Amish Plain Clothes

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Amish apron, Jamesport, Missouri, USA, 2017 (TRC 2017.2999).

Amish apron, Jamesport, Missouri, USA, 2017 (TRC 2017.2999).

Jamesport, Missouri (USA), is a small farming town surrounded by hectares of maize fields. Its official population is approximately 500 people. There is one other thing you should know about Jamesport, which made it perfect for my mission of expanding the TRC’s collection of North American textiles.

Jamesport is home to the largest community of Amish people west of the Mississippi River. Some 165 Amish families live and farm around the town. You can see them driving horse-drawn buggies on the roads (the use of cars and electricity is considered too worldly). They worship according to their Anabaptist beliefs and still speak the German dialect their ancestors did when they first came to North America in the 1700s. They also wear a distinctive form of clothing that they call ‘plain’ or ‘simple’ dress.

I wanted to buy some examples of this clothing for the TRC. Amish clothing is unadorned, in muted colours. The women wear ankle-length dresses, with an apron and bonnet; the men long trousers with shoulder straps. The clothing appears old fashioned in the 21st century and immediately distinguishes the wearer as a community member.

Pair of trousers for an Amish man, from Jamesport, Missouri, USA, 2017 (TRC 2017.2986).

Pair of trousers for an Amish man, from Jamesport, Missouri, USA, 2017 (TRC 2017.2986).

It was easy to find Amish quilts for sale in Jamesport. This distinctive style is immediately recognizable: dark colours (except for the pattern known as Star of Bethlehem or Broken Star), no checks or prints, with a centre dominated by an abstract motif, frequently of bars or stripes or blocks, with wide, unadorned borders. Amish quilts are also very collectible and sell for USD 1000 to USD 2000.

Amish clothing, however, wasn’t so easy to find. Fortunately, two shops in Jamesport gave me the same advice: drive down the hill for three miles, cross the railroad tracks, and look for the first building on the left. The directions were spot on: inside this shop were rows and rows of used Amish clothing, plus pickles, preserves, and other home goods for sale.

All the clothes were of a synthetic mix (except for a few pairs of denim trousers), and were of factory woven material. The clothes were also all skilfully home made, except for the men’s long sleeved white shirts (TRC 2017.2981), which were factory-made. Male trousers (TRC 2017.2982, 2017.2986) had a buttoned fall-front flap, with pockets and shoulder straps in the same material. While trousers for adult males and younger boys had buttons, some clothes for infants (TRC 2017.2984 and 2017.2983) used metal snaps. Many Amish consider zippers too worldly and will not use them.

While the male clothes showed no personal embellishments, there were small differences in some of the adult women’s dresses (TRC 2017.2995a, 2996, 2998). Almost all were loose fitting and ankle length, in solid pastel colours (primarily blue, grey, and green), with no prints or checks. Some featured a yoke or bib in the same material and most had a pocket. Sometimes an apron was made of the same material as the dress. While all the sleeves reached below the elbow, some women had made close-fitting cuffs, others loose. On some dresses a thin strip of the dress material has been sewn around the cuffs, a discreet embellishment. I did find one unfinished woman’s white dress with thin stripes (TRC 2017.2997), which made me curious about its story. All the clothes can be seen in the TRC’s on-line catalogue at www.trc-leiden.nl.

18th September 2017, by Shelley Anderson

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