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.