends could dress pretty much in any way they wanted, but what they wanted (in most Meetings) was generally less flashy and ornate, less expensive, less formal, and more comfortable than what "fashion" would dictate.
  • Margaret Fell Fox in 1700, Our monthly and quarterly meetings were set up for reproving and looking into superfluous or disorderly walking, and such to be admonished and instructed in the truth, and not private persons to take upon them to make orders, and say this must be done and the other must not be done: and can Friends think that those who are taught and guided of God can be subject and follow such low mean orders? So it's good for Friends of our country to leave these things to the Lord, who is become our leader, teacher and guider, and not to go abroad to spread them, for they will never do good, but has done hurt already: we are now coming into ... that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do. For one Friend says one way, and another another; but Christ Jesus saith that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on: bids us consider the lilies, how they grow in more royalty than Solomon. But, contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour. This is silly poor gospel! It is more fit for us to be covered with God's eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness, and to live righteously and justly and holily in this present evil world. This is the clothing that God puts upon us, and likes, and will bless. This will make our light shine forth before men, that they may glorify our heavenly Father which is in Heaven, for we have God for our teacher, and we have his promises and doctrine, and we have the Apostles' practice in their day and generation: and we have God's holy Spirit, to lead us and guide us, and we have the blessed truth, that we are made partakers of, to be our practice. And why should we turn to men and woman teaching which is contrary to Christ Jesus' command, and the Apostles' practice? ...Friends, we have one God, and one mediator betwixt God and man, the man Jesus Christ; let us keep to him or we are undone. See also: Martin Kelley's commentary Margaret Fell's Red Dress.
  • Plain language by Johan Maurer,  June 02, 2005: "Roberts' Reflections" this month mention early Friends' plain language and their substitutions for the pagan names of days and months. I like Arthur Roberts' comment, "Even June weddings no longer claim an edge on 'queenly bearing and imposing beauty.' Good crops and good marriages don’t happen from Juno 'weaving the clouds' but from people acting sensibly."

    On the Northwest Yearly Meeting's pastors' e-mail list, one respondent replied to Arthur's "Reflections" with memories of his mother using the plain language. "It was often a profound epiphany when, as a lad, I would [hear] the 'thees' and 'thous' and almost remember genetically why the church needed to take a stand against the world even in such minutia as this."

    I didn't hear the plain language until I was an adult convert to Christianity, mixing with Friends for the first time. Among the Friends of Ottawa Meeting, I think that the late Deborah Haight was the only person who very occasionally slipped into the plain language of her Norwich, Ontario, childhood and youth. I vividly remember the first occasion she used it in my presence. In monthly meeting, one Friend was criticizing another for lack of participation. She got up and sweetly said, "I have seen him more than I have seen thee."

    In the mid-1970's among the older, long-time Friends of New England and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I often heard husbands and wives, and siblings, using the plain language among each other. Among Friends of Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina (Conservative) Yearly Meetings, even up to the present, I've observed the same thing, along with another interesting phenomenon -- the adoption of the plain language among some younger people, even the recently convinced.

    Among those to whom the use of "thee" and "thy" seemed to come very naturally, two features impressed me: first, the gentleness of the pronouns, the affection they seem to hold as they caress my ears; and second, the ease with which these Friends considerately switched to "the world's" usage when not speaking within the family or the "plain" circle. Few of the plain-speakers I've known were as thorough as William Bacon Evans, the beautiful soul who, I've heard, was the last "plain" public minister of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He consistently used "thee" to friend and stranger alike. I believe his consistent use of this no-longer-familiar mode of speech was akin to its use in the class-conscious England of the early Friends: an occasion of "provocative innocency" (R.W. Tucker's phrase) intended to evoke an interest in the spiritual source of the speaker's nonconformity.

    Not all of us are called to "plain speech" or "plain dress" in this day and age, although advocates of both would be right to ask us whether we would know if we were called. It is always helpful to remember the distinction between personal witness and rigid group rules, and between a creative counterculture witness and an opaque, inhospitable peculiarity.

    Nevertheless, the classic Quaker plainness surely has functional equivalents today, both large and small, that could also mark our lives as Christians, as Friends. Simplicity is a case in point; the modes of living simply may change from one social context to another, but the spiritual exercise of discerning and modeling what is fair, truly beautiful and enough remain perennially important.
  • From Martin Kelley: August 20, 2002: I also appreciate using less resources up by having fewer clothes. It's hard to get away from products that don't have some negative side effects (support of oil industry, spilling of chemical wastes into streams, killing of animals for hide, exploitation of people constructing the clothes at horrible wages & conditions). I try my best to balance these concerns but the best way is to reduce the use.

