If you know anything about plain dress, then the group that most likely comes to mind for you is the Amish. If you’re anything like I was before I went to seminary, then you probably have very little idea of who the Amish are except for knowing that they have an aversion to technology and refer to the rest of us, somewhat anachronistically, as English. I used to think that the Mennonites were some sort of Amish lite. I thought they had gotten tired of the no technology thing and become more moderate allowing things like tractors, but maybe not much more. Of course, this was before I had ever met anyone who was either Mennonite or Amish.
Now I know that it was the Amish that broke away from the Mennonites, not the other way around. Further, I know that there are plenty of Mennonites out there who are indistinguishable, at least by appearance, from Methodists (or any other Protestant group for that matter). I also know that plain dress is not now limited to the Amish, nor has it ever been as far as I can tell. I have met Quakers who wear plain dress. I have met Brethren who wear plain dress. I even know now that back in the day plain dress was not so radically different from what everyone else was wearing. The difference was far more minor with restrictions such as what sort of fasteners clothes could have. During the time that many groups wore plain dress, the groups would be distinguished by things like how many folds were in a bonnet or prayer covering (yet another layer of coverage).
My Quaker friends who dress plain today go to Amish stores and pay much more than they would otherwise for clothes. Plain and simple seem to have parted ways, but then, as a Brethren historian friend pointed out, the two have never been precisely the same. Apparently Brethren painted chrome bumpers black on their cars in an effort to appear more plain. To me such acts seem an exercise in missing the point in that they end up spending extra money.
I have discussed with friends on various occasions what plain dress would look like if it were started today rather than being a throwback to a style of hundreds of years ago. One place I might start is a conversation I had with a Quaker friend who dresses plain today. I was talking to him about my discomfort, these days, wearing clothes with logos or large tags pointing out brands. My aversion to logos goes against my mainstream, US, middle class background where brands are strongly valued. My friend said that I had internalized the testimony of plainness. Could it really be so straightforward as avoiding large logos on clothes?
A mentor of mine, who worked with plaster as a second job, suggested that plain dress today could be a painter’s jumpsuit. It would be utilitarian and widely available. Still, it seems overly specialized. My version of plain dress for today is jeans and a t-shirt. Focus mostly on practicality. No need for dress shoes nor dress pants. No need for button-up, oxford collar shirts. Stick with ordinary ringneck t-shirts. Wear long sleeves when it’s cooler and short sleeves when it’s warmer. Bring back the subtle difference between those dressing plain and everyone else. Forget clothes centuries out of date.