Clothing as a status symbol is not a new thing. In fact, a few hundred years ago there were laws to define what clothes a person could wear to fit his status in society. These were called sumptuary laws, and they made it possible to instantly discern whether a person was a priest, a bishop, a duke, a knight or a a peasant. There was a moral, or religious, impulse behind these laws, a desire to avoid costly or showy clothing. However, those at the top of the heap could wear many of the things forbidden to the lower classes. Silk and purple dye, for example, were forbidden to most people.
Along with this came certain rules of conduct. If a man met someone of higher status on the street he had to remove his hat. He could address his equals, and those of lesser status, as thee or thou, but those of higher status had to be addressed with the more respectful “you”.
By the time the Quakers came along in the 17th century, the sumptuary laws were no longer on the books in England, but people’s attitudes about maintaining the prerogatives of their status had not changed. The Quakers decided they would all wear the same cut of clothing, whatever their trade or civil status. They declared they would not remove their hat for any man, and adopted a broad-brimmed style to emphasize the point. They also refused to address anyone as “you.”
Towards the end of the 17th century, Jacob Amman, the spiritual leader of the Mennonites in Alsace, decided the Mennonites had slipped too far into following the fashions of the world. He imposed strict rules about the cut of clothes, more or less settling on the Alsatian peasant style. This brought about a separation from the Mennonites in Switzerland and Amman’s group became known as Amish.
Many Quakers and Amish emigrated to Pennsylvania and the similarity in outlook led to them becoming known as “the plain people.” Quakers have dropped the plain clothes, but there are now a bewildering variety of “plain” Mennonite and Amish groups, each with their own set of rules governing what cut of clothes they may wear. The differences between groups are often quite minor, but they are strictly enforced.
In 1697, shortly after the Amish division, Gerhard Roosen, an aged Mennonite elder of Hamburg, Germany, wrote the following words to those involved:
“I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things that are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country, and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church as leaven all those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel, or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 2 (verse 16) that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink” nor in this or that in the form or pattern of clothing, to which external things our Saviour does not oblige us.
“I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts (1 John 2, verses 16, 17), not immediately adopting the latest style of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common use then it is honourable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility.
“The Holy Scripture must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.”