    These motivations are simple-ness rather than plain-ness. But I am trying to be plain too. For men it's pretty easy. My most common clothing since Gathering has been black pants, shoes and suspenders, and the combo seems to look pretty plain. There's no historic authenticity. The pants are Levi-Dockers which I already own, the shoes non-leather ones from Payless, also already owned. The only purchase was suspenders from Sears. I bought black overalls too. There's irony in this, certainly. If I were being just simple, I'd wear out all the pants I have--despite their color--rather than buy new ones. I'd be wearing some bright & wacky pants, that's for sure! But irony is part of any witness, especially in the beginning when there's some lifestyle shifting that needs to happen. As a person living in the world I'm bound to have contradictions: they help me to not take myself too seriously and I try to accept them with grace and good humor. But practicality in dress is more important to me than historical authenticity.
  • From Melinda Huskey: April 7, 2004: I've been much afflicted on the subject of plain dress for the last several months, thanks to Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson, a British Abolitionist and close, even fond, observer of Friends, wrote a three-volume disquisition on Quaker testimonies, culture, and behavior (in 1811, if my memory serves me). There's a lot in Clarkson to think about, but his section on Quaker garb was particularly interesting to me. Not because I intend to take up a green apron any time soon (did you know that was a badge of Quaker womanhood for nearly two centuries?), but because he provides what a present-day anthropologist would describe as a functionalist analysis of the meaning of plain dress: it served as a badge of membership, keeping its wearers peculiar and in visible communion with one another, while communicating a core value of the tradition.
  • From Amanda G. “Of the best stuff, but plain” September 8, 2004. I am now in the process of purging a lot of my stuff, and seeking a simpler way of living. I quit smoking, and have decided that drinking as a recreational activity is out unless it's an organized event. This may become more strict in time, but I have to ease into it a little bit. I got rid of several bags of clothes and a bunch of household items I was hoarding "just in case I might need them someday". … My compromise was to get rid of all the clothes I'd bought just for attention, all the clothes I was keeping for purely sentimental reasons, everything that didn't fit, or match with anything else, etc. And to be honest, that just pared it down to where I can actually fit all my clothes in my 1 closet and dresser, a feat heretofore unknown to me. Also, a big part of this move was to start taking care of my clothes, something I've never done. I've made an active discipline of something as simple as hanging up my clothes each night, as an act of respect and gratitude. It occurred to me that when I am so fortunate as to have many possessions, it seems extremely wrong that I should mistreat them the way I've been doing.
  • From Sarah, of “A Thing So Small”, Wednesday, January 18, 2006. For a long while- I really can't trace it back to its beginnings- I have felt nudged towards a plainness and simplicity of outward appearance. It's not always been religiously motivated, although at this point in my life it is. But I'm still not entirely sure what I want from it, or what it demands of me.

    I initially accepted the nudge at the beginning of this summer. I started getting rid of all the clothing I owned that I almost never wore. Then I got rid of a few more things that I wore, but they were ostentatious. I got rid of all shirts with logos or designs or slogans, even political ones that I agreed with, or pretty designs that I was fond of (I had a tank top I loved with a red Welsh dragon on it . . . ). I got rid of all bright colors. Then I started getting rid of patterns except for subtle stripes and plaid. I got rid of six (SIX!) pairs of shoes and replaced them with one pair of well-built ones that will last. I took off all my jewelry (not much to begin with), put it in its box and put it away. By this time it wasn't summer, and I stopped wearing or got rid of my more revealing clothing.

    I've kind of settled into a set of rules about what I'll wear. Nothing ostentatious, no bright colors or patterns, no jewelry, no makeup, no clothing that's above the knee or more than a handspan below the collarbone or very formfitting. As little bought new as possible; almost everything from secondhand stores. At this moment, I'm wearing a pair of Carhartts, a collarless cotton shirt, and a wool plaid overshirt, all in subdued earth tones and all procured secondhand for under $5.

    Why am I doing it? Well, I feel led. I think our modern consumer culture is pretty awful, I think the exploitation of others to support America's consumer culture is pretty awful, I think the way women are put on display is pretty awful, and I want no part in it. I want no part in it, in some visible way that says, "Hey. I'm not playing these games." I've always had these convictions, even before my convincement, but my religious conviction is now the heartbeat that supports these beliefs.

    Honestly, in some part of me I long for a common Plain uniform. I'm sure I make some sort of statement as a woman with no makeup or jewelry in simple understated modest clothing all in drab colors and slightly outmoded styles. But in rural Vermont, it's honestly not that distinctive. Some part of me would love to be able to walk down the street and have people know, 'Oh, she's a plain-dressing Quaker.' A bigger part of me would like to be able to walk down the street and be able to recognize other plain-dressing Quakers, and have them recognize me

    … I'm not sure where to go from here. I'm looking for something a little more distinctive, but not intensely gendered or terribly anachronistic. And I'd like to keep my motives pure.
  • From Kody Hersch, 5/10/2006: About a month ago, I started giving away clothing by the bag-load. A few days ago, I cut the collars off of three solid-color, long sleeve shirts. Whenever I find a ride to my local Goodwill, I'm buying suspenders and switching from jeans to black pants.

    It feels so rightly-ordered for me to be going plain. But when someone asks me to explain this leading, I have terrible difficulty describing it to them.

    I have been able to articulate some of the reasons why I feel led to plain dress. I want to have a constant reminder of the fact that God is the most important thing in my life. I want to explore how my behavior changes (or doesn't change) when I am wearing clothes that are a visible expression of my faith. I want to be more faithfully simple. I want to use the Earth's resources well, open up conversations about faith, Quakerism, and consumer culture, and keep my vanity in check.

    Sometimes when people ask me about my clothes, I am able to articulate those things well, and sometimes I am not, but it always feels vaguely incomplete, and I falter in answering the harder questions people pose to me: Why traditional plain dress, instead of jeans and a t-shirt? Shouldn't the awareness of God come from inside, not outside? What specific testimony(ies) of Quakerism are you witnessing to? Why banded collars? Why suspenders?

    I feel like the most honest answer I could possibly give is this: It feels right. My old clothes feel inauthentic. When I tried to put on a striped, collared shirt this morning, I got a stomachache and began to tremble, and when I took it off and put on a plain shirt with the collar removed, it went away.

    In essence, people (I myself being one) are asking the question, "Why are you led to plain dress?" when the question that most needs asking is simply, "Are you led to plain dress?I really believe I am.

Last updated by Martin Kelley 3rd month 8, 2009.

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