signatories on waterfall monument depicting the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments
Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, New York
Failure.... black and blue is the new black. I was thinking more of failure than of fashion while sitting in the wheelchair waiting for an x-ray after falling off a ladder in the garden on October 28. The fact that I was wearing grungy yoga pants and the shirt I had used the previous summer while painting our daughter’s room —not to mention the reality that I was covered with dirt and scratches from rose bushes and blackberry prickles— was the farthest from my mind. I was just glad that the pruning clippers hadn’t hit me in the face when I went down. When I asked the neighbor who took me to the emergency ward to retrieve my tablet computer for me, I did not bother requesting a change of clothes. I didn’t know if I could easily get out of what I was wearing and into something else —or at least that was the story I told the people at the hospital.
In the end, I missed as much work time due to the computer problem that arose the next morning as I did from the accident. Even the computer was fixed in a day. But that still raised the issue of how to look professional while walking on crutches. More to the point, can one look both Quakerly and professional while hobbling around a classroom on crutches?
Friends have always had an awkward relationship to fashion. This has been true throughout our history, for people of all ages, genders, and orientations. Margaret Fox, in making a stand for personal privacy in dress against the nascent tide of the dull-colored Quaker “uniform” worn among most members of our Religious Society between the late seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth, was swimming against a powerful riptide. She might as well have been sporting a bikini in the age of the bloomers —and even the bloomers were radical for their era. Likewise, Elizabeth Fry’s husband Joseph loved the opera, another activity verboten among Friends of his day; he kept a set of non-Quaker street clothes in order to indulge his passion incognito. All in all, in the first two hundred years of Quaker history, Friends anticipated the late twentieth century dictum “the personal is political:” if not gender neutral, Quaker attire had equally severe restrictions on both men and women. It was designed with the testimony of equality in mind, although Friendly lore has it that there was substantial inequality in the cut and quality of fabrics. Traditional Friends’ attire also aimed at discouraging the use of clothing as a means of sexual attraction. Finally, utilizing fashion as a tool in boycotts was popular among some sectors of our Religious Society in the time of Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), who advocated the refusal to consume all products made with slave labor, whether sugar or fabric dye. (The dark gray that became ubiquitous among Friends in this period was in fact related slave labor and harsh chemicals used to produce the dye.)
To ratchet up the level of discomfort even further (are we wearing girdles or tightly fitting neckties yet, Friends?), in the present era Quaker testimonies on equality are related not only to ideas about competition for romantic partners but anxieties about winning and losing in sports; these anxieties are in turn related for many people to what physical condition they are in and what they look like. I doubt I am the only Friend to have received a “mercy pass” in high school physical education (no exaggeration: we were permitted to take PE modules as often as we wanted, and I passed badminton on three occasions without ever making legitimate contact with the shuttlecock more than ten per cent of the time). Likewise, I doubt that I am the only one to treat it as a badge of honor.
As a convinced Friend, I seem to have gone in cycles when it comes to simplicity in dress. When I became interested in Quakerism as a teenager, I emulated the peasant look of the “back to the landers” ten or fifteen years my senior, without, however, acquiring their hard-earned skills in gardening —a fact I was to rue as I fell from the ladder that morning years later. I became so good at copying that trend that I had my own bottle of lighter fluid to get bicycle chain grease out of my long dresses. My parents refused to let me own torn or patched jeans but otherwise despaired until I made an abrupt volte-face just before I sent in my applications for my undergraduate years. My mother claimed later on, “I tried to get you to take a healthy interest in your attire, but nothing changed until you met those rich bitches at (that university).”
I was in a protracted downward cycle in regard to fashion, though, in the morning of the ladder episode. The glory days of ending last in a 10-k. foot race were sufficiently far in the past that I had decided that going to the gym was yet another activity at which I could not succeed. Admittedly, I had learned that wearing contact lenses allowed me to whack a squash ball a modest percentage of the time, but that raised my “mercy pass” from the days of doing battle with the high school shuttlecock to maybe a C- if I was generous with myself. There were other illnesses and setbacks. The only area in which I had absolutely refused to capitulate was at the hairdresser, where I laid down the rule of no gray, Quaker or otherwise. For my pains I earned at least 123 comments —I hereby confess to having stopped reading at that number— on the Facebook page of the Association of Bad Friends (an ostensibly humorous place where some Quakers openly indulge in being good Friends) when I posted from the hairdresser about restoring my original hair color.
And then, there I was, on the ground, faced with the choice of signing an armistice with the local ER physician, physiotherapist, gym owner, and athletic trainer or else risk never walking properly again. I also had to look presentable at work in all of this —and truth be told, the situation once I opened the doors of the closet in the master bedroom was not what I would have liked, using any metric at my disposal. I signed the armistice.
On the other hand, at least I could take comfort in one fashion trend: perhaps as a response to the Scottish referendum, I found plaids in style. I had collected a few among my scarves over the years, and maybe I could acquire some others if they weren’t too expensive. The tartan representing my maternal grandmother’s family name might also make a good choice of scarf if I could order one in, and in the interim, I could buy a red shirt and echo the days I had almost forgotten, when I had the habit of wearing a red Stuart kilt to a Friends Meeting in England, earning a partially tongue-and-cheek eldering from the clerk about the colour.
Whatever was going to happen, I was sick of black. Gray looked good only to balance something more vivid. On the other hand, some of those trendy leggings I kept eyeing at the mall, when paired with the shorter skirts long ago tucked away at the back of the closet, might keep my clothes from getting tangled up in the crutches. (I look dismal in slacks, in case the reader is wondering why they are not part of my workday attire, and I have only just gotten to the point of being able to put on hose.) I would manage the problem of shoes. If the only footwear that could handle my swollen foot with any degree of panache was more than I had ever paid for shoes or boots, I would just have to “deal with it.”
I am tired of wearing black. I don’t care whether The Law of Black Clothing was approved by the Friends World Committee on Consultation or Anna Wintour of Vogue. And, if the august members of the Association of Bad Friends want to come and get me, here I am: I have once again engaged in my monthly ritual at the hairdresser, and my stylist (who happens not to be a Quaker) has not yet used William Penn’s sword to cut my hair or stir the dye.
|Note the Quaker attire
on some of the figures, |
and read here on the Quaker influence of the early women’s rights movement