Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unholy fashions invade Quaker circles

Hal and I are currently enjoying autumn in Indiana. We’re here to scrounge around in the archives of several Quaker institutions, looking for data concerning the beginnings of the Friends movement in Bolivia. So far, it’s been profitable. From multiple bound copies of old newsletters and the brittle pages of letters from the early 1900s, we’ve found a few useful pieces of information. We take breaks from the darkness of the archive rooms to walk the streets of this small town, past the old houses and under the changing leaves.
I worried in my preparations for this trip, not so much about whether or not we’d find the information we need, but about what I’d wear. I knew that we would be among conservative Friends and I didn’t want my attire to offend anyone; I also didn’t want to buy a new wardrobe for the trip. A friend/Friend who knows this area told me not to worry, that no matter what I wore, I’d offend someone. That was not especially reassuring.
Actually, the reality has been otherwise. Friends here have accepted us with a spirit of hospitality and generosity. They’ve opened to us, not only their archives, but the girls’ dormitory, giving us a guest room and feeding us in their dining hall. We’ve enjoyed getting to know people. And I’ve noticed all the ways the girls can make long skirts fashionable. While some women do look like they live in a previous century, others could fit in anywhere. Colorful accessories help.
But of course, making a fashion statement is not the point. The testimony, as I understand it, is that we honor God in all we do, including how we dress. The values of simplicity and modesty apply here. I respect how these Friends choose to express this. I’ve tried to accommodate, somewhat successfully. At least, I haven’t felt judged.
But using dress codes as a measure of spirituality has its negative side. In an issue of the institution’s newsletter, The Gospel Minister (formerly Friends Minister), I found an article that confused my emotions. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. Entitled, “Unholy Fashions Invade Holiness Circles,” it first appeared in the Church of Christ Advocate (date and author unknown) and was reprinted in The Gospel Minister in its March 31, 1927 issue. It reflects both the values and the rhetoric of the times. Here is a portion:

“Fashion has always had a terrific influence upon women. Many years ago it made them hideous with overdress. Today the other extreme is to be met with, and our women—young and old—furnish in public and at home the vilest exhibition of depravity and the gravest want of modesty, chastity, and virtue we have ever witnessed in the last half century. The average young woman of today is only half clad. The abbreviated skirt, the silk hosiery, the tiny slippers, the painted face, the bobbed hair, is making of our young women (and older ones, too) the most ridiculous, nonsensical, outrageous, unreasonable, absurd, unlovely, immodest creatures that fashion ever played tricks upon and that the god of this world ever perpetrated upon any age.
“And the pity of it is that these vile exhibitions are everywhere—in the churches, in the choirs, in the Sunday School classes, in the prayer and social meetings, in the official meetings, and in the leadership.
“Not so long since we attended an evangelistic meeting addressed by a very distinguished evangelical preacher. A great crowd was present because he always drew a crowd. Before preaching, his daughter was called upon to sing a solo. Alas! Alas!! It put a serious damper upon the great man’s message, because she was attired on that Sunday night in opera dress. She was a sight to make angels weep and good people hang their heads in shame. She was dressed not for church, but for the place of play and fashion and the world. It was a grave reflection on the father to have put her up to sing that night. She ought first to have gone home and put on modest attire as becometh the house of God, and attired herself for worship instead of opera. Is it any wonder that the church no longer is a place of worship? Is it to be wondered at that the Spirit does not fall on the singing as in other days when painted, half-clad dolls occupy the choirs or lead in the special singing?”

Grave words indeed. The unidentified author goes on to lament how “this abomination has invaded the holiness ranks,” and admonishes the holiness schools to set righteous norms and exercise discipline over female students.
This article, and to a certain extent the conservative branch of various denominations, represents a legalistic extreme, whereas the “evangelical opera dress” could represent another extreme. I admit to my struggle with our contemporary culture’s emphasis on clothes. Part of my dilemma in preparing for this trip was the pressure to look appropriate but, at the same time, to look good. I lament way too much over the inadequacies of my wardrobe. There does seem to be a spiritual aspect to how we clothe ourselves.
In the meantime, my main concern is that I still have two more days that I have to wear this same long skirt. While outdoors the trees are outdoing themselves in their colorful array, my clothes are beginning to bore me.
Alas! Alas!!


