‘PATIENCE’ IS THE GIGANTIC message scrawled on every Amish buggy plodding on modern highways.1 ‘The horse is our pacer,’ as one Amish man puts it, ‘We can’t speed up like you can in a car.’2 The slow-paced hymns in Amish church services linger for twenty minutes. The most traditional Amish do not set their clocks ahead an hour in the summer season as other Americans do. These traditionalists favour slow time, God’s time, established by the rising and setting of the sun. In the midst of a hyper-speed culture that wants more and more, faster and faster, from instant downloads, immediate tweets, express mail, and extreme sports to rushed everything, the Amish stubbornly resist the velocity of hypermodernity.
The Amish emerged in 1693 in the Bern area of Switzerland and the Alsace region of France. They migrated to the United States in several waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the last European congregation closed in 1936. Jacob Amman, the founder of the Amish, was a tailor, which may account for some of the group’s interest in dress. Prior to arriving in North America, they rejected the use of buttons as ostentatious symbols of pride and instead used wire hooks and eyes to fasten clothing. Their critics taunted them saying, ‘Those with hooks and eyes, the Lord will save, those with buttons and pockets, the devil will snatch.’3
Today North America’s nearly 300,000 Amish live in thirty-one states. Their church is organised into 2120 congregations, each consisting of twenty to thirty-five families living in proximity yet interspersed among non-Amish neighbours. The life of each congregation is guided by its ordnung (order). This unwritten set of regulations governs the use of technology, dress styles, furniture and other practices. There are some forty different Amish affiliations, or tribes, with unique styles of dress, buggies, and technology that distinguish them from one another. Even within the same tribe, the bishop of each congregation has some latitude to interpret and enforce dress regulations. Although Amish people may appear as a homogeneous cluster from a distance, their dress styles vary between and within each tribe. One researcher found dozens of variations in women’s clothing across fifteen Amish communities.4 This essay, however, focuses on the dress practices of the large (30,000-member) Amish community in Lancaster County, ninety miles west of Philadelphia.
The Amish seek to follow the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.5 Two pivotal religious values – separation from the world and self-denial – regulate Amish wardrobes. Separation from the world means that their religious community seeks to maintain a cultural difference from the outside society even though they mingle with non-Amish neighbours and buy and sell products in the larger economy. Church elders believe that clothing should reflect biblical values of self-denial, simplicity, modesty, humility, and separation from the world.6 They cite Bible verses about dress practices such as the women’s prayer covering (kapp),7 but many of their customs, rooted in tradition, are symbolic expressions of separation from the world. When asked why they wear a certain article of clothing, a typical Amish reply is, ‘It’s just the way our people dress.’ Nonetheless, dress habits have a religious legitimation because the local congregation reaffirms them twice a year in members’ meetings. For instance, an Amish catechism manual devotes nine pages and forty-three questions and answers to dress – second only to the topic of heaven.8
Individualism is the sharpest wedge between Amish culture and modern life. Amish life accents communal obligations and loyalty, not individual freedom and choice. Amish culture values deference to others and uffgevva – giving up to the group. All cosmetics and jewellery, including wedding rings and wristwatches, are taboo. For the Amish, self-adornment calls attention to personal taste and preference. Clothing that shows off one’s individuality produces a proud, haughty person, and pride is considered an abomination in the eyes of God. The fashions of the outside world, in Amish eyes, are vain expressions of conceit and frivolity.
In hypermodernity, dress articulates individuality and personal taste.9 In Amish life, clothing expresses exactly the opposite meaning. When members wear Amish garb, they relinquish their right to self-expression and signal their commitment to communal authority. Amish dress styles have several important functions: to show conformity to the collective order, to restrain individual expression, to promote equality, and to erect symbolic boundaries around the community. Dress provides a distinctive uniform that declares without doubt who belongs and who does not. In short, dress signals group loyalty. It shows whether one is obedient or disobedient, humble or proud, modest or haughty, loyal or rebellious.
