Thursday, July 08, 2010

Plain on the Outside, Fancy Underneath

On Tuesday afternoon, while returning from an errand, I stopped briefly at Union Station here in DC to get some lunch. Union Station has long been a busy depot by which rail and bus traffic arrives and departs, and it also serves as a rail and bus stop for area public transportation. With the passage of time, part of the inside of the terminal has been transformed into a shopping mall of sorts, which frequently satiates the boredom of tourists and passengers. Predictably, it also houses a Victoria’s Secret.

While walking by on my way from somewhere else, I noticed, much to my amazement, two plain dress women inside, apparently shopping for fancy underthings. They were plain Mennonites, which was confirmed by the bonnets they wore on their heads and their single-shade pocketless dresses. It was my understanding that, due to their religious beliefs, anything ornate or showy was not allowed, yet both of these women clutched in their hands what looked like several pairs of underwear and lingerie, evidently desiring to purchase them. Intrigued, I consulted a fellow Friend (Quaker) who keeps plain dress herself, in the hopes of getting some answers.

Her guess was that the women weren’t really supposed to be buying fancy undergarments. She informed me how in some Amish communities, even little things like hem length and width are dictated by community rules. This was interesting to me on many levels, especially when I recognized that a great diversity of views exist regarding plain dress. We seem to think that all plain people dress the same, and this simply isn’t the case. Each community dictates its own specific rules regarding manner of dress. My friend's community of plain people has a very different set of guidelines than other communities in the area.

But back to underwear. The Friend’s opinion was that it’s hard to enforce rules for clothing that can’t be seen, particularly intimate apparel. This is probably much of the appeal. Amish and plain Mennonites have their lives governed by a lot of rules, women even more so. That this might be their way to push back in rebellion against legalistic restrictions towards group conformity I found fascinating to contemplate. Perhaps it’s also a way to assert one’s individuality and in so doing buy something private, just for the self. The Friend added that she has read stories of women living in Afghanistan buying fancy shoes because everything else is supposed to be covered, feet being the one place on the body where they feel they can truly express themselves.

In some ways, though we consider ourselves individuals with individual rights, we’re also told precise ways to conform. Women certainly have their lives governed by lots of rules, a reality which manifests itself all over the place. Most women in this society may not have to obsess about the length of a hem, but they’ll certainly obsess about beauty products and the demands of seeming flawless. I daresay many reading this post probably own fancy undergarments, at least by plain standards.

Now for something completely different. If you, readers, could come up with your own form of rebellion against the exacting rules that take so much energy and time out of your life, what would it be? What would it look like?


Gail said...


great share and great question. I, being a rebel of the 60's have many ways I would like to rebel against all those exhausting societal rules -

but the most important to me is gettng out of the system - the work, ar bils, buy stuff, pay taxes, work harder to pay the interest on the stuff we buy when we don't have enough money to pay cash for a car or a house or a washer and dryer and the cycle races on. I want out but I don't know how to do it - or I ma afraid to do what I know how to do - either way it is a trap. On a simpler note - I think I will feel okay about playing music on our deck after 10:00 at night. C'mon.

Love to you
peace and hope.....

Karen said...

For many plain dress people, it is about rebellion...against worldly ways which promote individualism and competition and are anti-community. They believe plain dress allows the true individual to shine through rather than showcasing the false persona people wear to impress, please and compete with others...all the while telling themselves that they are "expressing their individuality". Plain dress people believe your individuality is an intrinsic part of you that can't be removed by a uniform nor expressed through the latest fashions or anti fashions. Underwear, being seen privately by one's spouse, do not cause women to spiral into a Real Housewives style orgy of conspicuous consumption as each must keep up with the Mrs Jones...and being private doesn't break any modesty codes. Lingerie shops do brisk business in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods as well. There it's bad to compete with other women sexually and good to please your it's almost necessary to compete with other women sexually and looked down on to please your husband (though not to attract, please or sexually service any and every man you're not married to!)

The Rebel Sell and The Pursuit of Unhappiness show us that the 60's didn't bring us the anti-materialism and community hoped for but merely reinforced our need to buy new and different things to "express" that individuality. In fact, individuality bacame the most important "must-have" item of each season, spurring more and more purchasing to stay "unique" and ahead of the crowd. Conformity became the new cardinal sin.

I took up a form of plain/modest dress for a time and loved it but ultimately realized that it doesn't work outside of a community. I became an accidental individualist by adopting a style that very few were wearing. I provoked feelings in other people that I was judging them as insufficiently modest and looking down upon them. Truth be told, the entire western neo-modest "Modesty Movement" HAS become riddled with obsession over clothes, and judgement on other women for their clothing and manner. Women are rated as superior for covering up more or for being a virgin before marraige. It just became a new place for egos competition and self-promotion. In short,it became anything but modest.

My new rebellion? Simply wear what I like and that feels comfortable to me out of what's available. Don't seek to compete either through being the first to wear the "next big thing" or by dressing in any special way that sets my apart. Try to blend in. Ironically, people find me more unique when I stop trying to be "unique" in an identifiable way. "Rebel" is also a way to conform to a visible identity. The Tao De Ching is right, "I do not define myself, therefore I am unique."

Comrade Kevin said...


Thank you for sharing. Your thoughts on the matter are very close to my own.