Over the last year I have read a number of books about the Amish and Mennonites. Thus far, I have found Why Do They Dress That Way? by Stephen Scott to be the most impressive. It is 160 pages in length, and is made up of 13 chapters and additional information. Surprisingly, it isn’t just a book about the attire of a couple religious groups who are often referred to as “plain people.” It is also a history of changing attitudes about clothing.
The book’s regular references to change and history are fascinating. Chapter 3 of the text explains where plain dress originated. This is done through a consideration of changing norms for clothing through the last few centuries. For example, stylish, ready-made clothing became cheap and easily available in the 19th century (pg. 21). Most country people gladly stepped on the constantly revolving fashion merry-go-round, but plain people saw danger in letting the whims of worldly fashion dictate what Christians should wear. These kinds of statements are made throughout the book. References and quotations from people and concepts from the 18th through parts of the 20th century are common.
Because of this, change is one of the book’s major themes. For instance, the fourth chapter shares the “The Midwest Amish Pattern of Change,” while the fifth provides a case study of this idea. To help illustrate his points, the author relies on photos and other images throughout the book. Like other books on the Amish and Mennonites, these are a bit dated, but still more useful than those found in other works I’ve read. One of its best uses is in its last chapter. It is titled “Plain Dress in Detail,” and uses dozens of basic line drawings to illustrate different variations of plain clothing. Although it may be obvious to some, this section goes so far as to highlight different types of shawls and mantles worn by women (pg. 122). It also highlights different styles of collars on men’s shirts (pg. 124). This impressive detail is even more pronounced when one notes that over 10 different types of bonnets are illustrated in this chapter!
The author’s dedication to his subject is admirable, and I could easily tell that he felt strongly about his subject. He even shares his “path to plainness” in one chapter. I appreciate that he begins his book by how one’s attire is a kind of language and speaks volumes about a person. I agree with his perspective in that regard, and others. One of the best parts is the section on common objections to plain dress. It is thought-provoking and insightful.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned that this work is a history of changing attitudes about clothing. This is apparent when we remember that Mr. Scott discusses plain clothing as practiced by other religious groups as well. Chapter 6 briefly discusses Quakers, Catholic religious orders, and Hasidic Jews too (pgs. 52, 56-57). The book’s historical focus is another one of its strengths, and one of many reasons why I can recommend it to others. Why Do They Dress That Way? is a quality book, and I look forward to reading other titles by Mr. Stephen Scott in the future.
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Group of Amish Gathering in the Morning by emailamyd from Pixabay.