One of the most defining – and obvious – characteristics of Plain people is their clothing. Mennonite modest clothing is immediately recognizable. Let’s answer the question – why do Mennonites dress like that?
We spent about six years living near, and worshiping with, Old Order Mennonites, and I still have quite a few Plain Mennonite friends. And, as most of my readers know, I ask a lot of questions, digging into the reasons behind why people do things. It gets me in trouble a lot since not everyone appreciates questions!
While we are are not Plain anymore, we learned a lot from them, and I will be forever affected by my time with them. And now I want to help you understand at a few different reasons why the Mennonites dress the way they do.
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Plain Dress Marks Them As a Peculiar People
The modest clothing of various Plain groups (Mennonites, Amish, Brethren) marks them.
Not only does it define them according to their particular affiliation but it also marks them as a peculiar people distinct and separate from society. This is one of the most important reasons behind why the Mennonites dress as they do – they believe that being a citizen of Two Kingdoms requires that you stand out in your appearance.
Have you ever heard of the Two Kingdoms?
Christianity teaches that there is the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God and, while we may live in and interact with the kingdom of this world, we belong to the kingdom of God.
As our pastor put it recently, we are ambassadors of the kingdom serving a temporary tour of duty here.
For the Mennonites, Brethren, Amish and traditionally the Plain Quakers, a distinctive Plain modest dress marks them as being a peculiar people that are easily identified as separate from the worldly kingdom.
It is a badge of membership. (Like the Salvation Army uniform.)
Unfortunately, the dark side of this badge of membership is that it can become a wall against those without that badge of membership!
My best friend Olivia met me in 2015 at a store in town. She remembered the occasion because I was so friendly and chatty even though I was wearing clothing that looked much like the Mennonites wore. That made me stand out because Plain-dressed women do not typically speak with strangers in public.
Later, Olivia and I were shopping together and a small group of Plain Mennonite women entered the store. They know me slightly since I had attended their church a few times.
They saw me and were all smiles and warm greetings, ignoring Olivia. It was actually pretty blatant, so much that both Olivia and I were shocked.
These women are loving, sweet, kind Christian women who would have much in common with my friend, but they have difficulty seeing past the lack of Plain dress. There is nothing wrong with having a noticeable ‘mark of community’ among Christians, but there is certainly something wrong with using it to isolate yourself from other people.
Do I want to stand out as peculiar because I look strange, or do I want to be noticeable for my love and compassion?
Plain Dress is Meant to Engender Modesty
As with many things, I feel there is a great danger in expecting, or worse, forcing, Christian-like conformity in matters for which there has been no change of heart.
Some of you are befuddled by that statement, while others have had an a-ha moment.
Society has changed in the past few decades. While practically everyone in my home town attended church when I was a child, now increasing numbers of people have something better to do on Sundays. People are no longer attending church because of society pressure.
And that’s a good thing.
Really – they didn’t want to be there, they didn’t get a thing out of it, and it merely gave them an excuse to pretend that they were Christian. And they did that because “of COURSE I’m a Christian!” Shock, horror, outrage. It was not so long ago that it was an insult to suggest that a person was not a Christian. Everyone was, right?
What does this have to do with modest and Plain dress?
There are many arguments regarding modesty these days, with even some in the Christian community claiming that modest dress is “body shaming”. And it can be!
Modest and Plain dress are not something to be imposed from without. They are, however, quite often a mark of a regenerative spirit. (One caveat, though – if Mom or Dad are buying your clothing, all bets are off on it being ‘imposed from without’.)
Modesty is equally applicable to men and women.
There is a huge difference, and I think it should always be kept in mind, between rigid church or societal rules and a personal witness inspired by the calling of the Holy Spirit.
Plain Mennonite Dress is Very Practical
Plain people are practical in pretty much every aspect of their lives, and clothing is no exception.
Mennonite Plain dress is fashioned to suit the lifestyle of the congregation, made from fabric that is long-lasting and easy to keep clean, and is easy and inexpensive to make.
Using my dresses as an example, I am starting to notice that my dresses, made for me a little more than five years ago, are starting to look shabby. A few seams have irrevocably ripped, the skirts are becoming a little too sheer in spots, and some spots are just simply becoming shabby. I no longer look neat and tidily put together – I’m beginning to look frumpy and unkempt!
However, keep in mind that I wore the same five dresses year-round for over five years. That’s about the time that they become “work clothes” and are replaced with a new set of “good clothes”.
