Hair: Historical to Hysterical

Baskin-Robbins offers nearly 60 flavors of ice cream at their shoppes. The varieties of dress among Mennonites and Amish, who split from the Mennonites, is nearly as long and equally fascinating. In recent research, I counted dozens of sub-sects.


By far the most conservative group that maintains plain dress is the Old Order Amish church. The Amish have unfortunately reached pop culture status with hideous reality shows that exploit their way of life including their dress distinctives:

Amish men                AmishGirls

Herr                                                                                    Frau

Beards                                                                          Headcovering with tie strings

Hair cut off straight in back, banged in front                Uncut hair parted in center in bun

Coats, vets fastening with hooks & eyes                       Long dress with cape in solid color

Suspenders and broadfall pants                                  Pleated or gathered skirt

Wide brimmed hats                                                       Black shoes and stockings

As though frozen in time, attire of the Old Order Amish church has not noticeably evolved, reminiscent of their European origins.

Then there is the Brethren Church with its various branches. “The Old Order River Brethren continue to wear traditional garb.” The men look much like Amish but the women “wear opaque white headcoverings, capes, aprons, and a peplum on the dress bodice,” which tapers to a V-shape. An excellent source for detail of other sub-sects:

Typically, my visit to PA includes an appointment with a perky River Brethren woman who gives massages. You gasp “Massages!” but it’s true! Esther has my vote for the Most Modest Masseuse on Earth; she gives head-to-toe therapeutic massages in her home for a shockingly modest fee. Were she fancy, and not plain, she would fit perfectly in a chiroparactor’s office. Note peplum, short ruffle attached at waistline in photo below:

massage table                PlainMassageLady_13x18_72_brighten

Finally, there is not simply a Mennonite Church, but a cluster of branches, including a very conservative branch called Black-Bumpers, who drive cars but paint their shiny chrome bumpers black (less flashy)! Once in Lancaster I spotted a sleek Mercedes-Benz sedan with black bumpers and very plain girls spilling out—an image of paradox if there ever was one.

My own brand of Mennonites is the Lancaster Conference Mennonites, who have driven cars rather than horse and buggies but have long adhered to a strict code of dress since their emigration from Europe in the early 1700s. However, plain dress among these Mennonites has been falling by the wayside since the 1960s and 70s when these photos below were snapped.

3twogirlsMeet the Mennonites_Cover_5x7_150                      3MeettheMennonites

Smith, Elmer L. and Melvin Horst. “Meet the Mennonites in Pennsylvania Dutchland,”
Lebanon, PA: Applied Arts Publishers, 1997.

Marian_hair_braids_3x5_96     Marian_middleschool

Braids, also known as pig tails           Braids circling head with hairpins, middle school

Beaman_Longenecker_wedding_announce  Engagement: transition to fancy



Cliff_Marian_hair teased_Crista_4x3_150

Marge Simpson wannabe

Little known fact: The family of Milton Snavely Hershey, the Chocolate King, were Reformed Mennonites; his mother was a member and his grandfather, Abram Snavely, was a bishop for 37 years. Milton married a non-Mennonite. (“Meet the Mennonites”)


There is a connection, I think, between chocolate and access to memory both plain or fancy, expressed so distinctly by Barbara Crooker:


“. . . for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.

I Samuel 16:7



Secrets of the Ra-Ra Sewinghood

Thread 1

All Mennonite girls of the 1950s and 60s made their own clothes. Hager’s, Watt & Shand, or Garvin’s in Lancaster city was not the place to shop for dresses with capes or any other plain clothing. So, we made our own frocks on Mother’s foot-powered treadle machine.

                          180px-Singer_sewing_machin copy

Creating a ward-robe entailed buying a pattern by Simplicity, McCall, or Butterick that we could adapt, finding fabric by the yard at one of the department stores or a specialty shop like Mohr’s Fabrics. Usually, my sisters and I were allowed to buy any material we wanted within reason. We knew solid bright red was out and probably purple, now two of my favorites. One shopping spree as a young teen, I found a pretty, multi-colored repeat pattern on a black background and pulled the bolt out of the stack for Mom to admire:

“Look at this!” I chirped.

Mom looked at the material with squinty eyes, and gasped, “Don’t you see there are guns!”

Now it was my turn to look squinty-eyed. “Guns!” I had to look harder. Yes, you could imagine that those tiny figures on black fabric were shaped like guns. On principle, guns were forbidden in the Mennonite church.  Our household had a little cap gun which we outfitted with rolls of red ribbon with black dots of ammunition for the 4th of July, but otherwise guns were used only for hunting deer, pheasants, and other game by men. Using guns to kill people, even during warfare, was strictly forbidden.

Christian Doctrine_cover_150_med Christian Doctrine_Nonresistance page_4x7_150

The fabric with the offensive repeat pattern? You guessed it—I did not buy it, which according to my mother, shrieked GUNS!

We always attended public school, and now that I think of it, our family observed a double standard: skirts and blouses for school but always caped dresses for church. When I joined the teaching staff  at Lancaster Mennonite School, caped dresses of course were de rigeur. And when my life took a different path, I gave away such dresses to a Mennonite consignment shop with strict instructions about my identity to the lady in charge so that no student would embarrass herself by showing up to class in a dress worn by the former Sister Longenecker. Here is a pattern with a pleated skirt and cute neckline I adapted into a “plain” dress:


Thread 2

My light blue Singer sewing machine is portable, so I can use it at home on weekends or put it into the Studebaker to use at my campus home when I’m not making lesson plans or grading papers.


Months earlier I have met my neighbor’s best friend, Cliff, who is now my boy-friend. Now that he has completed his Bachelor’s degree and working on his Divinity degree, he is allowed to live off campus with 3 other students with whom he shares rent, utilities, and fuel bills. He works in the dining common to pay tuition. Since December we have been writing letters back and forth. Of course, there were no cell-phones in the 1960s and long distance calls were way too expensive, so we made do with letters–lots of them.

Cliff: “It’s reee..aa..ll..y cold here.” A rare snow has fallen in the Carolinas and the nasty cold air wheezes beneath the open crawl space in the rental house. “We ran out of oil until the 25th when we get paid, so the guys and I are sleeping in overcoats and tons of blankets until we can get more oil.  The only way we can get drinking water is to thaw snow in a kettle on the stove. Every thing is frozen up.”

Marian, the nurturer, clicks into gear: “Really! That’s awful. Isn’t there something you could do—space heaters?

Cliff: “No, that would take too much electricity!”

I formulate a plan to make him a robe for Valentine’s Day, so I buy heavy marine blue terry cloth and set to work, adding the appropriate initials in sturdy, white thread. Vintage robe below!

RobePattern Cliff'sRobe

My blue Singer sewing machine moves with me the next school year from Lancaster, PA to Charlotte, NC where I make the transition from very plain to less plain. During the year I get engaged to the formerly frozen student who has quickly thawed out, and we make plans for an August wedding. My machine goes into high gear in full fancy mode stitching the thick white peau de soie (French for “skin of silk”) gown with an empire waist and a train attached to a belted bow. First Lady Jackie Kennedy has an enormous influence on style evident in this pattern.


Settling into the hectic life of big city Jacksonville, I keep a connection with my roots with my trusty Singer. I am bold enough to use the fancier Vogue patterns, experimenting with multiple fabric colors in the same outfit.


Next I buy a host of patterns for a little girl and boy to wear—and of course a teddy bear!

TeddyBear Pattern

What vintage clothing in your wardrobe have you hung onto? For sentimental reasons? Some other reason? Let us know: Click on Reply/Comment.

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