The Amish Prison Uniform

The Amish Papers - Chapter 19

Among the multitudes of rules in Amish Ordnungs, rules regarding clothing number in the hundreds. It is no exaggeration to say that Amish people wear required uniforms that, in their minds, “separate them from the world.” To those who understand Amish culture, Amish clothing is akin to the uniforms that incarcerated people wear that identify them as prisoners. Just like those behind bars, Amish people have no choice in what they wear. This article, posted on Facebook on 12/8/22, explores that topic.

Most “outsiders”—the “English” as we are called by the Amish— are apt to think that all 350,000 Amish people in North America dress uniformly. They have no idea that there are scores of subtle variations in Amish dress codes from one Amish community to another. Those variations include acceptable women’s dress colors (always muted, solid colors but never patterns), number of pleats on women’s kapps, the number of men’s suspenders (0, 1 or 2), the brim width of straw hats, and much more. Amish people can often tell where other Amish people are from by observing those subtle dress code differences. And they also quickly notice if anyone within their own community is transgressing the dress code. Violators are corrected and disciplined if necessary.

Many Amish people have no clue about the origins of their dress peculiarities. If you ask an Amish woman, for example, why she has no buttons on her dress and must use scores of straight pins for fasteners, she is likely to tell you that is just how it has always been. And why are buttons not forbidden on men’s clothing? No one knows that either. (Buttons are used on men’s trouser flies and shirts.)

Amish folks would likely be very surprised to learn that modern Amish obsession with meticulous details regarding outward attire may well stem from the culture in which Jakob Amman, their founder and namesake, was born. Amman, a tailor by trade, was just as familiar as every other European of his time with what were called “sumptuary laws.” Those were strictly-enforced civil regulations that, among other things, stipulated detailed clothing restrictions for various classes of people.

For example, in 1672, officials in Switzerland’s Canton of Bern mandated that silk clothing be forbidden for the general population. They made an exception, however, for nobility—as long as their silk clothing was unadorned and without ruffles. Interestingly, the same mandate required maids to make their dresses from simple, “rural” cloth, with plain collars and without any lace or ribbons. The rationale was obvious: Maids should be easily distinguishable from their higher-class superiors.

So, imagine living under a civil government, wedded to a state church, that stringently regulated clothing styles and adornment of all citizens. Imagine your state government encouraging all its citizens to spy on and report the non-compliant. That was the only world Jakob Amman ever knew. As a tailor, he risked paying steep fines if he made or sold forbidden clothing.

All of this is to say that, although modern Anabaptists generally justify their distinctive attire with biblical references to modesty, simplicity and humility, the actual origin of their peculiar dress is more likely overbearing 17th-century European civil law that was designed to preserve class distinctions and the social order. Said another way, Amish attitudes regarding clothing distinctives have their origins in the “world”! Modern Amish culture is just a vestige of everyday European culture from three centuries ago.

This is not to say, of course, that authentic Christians should have no convictions regarding outward attire. John the Baptist, who wore a garment made of camel’s hair, told his convicted audiences that the person who has two coats should share with someone who is without a coat (Luke 3:11), and James similarly warned the rich that their garments had “become moth-eaten” (Jas. 5:2), a reference to Jesus’ prohibition of laying up earthly treasures. All of this indicates that clothing can be a stewardship issue.

In addition, both Paul and Peter gave general instructions regarding women’s outward attire that encouraged modesty and discouraged vanity (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3). Jesus also warned about those who cause others to stumble, which certainly has some application to modest clothing.

Still, there is no hint of a “Christian uniform” in the New Testament. And Scripture does allow for individual convictions regarding issues on which Scripture is silent, while also prescribing respect, toleration, and love for those whose convictions differ. So that is what followers of Christ do. We don’t establish clothing regulations or require uniforms.

Have you noticed that God made us all different? Our faces are all unique. Our personalities vary greatly. There are numerous body types. We possess different talents, skills and abilities. So why would God want or expect us to all dress and groom identically? That goes against how He’s made us.

And what could possibly be wrong with expressing my personality and my personal preferences in dress and grooming, within reason?

And is it possible to not wear a uniform and not be proud? Or maybe a more important question to ask would be, is it possible to allow others to not wear a uniform and not be jealous of them? (Jealousy may well be the root behind any demand for uniformity.)

Here’s one more question: Should I not care more about what my spouse prefers regarding my appearance than my bishop?

Amish folks and other Anabaptists sometimes make the claim that their distinctive attire “sets them apart from the world,” which sure sounds biblical. They also claim that their distinctive attire serves as a reminder and incentive for them to live righteously before those who are watching. OK, but distinctive dress also serves as a barrier to the gospel, because it sends the silent message to the unsaved that, if they want to be accepted by God, they must start wearing a uniform. That is one reason why modern Anabaptists are so ineffective in spreading the gospel and building God’s kingdom. (And most Amish people, of course, make no effort to reach the lost because most of them are lost themselves.)

All of this is to say that, at least to me, the Amish uniform is emblematic of a prison uniform, because all Amish people live in a social prison, jailed behind walls not made of concrete, but of threats from people whose love is conditional.

What should ex-Amish people do whose still-Amish relatives require them to dress Amish if they want the “privilege” to visit? Personally, I would have difficulty playing that game. If they know you’ve left the Amish and are no longer wearing the Amish prison uniform every day, what difference does it make if you pretend you are still Amish when you are around them? How would they react if you told them they had to dress “English” if they wanted to visit you?

I think that if I was ex-Amish, and my still-Amish family required that I wear the Amish prison uniform when I visited them, I would say:

Sorry, but I’ve believed in Jesus, the Son of God. He is now my Lord, not the bishop. And He has never given anyone a commandment regarding any uniform. Plus, He Himself never wore Amish clothes. Rather, He wore what everyone else in His day wore. If Jesus showed up today at your house without Amish clothes, would you let Him in? Apparently not! Neither would you allow Peter, Paul, John, James and Jude, who all followed Jesus’ example and wore the same clothing as everyone else, to enter your house! You might want to think about that.

So, if you want to follow manmade rules and conform to autocratic 300-year-old European culture, that is your choice. But if you reject me for following Jesus, Jesus said you are rejecting Him. And that is also your choice.

For me, I’m going to follow Jesus even if it costs me everything, including my family relationships. Knowing and serving Him is more important to me than anything, and I love Him more than anyone. Beyond that, I now have a new family consisting of millions of other people around the world who believe in the Lord Jesus like me. And I am welcome in all their homes without Amish prison clothes!

Not everyone will agree on those last couple of paragraphs, and they might suggest more grace on my part. They may well be right, and I am aware that I am still “a Christian under construction”!