Friday, October 26, 2012

Mennonite Attire--Not As Strange As You Think

Whistler’s mother was certainly not a Mennonite, but notice how her outward appearance is much like that of plainly attired Old Order Mennonite or Amish women.

Interestingly, the painter of this well known piece, James McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, was an outspoken atheist, but I have not been able to determine what faith, if any, his parents practiced.

My point is that there is nothing original about the plain dress of certain Mennonite groups. In other words, there were never any Amish or Mennonite committee of elders who got together to create a dress code for their respective churches. Every distinctive aspect of their plain dress is a preservation or adaptation of a dress style that was once common in their cultures of origin.

The beards, hair styles and broad rimmed hats worn by Amish men make them a living demonstration of how peasant farmers along the Rhine River Valley looked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And what has evolved into distinctive Mennonite or Amish attire for women is also simply a version of what all European peasant women wore in earlier times.

Even the now distinctive “head covering” is not a Mennonite invention, nor was it even associated with Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11 in early Mennonite or Amish practice. It was simply what all ordinary women wore. Menno Simons' "Complete Works" makes no mention of the practice of women veiling their heads or of the Biblical text which supports it, though it could be argued that he didn't need to, since women wearing some kind of protective head covering was a part of standard dress for all women of all faiths--or of no faith--in the sixteenth century (see Rembrandt's paintings, for example, or that of Whistler's Mother, above, as late as the nineteenth century).

Julia Ward Howe, author of the
Battle Hymn of the Republic,
dressed like my mother, but
was far from a Mennonite.
It appears that a form of women’s headgear that began as something functional and practical for peasant and other women in the past became a standard part of western European and Mennonite culture. Later, for many Mennonites, it became a Christian symbol, an expression of Paul's teaching that women should have their heads modestly covered out of reverence to God and respect for their husbands and other men when engaged in prayer or worship, especially in public. But in general, the group’s emphasis was simply on dressing in a modest way that did not draw undue attention to themselves.

This is not to say that early Mennonites and Amish had nothing unique to say about appearance. Anabaptist men, being committed to non-violence, were not to carry the sabers that were a customary part of being dressed up when in public. Amish men were to wear coats with hooks and eyes rather than the newer and more fashionable trend of using fancy buttons. And women were not to spend money on ornate jewelry and elaborate hairdos, as taught in Scripture, but to dress as common people generally did in the day.

In short, Mennonites have traditionally stressed modesty, economy and simplicity in all things, including in their attire. And the plainer ones have stressed the additional value of their appearance being an expression of their identity. They have chosen to avoid trending with the times, to remain non-conformed to the ways of the culture around them, and to be immediately recognizable as a distinctive, God-fearing people.

You may also want to check
Post a Comment