Major Functions of Amish Traditional Attire

By: Summer Young

The strongest identifying feature of the Old Order Amish is most decidedly their peculiar garb. Unique grooming and dress styles have provided symbolic separation from the world since the origin of Amish society. To operate effectively, in-groups such as the Amish use various symbols to enhance recognition. Styles of grooming and dress serve not only to make the Amish highly visible to the outside world, but also to clarify statuses such as age, sex, and position within the society and among individual Amish communities. The practicing of distinctive grooming and dress norms by the Old Order Amish functions in four main capacities: as an expression of distinction from the world, as an action of obedience to church and God, as a definition of identity and status, and as a symbol of unity and community.

The first and foremost manifest function of the peculiar style of Amish dress is to create visible in-group/out-group boundaries. The basis of Amish theology is that to be worldly is to be lost. Therefore, the Amish fully utilize in-group/out-group dynamics as they strive to be separate, or different, in every way from the "world." Dress serves as a boundary mechanism to separate the member of the Amish community from the world and to identify the worldly outsider to the Amish person. In Katie, a novel by Clara Bernice Miller, Katie (the main character) describes, in a nutshell, what she as an Amish person considers to be sin as she grapples with a concept of salvation that is different from the one she has been taught. Katie describes the Amish conception of sin as conformity to the world: driving cars, wearing fancy clothes, and using electricity in the house - IF the church said you couldn't. In the novel, as in all Amish societies of the past and present, the church clarifies such actions as sinful through the Ordnung - a set of written rules developed and adopted by the church. The Ordnung is a common means of defining separation from the world and of managing natural human tendency toward self-exaltation and manipulative power. Ordnung may vary slightly from society to society, but all Ordnungs function to guide members in the application and practice of a set of common principles which were designed in the sixteenth century (Hostetler, 82-83).

The Amish person's practice of dressing in accordance with his or her society's Ordnung is also an action of obedience, another manifest function of Amish traditional garb practices. An Amish person's level of obedience is intensely important to him/her because it is ultimately a symbol of whether he/she loves the church or not. Hair and dress styles are a barometer of church loyalty. According to an Amish minister, "You can single your people out, your families out, which way they are leaning by the cut of their hair," (qtd. in Kraybill 59). In addition to being an expression of protest against a proud, disobedient world, style of dress is considered an expression of obedience. In Miller's novel, Katie's baptismal dress is only made as fancy as church rules allow. Donald Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture, also describes the importance of conformity to church rules in baptismal dress:
Although Amish dress is important throughout the life cycle, it is especially scrutinized at the time of baptism. Families vary a great deal in their enforcement of church regulations, but at baptism, everyone must conform.
Another example of the gravity in which the Amish hold church rulings on the appropriateness of attire is when, in Miller's novel, Katie takes steps toward making her wardrobe more conservative when her bishop condemns the current state of women's apparel. It is the belief of the Amish that giving up control over the presentation of one's body is the supreme sign that the self has yielded to a higher authority. Dressing in a prescribed manner is a public announcement of one's surrender to the supremacy of the group (Kraybill 50). Details of Amish grooming and dress announce to others the extent of one's conformity to church standards. The compliance to church standards of a certain Amish individual may be gauged by the width of a hat brim, the length of hair and skirt, the extent of a hair covering, or the color of shoes and stockings.

A more latent function of the traditional garb practice of the Old Order Amish is as a definition of identity and status of the individual. The specific dimensions of a man's hat or a woman's kapp, or prayer covering, vary from community to community. Therefore, among Amish persons, an individual may be identified as a member of a specific Amish community according to what style of head covering he/she wears. Distinct styles of grooming and dress not only admit an individual to full fellowship, but also serve to identify what position an individual may hold within the Amish community. For example, a man's style of hat differentiates between the newlywed and the church elder. Manufacturers of Amish hats produce at least twenty-eight different sizes and twelve different styles of hats (Hostetler, 237).

The distinct unity of the Amish community has been a key factor in the survival of the group and the retention of their peculiar culture. Uniformity of grooming and dress has served to solidify the Amish community as it makes them highly identifiable to both other Amish individuals and to the outside world. In modern society, the way we dress symbolizes our individuality, whereas in Amish society, dress signals submission the collective order and enhances group solidarity. Members of the Amish community are united by common dress. Wearing the prescribed attire of the Amish prevents an individual from merging into the mainstream because it is easier to act, think, and feel Amish when dressed Amish; common dress is a constant reminder of loyalty. In Amish society, as in any other, a norm may not always dictate what is worn, but whether and/or when something is worn. In the novel Katie, a group of girls who choose to wear their coverings on dates rather than remove them, as is custom, undergo ridicule from their community. Despite the fact that the "covering bunch" is trying to embrace a purer way of courting, they are accused by many of working against the harmony of the community. The new practice of wearing coverings on dates causes a rift that threatens the cohesiveness of the whole community.

The traditional garb of the Old Order Amish is a very distinctive symbol of Amish society's tradition and virtue. Through traditional grooming and dress, the Amish express their distinction from the world, are actively obedient to the church, define their identity and status as members of the Amish community, and symbolically encourage unity and community within their society. Conformity to traditional dress and grooming practices of Amish society has greatly contributed to the longevity and resiliency of Amish culture.