What does that look like, especially when you can make your own or hire a Mennonite seamstress? Twenty yards of matching cottons cost about $120. Add in $20 per dress for the work, and that means $200 yields four custom-fitted, hand-sewn dress-and-apron combinations. $50 per dress, for durability that lasts several years.
Inexpensive, practical, easy to make, customized and durable!
FAQ About Mennonite Dress
Why don’t the men dress differently?
The main issue here is that daily fashion for worldly men is often very modest.
A Mennonite man with loose-fitting slacks, a buttoned shirt and black shoes is going to look like thousands of non-Mennonite men wearing very similar clothing.
EJ buys his clothing – black work slacks, a navy blue work shirt and brown or black work boots – from the same companies where my father and millions of other working class men have bought theirs. Even though we’re not specifically Plain anymore, and he wears jeans and tshirts again, he still wears the same black slacks and navy shirt most of the time. Durable and comfortable!
More Conservative Mennonite and Amish styles like suspenders, black hat and facial hair (beard on Amish, smooth on Mennonites, no moustache on either) are slightly more distinctive, but these are also frequently adopted as fashion by non-Mennonites!
However, a Plain man will not own or wear shorts, a swimsuit, t-shirts or any other revealing clothing. They will also not wear clothing with labels, removing them from any second hand clothing. Men who are committed to modest dress will sometimes wear those things but they will be selective in what they wear.
Perhaps the question isn’t why Plain men can wear clothing that is similar to worldly men. Perhaps we need to ask why Plain clothing for women looks so odd compared to the world?
Ok, so why do Plain women look so odd?
It is not because of the clothing or, more specifically, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the clothing.
The dress style I wore with the Mennonites is something my grandmother would have called a shirtwaist dress. The top is much like any blouse (some ladies have Peter Pan collars but I don’t like them), the waist is fitted (well, sort of fitted, since my weight …. ahem, fluctuates), and the skirt is long, loose and comfortable. It’s usually worn with a matching apron over it, also with a fitted waist, and most people don’t realize they are two separate pieces.
Other than possibly the apron, this is a dress style that would have been recognized for most of the past hundred or more years. That is, it is a classic, long-lived style that my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all would have worn at some point. With very little modification, this style can fit well and look good anywhere.
Are they allowed to …
In this, I can’t speak at all about the Amish. They practice shunning, so I do not know what happens where they have differences of opinion.
Among the Mennonites that I know, there are two things which affect what people are “allowed to” do:
The congregation as a whole discusses and decides about matters like clothing styles (suspenders, jackets in the summer, skirt length, shirt color, facial hair, headcoverings), revisiting it before their bi-annual Communion if there are things to discuss.
Instead of being a dictatorship, Mennonite churches are more like a democracy.
There is constant movement of people between the different Plain churches. We had dinner one night with an elderly Old Order man who worked with EJ at that time. His younger sister joined us. Although also Plain Mennonite, she belonged to a far less conservative church (which we attended for a while) that used cars, internet in the home and much more. Many families also have beloved family members who have “gone fancy” and while there might be disapproval at times, there is no shunning.
While it is difficult for people to leave the church in which they grew up, that is the case outside of the Mennonites as well.
What is a cape dress?
One of the most common style of Plain dress for women is the cape dress. In many ways, it is like my two piece dress-and-apron combination (which, as far as I can tell, is only worn by Old Order Mennonites – and sometimes me!). However instead of an apron that covers the entire front, a matching piece of fabric is attached at shoulders and waist. This part is called the cape.
I know, crazy, right? Old Order women wear a long black cape that they actually call a shawl.
A slip needs to be worn to keep light from shining through the skirt since there is no apron. I have a few cape dresses but I dislike them. Unlike my dresses, which snap shut in the front under the apron, cape dresses zipper up the back.
It gets more fun – my Mennonite friends call snaps “domes”. The little white head covering is not a bonnet, it’s a kapp. A bonnet is larger, black and is worn over the kapp.
I want to dress modestly but …
But you don’t want to look like a Mennonite? I get it. After we stopped dressing Plain, I struggled with how to dress modestly while still looking good.
Luckily, there are some very good options around . This maxi-dress from Imaima, for example, is absolutely beautiful. All of Imaima’s Modest Collection are designer quality, coming out of Berlin. They’re a bit above my price range, but they’re certainly quality clothes.
If you’re looking for something in North America, Rosie&Claire focuses on comfortable, effortless, practical clothing for women – and it’s a nice bonus that ‘modest’ goes hand in hand with all of that. (Because, really, there’s nothing comfortable or effortless about tugging on that miniskirt all day!)
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