new Mennonite Life logo    June 2002     vol. 57 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Revising the Plainness of Whiteness

Ami Regier

As a reader of contemporary literature, I have often noticed that attitudes toward valued, personal objects, especially those related to personal adornment, reveal particularly potent tensions in a wide range of literary and cultural discourses. In this issue of Mennonite Life, Laura Weaver’s article “Plain Clothes Revisited: Empathy for Muslim Women” and Rhoda Janzen’s poems, particularly “Language of Vanity” and “Cabbage Leaves,” explore a range of strongly charged issues related to Mennonite women’s life and thought as indexed through clothing. Clothing, in both writers’ works, exists as an object of memory and registers both anxiety and pleasure, revisited through years of cultural and personal change. Because neither writer’s work exists comfortably with the monolithic-sounding phrase “Mennonite women’s life and thought,” I want to suggest that their works are part of a larger range of cross-cultural writings indexing the increasing hybridity of a religious and ethnic identity. The tensions surrounding clothing in these works suggest a kind of gentle redressing of Mennonite identity, not in a monocultural framing, but in a manner responsive to the demands of a multicultural history, present, and future.

Weaver’s article explores an experience of cross-cultural identification with Islamic women through the experience of wearing head coverings. The experience re-centers her sense of Plain Mennonite heritage, which comes after her publication of a series of personal essays exploring a divided and hybrid self becoming acculturated in a larger social, academic, and literary world. (1) In some ways, Weaver’s collection of photographs offered here figuratively re-dresses her sense of self by putting her back into the cap and cape and concomitant cultural structures she no longer inhabits quite so visibly. Simultaneously, the article suggests a kind of de-centering of the Mennonite framing of sense of self, as Weaver emphasizes the cross-cultural empathy generated, and critiques perceptions of head coverings as signs of repression within Mennonite or Islamic cultures.

Similarly, Janzen’s poem “Language of Vanity” explores, in a first-person narration, the cross currents of memory involving religious heritage through the vehicle of clothing. The memory of sermons shows one kind of source of poetry in the rich referential body of sermons: in this poem, a sermon gives rise to passionate embroidering of fantasy, via the word play in the phrase “cross-stitched passions” as translation from original subject matter to, in one of Janzen’s best line breaks suggesting a conflict in the narrator’s or narrator’s community’s imagination: a “panty / fantasy.” The interior conflict of the sermon discourse shows the redressing of self, from the pure, plain image of the naked human being to its expression in a potentially repressive clothing discourse. The humor of the poem lies in the elaboration of the young female’s imagination of intricate ornamentation, and the adolescent’s acute ear for cultural contradiction in the final turn: “Naked / we stand before our / Lord, and leave him / fully dressed.”

These works interest me now as I recall that the Mennonitism in which I was raised in an urban, 1960s context was defined by an emphasis upon simple living, nonviolence, and nonconformism linked to social justice within an otherwise seemingly mainstream Protestant belief system. Attempting to explain the concept of simple living, and defend herself against my adolescent appeals for what must have been extravagant clothing, my mother told me stories about "the Plain" and their particular codes of dress. I was told (in a story which now sounds like a mixture of views of Amish and Plain beliefs) that any ornament, even buttons on clothes, provided a hook from which the devil could attach himself to the person. My mother then translated and applied, while confessing her own secret love of shimmery clothing: in our family, public consensus developed around valuing a lack of ornamentation as a sign of authenticity, moral uprightness, and good Mennonite stewardship of resources. Yet, as women’s literature continues to suggest, some tensions still accrue around these vexed objects of ornamentation.

Plainness offers one significant history through which to consider the tensions surrounding Mennonite relation to ornamentation. When historicized more broadly, an ideology of aesthetics becomes resonant: Between 1920 and 1930, plainness was at its height, (2) partially as a response to and mark of separation from the nationalist fervor then growing in the U. S. Phyllis Pellman Good writes:

Mennonites at this time were becoming increasingly distinguished from their neighbors and surrounding communities. World War I brought their convictions of nonresistance and conscientious objection to war into public view. Their discomfort with the growing nationalism prodded them to define their differences with the prevailing society and to develop clearer guidelines for their own behavior. Distinctive dress patterns began to be prescribed. (3)

As Good's example makes clear, plainness within Mennonitism historically signifies the rejection of the political belief systems of a dominant culture. Ervin Beck also ties these nonconformist beliefs and modes of dress to the extremely marginalized role that Mennonites played in American culture at large:

Less prophetic and evangelistic in their program [than European Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century], American Mennonites have tended to be 'die Stillen im Lande [the quiet in the land],' cultivating the land and in-group virtues. According to one Mennonite historian, their greatest achievement in America has been survival. . . Mennonites have been on the fringes of mainstream American culture. Earlier that was because they spoke German, opposed slavery, were conscientious objectors throughout all of America's wars and, through clothing and other customs, assumed a nonconformist stance toward popular culture. (4)

One might say, then, that plainness developed into an aesthetics of isolationism, the result of which was Mennonites' cultivation of "in-group virtues." In divesting itself from national culture, plainness thus became a mode of defining a distinct, ongoing subculture. But while the Plain in some ways formed themselves under the sign of nonconformism, paradoxically, they also contributed to dominant cultural constructions of race. Inevitably, plainness partook to some degree in the plainness of whiteness, conceived of as not interrelated with other ethnicities, where rejection of personal adornment became also a metaphor of ideological, gendered, and racial purity.