  1. What, no comments? I think it's brilliant, funny, clever and even partly insightful. It's late and I have nothing of equal caliber to say in response but I just had to let you know I need for you to keep on writing stuff like this. I'm mentally healthier because of you. Thanks and love, Mary

  2. Curious to hear that Quakers's dress should be concerned with simplicity and modesty. "Modesty" I wonder if that refers only to women? And what would men wear that is "modest". As a Quaker and a feminist, I must challenge any concept that is applied differentially to males than females.

    1. Why would you be "curious" to hear that Friends should dress simply and modestly?

      A trip to the Mall (which I rarely visit) would be "very revealing" concerning how men and women could dress more modestly. I would expect that men are already expected to wear shirts and pants of some description. But women are allowed to expose their breasts in very immodest ways. At Home Depot I needed to reposition myself repeatedly to keep the cash register apparatus between me and the clerk's overexposed breasts.

  3. I know some brands of Christianity interpret Paul writing about dressing modestly to mean "women need to cover their $bodypart." I'm pretty sure he means avoiding costly styles, though. After all, his examples of "immodest" for women are gold and jewels (clearly pricey) and braids (which, ok, there are simple ones you can do on yourself, but I suspect he's talking more about the kind of person who has a servant to do her hair each day). And Jesus has this tendency to go on about getting rid of your riches, meanwhile he hung out with prostitutes. If you look at the rest of the New Testament, "don't be wealthy and then go around flaunting it" is pretty high up there.

    So, that's how I interpret dressing modestly, and it works regardless of gender. If your outfit has a designer's name written across the front of the shirt, that's not modest; it's kind of pretentious. Whether that's a man with designer jeans or a woman with a Louis Vuitton purse, same thing.

  4. Hello, Nancy! It sounds as if you are visiting the Central Yearly Meeting Friends at Westfield IN. They are conservative but, technically, not Conservative Friends in the denominational sense.
    There was once a Conservative meeting at Westfield, but it died out decades ago.
    I hope you enjoy your visit, and don't get too freaked out over issue of attire!
    Bill Rushby

  5. I love this conversation! It helps me gain perspective. I agree that standards of dress need to pertain to both sexes, but somehow women's attire seems to draw more attention. And, yes, it makes sense that the biblical admonitions apply more to costly apparel than anything else. And, yes, we were in Westfield with Central Yearly Meeting. Today we traveled to Winchester and interviewed two delightful older women with this group, one who grew up in Bolivia as the daughter of some of the founding missionaries, and the other who served as a single missionary in the same field. What a richness of memory they shared, and what a sense of a lives well-lived. The oldest, Imogene, at 93, couldn't recall a few details, but other than that she was totally with us. And she's still driving. Actually, I don't think what we were wearing ever entered into our fellowship (and I was back to pants today!).

    A note for those who read my last blog: We just got a phone call from our sister-in-law in Oregon. Hal's dad died about an hour ago. A good number of his children (and he had nine) and grandchildren were there, singing his favorite hymn, "Victory in Jesus." We know he's beyond suffering now, entering into the joy of the Lord. But we grieve.

  6. Yes, we grieve...the memories, the joys and sorrows, fulfilled and unfulfilled longings, victories and defeats, strengths and weaknesses, unspoken and misspoken, kindnesses and hurts...all come back and remind us of our own humanity. May you celebrate and grieve together and thereby become wiser and more prepared for the next steps in your lives as well. I pray this for myself too. Love to you and Hal. Mary

  7. I am sorry for the sorrow your family is experiencing right now. May God's peace be with you.
    I was glad to read this. To introduce another dilemma, I try to only purchase clothing from countries where the people who make the clothing are treated well even if it means paying more while also dressing practically and somewhat plainly. So here I sit in my quandary dressed in a shirt made in the US that is machine washable but with glitter on it. Yet the whole point is to not worry about my clothing and be open and ready to do what God would have me do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.