Expressing Faith Through Fashion: Choice, Legalism or Both?

In many Christian traditions such as the Mennonites,  Quakers, Amish and various holiness movements dress was an outward expression of faith. However, there was and continues to be a fine line between an individual embracing dress as a form of religious expression and being forced to dress a certain way as a form of legalism. Playing with the Free Methodist history of dress in the late nineteenth and early 2oth century, I’ll explore some of these tensions in a multi-part series.

Free Methodist women were drawn to the pentacost bands, traveling evangelistic groups early in the denominations history. Notice that the women in this group all choose similar attire and the simplicity of dress and hair styles.

Free Methodist women, especially those who chose to preach and teach publicly  faced numerous barriers to acceptance- not least among them their attire, unlike their male counterparts because of the spiritual implications of their attire. What they chose to wear was symbolically perceived to represent their inward piety. As Susan Jarrett notes in Appropriate[ing] Dress that:

Women who assumed the public platform encountered ethical problems even before they spoke because dress ‘precede [s] verbal communication in establishing an individual’s gendered identity as well as expectations for other types of behavior” and transmits information not readily translatable into words. Women speakers visual appearance, marking gender (feminine) and intersecting with location (public and improper for women), might instantly preclude a credible ethos and negate efforts to employ logical and pathetic appeals. (5)

Thus, while both Free Methodist men and women chose to freeze fashion in favor of establishing an outward piety through dress, women faced larger obstacles to gaining acceptance through this attire. Unlike men whose restrictions were relatively minor, women evangelists had to be concerned not only with the lace on their dress but with covering their head before preaching. The issue of head coverings was so controversial that a series on the issue was published in the 1903 Free Methodist. An unnamed male elder commented that women who want to pray or preach in public must take a literal interpretation of I Corinthians 11:5 and pray and prophesy in public with their head covered or risk dishonor. As the author noted in the April 14, 1903, issue:

There are two reasons especially why women should have some kind of a covering on their heads when taking part in religious services. One of them is the fact that they appear to many persons immodest when they are bareheaded… No reputable woman would willingly appear alone on the streets in any public place with bear head. I have also been observing on this subject in our meetings for the last ten years especially, and have found inquiries among people not connected to our denomination, that almost without exception a woman is regarded as immodest who appears bareheaded in a religious service, and some persons especially have been shocked thereby that they have been greatly hindered in receiving the truths we so much desire to impress on our hearers. (8)

While Free Methodist women did desire to use dress as an outward expression of their faith, as the preceding article expresses it was also a means of constraining their bodies and their service. Dress was both a means of spiritual expression and a means of spiritual oppression.

To better understand the dialectical tension between clothing as a way to subject the body and empower the body will be examined through the life of Free Methodist Mariet Hardy Freeland. Freeland was a pioneer in the Free Methodist education movement and Ray was an African-American evangelist and urban missionary. As Hardy Freeland became deeply entrenched in her religious beliefs their commitment to simplicity in all areas of life, including dress, became a central part of her rhetoric.

Understanding Religious Attire

A young Mariet Hardy Freeland. Freeland’s dress changed little over her lifetime. Notice her commitment to simple, severe hairstyle, little ordainment on the dress and muted colors.

Over the past decade scholars have begun to examine not only the rhetoric of women in religious traditions but the visual rhetoric of their attire.  There was a distinctly Free Methodist style of dress that set members apart from the rest of the community. Social control/censorship of dress and personal censorship often go hand in hand in religious communities. As Graybill and Aruthur note in their examination of Mennonite dress there are three forms of normative control at play:

First, there is personal social control. Secondly, there is informal social control when individuals begin to offend, peers issue a warning of disapproval. Negative peer pressure may consolidate against an individual. Alternatively negative peer pressure may eventually bring the offender into line. Third, the offenders threat to social order is managed through social sanctions by specialized agents. (10)

In Free Methodism the social sanctions and peer pressure often came through the denominational publications, such as The Free Methodist, which featured articles praising modesty and simplicity in dress throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While some women, such as Mariet Hardy Freeland, seemed to willingly embrace these restrictions, even Hardy Freeland’s story illustrates the tension, guilt and struggle individuals go through as they adapt to their religious communities standards of dress.

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