Amish women and men have a wardrobe for each of three occasions: work, dress up (public occasions), and church. The most traditional, plainest and most conforming garb is worn to church. Men who might, for example, wear jackets with buttons for dress-up occasions will wear suits with hooks and eyes for church services. Likewise, women wear darker colours and fasten their dresses with straight pins to attend church. Regardless of venue, men and women wear clothing made of solid, non-patterned fabrics.10
The wardrobe of an Amish woman includes a dress, an apron, a cape, a prayer kapp, and, in winter, a heavy shawl and a protective bonnet. For everyday work, she wears a scarf instead of a kapp and does not wear a cape. The degree of plainness is signaled by whether a woman wears a bib apron (a garment that drapes over the dress and is tied but not pinned in the back) or the more traditional waist-style pinned apron for everyday activities. The typical woman may own seven to ten dresses including two or three specifically styled for church services. Typical colours for the non-church dresses of married or older women are dark blue, light blue, hunter green, winter-green, olive green, light green, mahogany and chestnut brown, tan, deep mauve, and dark plum.
Amish men grow beards but shave their upper lips because moustaches have traditionally been associated with European military officers. They wear shirts without pockets, suspenders, and black zipperless trousers with a ‘broad fall’ flap across the front that is fastened by a button. A suit coat is worn for dress-up and for church. Zippers, belts and ties are prohibited. These items as well as pockets on shirts are considered ornamental and frivolous. The size and style of men’s broadbrim hats (straw for summer and felt for winter) are regulated by the church, and commonly the wider the brim, the plainer the man is understood to be. It is rare to see a boy or man without a hat when he is outside a building. Typical colours for men’s shirts include light pink, sky blue, baby blue, lime green (very common), royal blue, tan, blue/green, olive green, emerald green, burnt sienna (for teenagers), deep purple (for young boys), light purple, brown and other colours similar to those worn by women.
Although undergarments are typically purchased, most Amish clothing is homemade. A few Amish seamstresses make suits and overcoats for men and organdy prayer kapps for women, which require special skill. Mothers typically sew most of the clothing for their family, including their own dresses. They purchase fabrics from Amish-owned shops and spend much time perusing the aisles filled with dark hues, holding the fabrics up to the light, inspecting the slightly different textures and fabric compositions. In the past, women wore one hundred percent cotton fabrics primarily, which required ironing. Recently, more women wear cotton/polyester blends, which wrinkle less. Mothers occasionally purchase some of their sons’ and husbands’ work shirts from thrift shops.
The Amish value thrift and frugality. They frequently repair, recycle and reuse clothing. As one woman commented when asked, ‘If the clothes are patched and if the patch needs to be patched, then I know it needs to be replaced.’11 Another woman said wistfully, ‘I feel a bit badly for my youngest son [of four boys] because he has never had anything new, but he hasn’t minded, either.’12 Amish children wear their clothes hard, given all their chores and their frequently long walks to school. Families share children’s clothing among one another. Occasionally, mothers purchase contemporary-looking jackets (without hoods) for their sons and then painstakingly remove the zippers.
From the age of sixteen to the early twenties, Amish youth experience rumspringa, a time for socialising and courtship with their peers. During this period, they are not accountable to church regulations because they are not yet baptised and official members of the church. Many continue to dress in fairly traditional ways, while others rebel more openly and wear some non-Amish clothing to youth parties. Teenage boys, for example, may wear blue jeans and fashionable shirts and cut their hair according to contemporary styles, all of which is prohibited for adult church members. During rumspringa, some young women wear dresses in non-traditional colours and complement their dress choices by painting their toenails with brightly coloured polish and wearing sandals or flip-flops, or by wearing coloured socks, which they call ‘anklets,’ with other non-traditional footwear. Many youths try to respect their families’ preferences even though their dress violates the church code. Such violations may elicit gossip but are not punished because the young people have not yet pledged to obey the ordnung.