This complex of factors played out unevenly in terms of gender. For Mennonite men, plainness was a productive vehicle of both subcultural and bicultural interaction. Beck documents a body of apocryphal, oral "Mennonite trickster tales" typically associated with a man in a plain coat who fools representatives of dominant culture (police, primarily). Because of the Mennonite practice of not swearing oaths, which meant practicing an integrity of speech that often was understood as speaking literal truth, the plain coat became a site where appearances could provide a mode of negotiation not available in language. Beck discusses apocryphal stories of Mennonite men in plain coats being stopped by policemen who thought they were Catholic priests on the way to, for example, Notre Dame football games. Allowed to continue in their belief that the plain coat was a Catholic vestment, the police didn't give them traffic tickets as a result. In Beck's paradigm, the plain-coated Mennonite is always opposed by a Catholic; the trickster is passive and doesn't intend to cause problems; and last, the trickster accepts personal benefit by remaining silent. "The coat speaks--falsely--for itself." (5)

I mention Beck's paradigm because plainness for Mennonite women has been represented in much more limiting ways. Shirley Kurtz, in her memoir, describes her adolescence in the 1960s as a plain Mennonite in Steelton, Pennsylvania. Plain dress involved wearing the cape-dress, no makeup, and hair in a bun with a covering over the bun. Throughout the memoir, plainness becomes a metaphor for sexual repression and limitation of social opportunities. In her conclusion, Kurtz comes to terms with plainness:

What sort of hardships were mine, anyway? Nobody was out to get me. The Mennonite bishops weren't making up rules to be mean; they wanted us kept safe from the world, and pure. Certainly different was better than wrong, if those were the only choices. (6)

Maintaining a nonconformist stance to mainstream culture involved for women, ironically, strict conformist codes within their own subculture. While the plain coat for Mennonite men provided a certain amount of flexibility in codes of behavior in relation to dominant culture, the plain dress for women resulted in control of women. Again, the Mennonite Encyclopedia is useful:

The strongly patriarchal character of the more conservative Mennonite groups may also contribute to the emphasis upon controlled costume. The elders and ministers may have such a strong sense of domination as shepherds over their flocks that they consciously or unconsciously seek for outward signs of submission which are most readily furnished by uniform, conservative, distinctive items of costume and drab and dark colors. (7)

Plainness clearly has uneven implications in terms of gender. Yet this vexed symbol of a nonconformist past resonates in crucial ways with Anglo-American literary histories. In the broadest of literary terms, white Protestantism is at the center of a tradition of humanism--in which Mennonites participate--which privileges a selfhood stripped of ornament and exterior material things. (8) The Puritan impulse "to de-adorn the path to grace," (9) with its anxious negotiation of interior, nonmaterial value systems and external signs (such as occurs in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter), asserts continuity with the strict separation of selfhood and body in Milton's Christian humanism, as repeatedly expressed by the Lady to would-be enchanter and tempter, Comus: "Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind/With all thy charms, although this corporal rind/Thou hast immanacl'd" (A Mask (Comus) 665). A precedent for Milton's dramatizing of an interior selfhood, in turn, can be found in the medieval morality play Everyman, where such stage directions as "[Exit Goods]" quite literally strip the "true self" of belongings, deeds, kindred and friends in order to locate a pure, essential self unencumbered by cultural objects. Implicitly, this core self is stripped not only of culture but also of the complications of subcultures. Within the Anglo-American literary tradition, this divesting of the self is a key plot, one that is structured by the stripping away of the material goods attached to an encumbered self in order to recognize a free, unornamented, interior, and integral subject. One of the implications of this paradigmatic plot is that this "plain" whiteness, once freed of subcultural affiliations, is then perceived as a “natural” foundation of human subjectivity, in a formulation that assists Mennonite acculturation into a privileged, white mainstream culture. As I see writers such as Weaver and Janzen in some ways returning to the anxious discourse of clothing, and presenting it as both vexed and productive, I am interested in, indeed, in some ways fascinated by, what seems to me the emergence of a very contemporary aesthetics referencing a history of Plainness, as well as attaching a new, somewhat hybrid cultural sensibility to it.


1. "Forbidden Fancies: A Child's Vision of Mennonite Plainness," Mennonite Life, June 1988: 20-23; "Writing about the Covering and Plain Clothes as a Mennonite 'Family' Possession," Mennonite Life, December 1994: 4-7; "Divided Together: Written and Visual Explorations of the Self," Mennonite Life, December 1999: 17-22.

2. Mennonite Encyclopedia IV.184.

3. Phyllis Pellman Good, A Mennonite Woman's Life: Ruth Hershey, 1895-1990, Photographer (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1993), 51.

4. Ervin Beck, "Mennonite Trickster Tales: True to be Good," Mennonite Quarterly Review 61 (1987): 59.

5. Beck, 62.

6. Shirley Kurtz, Growing Up Plain (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1994), 59.

7. Mennonite Encyclopedia II.100.

8. Defining an intersection of Mennonite and Puritan aesthetics in a somewhat harsh light, John L. Ruth writes that "Mennonites tend to resist the power of art to reshape their perceptions and order. As with the Puritans, their scrupulosity and suspicion of ornament narrow their entire aesthetic outlook. They also have a tendency to materialism, and are oriented to the prosaic and mundane. Their emphasis on service to the ignoring of the aesthetic, and their tendency toward a closed-world mentality, are inhospitable to the function of art. As regards literature, there is often a low view, at best, of fiction." "Knowing the Place for the First Time," Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Calvin Wall Redekop and Samuel J. Steiner (New York: University Press of America, 1988), 253.

9. Laura Wexler, "The Puritan and the Photograph," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25 (1983), 17.