In the Amish mind, fashion is a bad word that is associated with the vanity of popular culture. An Amish manual says, ‘We know that worldly fashions have their origin in the most wicked cities on earth, that their foundation is not modesty and godliness but lust and pride.’13
Amish dress practices are slow to change because they are viewed as religious precepts. But change they do, and not only for utilitarian reasons. Amish fashion – change for the sake of change – exists, but it is subtle, slow, and miniscule. For instance, for many years baby boys typically wore dresses until they were toilet trained, but that practice is changing, as some parents worry that a dress on a baby boy may lead to gender confusion when he grows up. A more progressive mother, with a wink to tradition, may take her baby boy to church in a dress one time and thereafter dress him in trousers and shirt. Individual signs of rebellion or boundary testing include, for women, wearing prayer kapps that are smaller and thus expose more of the ear, kapps with untied strings, kapps with pronounced heart-shaped designs on the back, dresses in brighter colours, decorative pins on jacket lapels, and small frills and ruffles on sleeves. In addition, women’s dresses are now longer than they were in the past. The waistbands, which had been dropped toward the hips, are now at the waist. The pleats on the sleeves of short-sleeved summer dresses have changed and, occasionally, teenage girls add decorative buttons to those sleeves. To circumvent the prohibition of pockets on shirts, some men wear a leather pouch on their suspenders to hold pens, and more progressive men are likely to wear short-sleeved shirts. Occasionally, they may wear a window-pane patterned shirt or a cherry red shirt, both of which exceed traditional patterns of decorum. Other widely accepted changes in the last decade involve more and brighter colour choices, athletic shoes worn in work settings and Velcro, which, in a nod of respect to the taboo on buttons, is frequently used to fasten coats and other clothing items instead of hooks and eyes and straight pins. However, none of these glimmers of fashion would ever appear in a Sunday worship service, where conformity to the dress code is paramount.
Unlike moderns who welcome change and applaud the endless arrival of new gadgets and gizmos, the Amish prize patience and slowness, and are averse to change – especially change simply for the sake of it. Such deference to durable traditions might make Amish life appear drab to the outsider. Yet Amish life has many benefits for those who have chosen to abide by its rules. In a culture where abundant choice frequently spikes anxiety and where the emphasis placed on individuality is often at odds with our desire to fit in with the group,14 the demure and self-effacing nature of the Amish is arguably not just a way to rebel against the stresses of the modern world, but also a deft manner of finding personal satisfaction in acquiescence to the group. Perhaps then, the Amish know what the rest of us are still struggling to accept: slowness no doubt brings its own kind of joy.
Dr Donald Kraybill grew up milking cows on a Mennonite dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and is today the world’s foremost expert on the Old Order Amish. He is a Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elisabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and lectures widely on Anabaptist faiths.
This article was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Slowness.’
I am grateful for the kindness of Judy Stavisky for granting permission to use her observations of Amish dress and for the editorial assistance of Cynthia Nolt ↩
Author interview with Ohio Amish man, October 10, 2012 ↩
For details on Amish history and an overview of Amish communities in North America, see D B Kraybill, K M Johnson-Weiner, and S M Nolt, The Amish, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013 ↩
S Scott, Why Do They Dress That Way?, Good Books, Intercourse, PA, 1986, pp.122–123 ↩
For an introduction to Amish spirituality and beliefs, consult D B Kraybill, S M Nolt, and D L Weaver-Zercher, The Amish Way, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010 ↩
I Timothy 2:9–10; I Peter 3:3–4 ↩
I Corinthians 11:2–16 ↩
1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life, Pathway Publishers, Aylmer, Ontario, 1992, pp.129–137 ↩
R Sennett, ‘Foreword’, in G Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, pp.viii–x ↩
I am indebted to Judy Stavisky’s unpublished research notes, July 2014, and Louise Stoltzfus’s unpublished ‘Treatise on Lancaster Amish Dress Practices’, July 2000, for many of these observations. For a lengthy discussion of dress, consult D B Kraybill, K M Johnson-Weiner, and S M Nolt, The Amish, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013, pp.125–130 ↩
Judy Stavisky interview with Pennsylvania Amish woman, July 24, 2014 ↩
Judy Stavisky interview with Pennsylvania Amish woman, July 23, 2014 ↩
1001 Questions and Answers on the Christian Life, Pathway Publishers, Aylmer, Ontario, 1992, p.131 ↩
See, for example, B Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, HarperCollins, New York, 2004 ↩