Clothing: Dress and Religion in America's Sectarian Communities

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America is home to numerous sectarian religious groups, most of whom immigrated to the United States from their original homes in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. They are sects, rather than organized religions, as their beliefs focus on separation from the dominant religions, power systems, and culture at large. In spite of their relocation to the United States, many of these groups intentionally avoid assimilation into the larger American culture. Whereas they may be physically located in the United States, they symbolically indicate their uniqueness. Sectarian religious groups use cultural boundary markers such as dress, language, and other customs that focus on maintaining their ethnic and religious heritage; hence they are often referred to as "ethno-religious" groups.

Dress is one of the most interesting cultural boundary markers because it is a visual manifestation of cultural identity. As a window into the social world, dress is bound by a tacit set of rules, customs, conventions, and rituals that guide face-to-face interaction. To many of America's sectarian religious groups, clothing is an important symbol of religious identification. However, for most of these groups the regulation of personal appearance goes beyond clothing. The term dress, as it is used here, includes clothing, grooming, and all forms of body adornment. Dress also includes behaviors related to the control of the body, such as dieting, plastic surgery, and cosmetics. Holistically, then, dress functions as an effective means of nonverbal communication. Ideas, concepts, and categories fundamental to a group, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and religion, help define a person's identity that is then expressed outwardly through a person's appearance. Both individual and group identity are projected through dress because self-presentation and self-promotion are used by people to visually present identity that is congruent with their belief systems. Members of religious groups actively construct their own lives and use dress symbolically to express religious beliefs, adaptation to social change, and the conformity to social norms and religious authority.

Many of America's sectarian religious groups fit into the sociological notion of high-context cultures; in such communities, social cues are clearly embedded in expectations having to do with members' daily lives. In high-context cultures, visible symbols provide for a rich coding system that is readily understood by the culture's members. Dress is the most visible symbol for America's sectarian societiesthey have developed cultural norms with regard to defining what forms of dress are considered acceptable to their specific groups. Dress codes, both formal and informal, exist as a means of showing identity. In the case of the most stringently enforced dress codes found in America's ethno-religious groups, an individual's own personal identity is subsumed by group identity.

Religious Ideologies

Fundamentally, dress codes are less about clothing than about the control of the body by the more powerful members of a group who enforce ideologies pertinent to that religious culture. America's ethno-religious groups are based on patriarchy that is divinely ordered. They subscribe to the notion that God ordained male power. Where religious dress codes exist, they express group identity and simultaneously function as a means of reinforcing male patriarchal control within the group. Dress codes are related to gendered power; in essence, dress codes within most of America's ethno-religious groups are a reflection of male control over women's bodies.

To examine how dress can be expressive of religious ideologies, it is helpful to understand how each of America's major religions perceives the role of dress as a means of identity expression. These values are based on long-standing beliefs found in each group's history. Judaism is based on the concept that people exist to glorify God, and to be appropriately dressed, then, is a religious duty. Similarly for Christianity, modesty with regard to body exposure is an important value that is a key indicator of religious conservatism. For fundamentalist Christians, such as the Anabaptist groups (Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites) whose religious precepts include the requirement that they be uniquely separate from the larger society, dress is used to show that separation. In these ethno-religious sectarian groups, dress is often hyper-conservative or may even be a form of fossilized fashion, where the garments look much like those worn by their ancestors hundreds of years ago.

Islamic ideology focuses on male power and requires separation of the sexes in public and private spheres. Among American sectarian religious groups, codes of modesty go beyond the covering of women's bodies to include restriction of women's behavior. America is home to a disparate group of people who fled their original countries seeking more freedom and issues of dress codes in the home country have often been cited as unduly restrictive. For example, when in public, Saudi Arabian women cover everything but the eyes with cloaks (abbaya ) and veils, referred to as "life's uniform." Throughout the larger cities in Iran, posters announce the specifics of the dress code requiring Iranian women to dress similarly to Saudi women. Iranian women are required to wear chadors that cover all but their faces. In Afghanistan under Taliban control, women were killed if they did not wear the all-enveloping burka or chadaree. Muslim women who have immigrated to the United States continue to wear clothing that meets standards of modesty acceptable to the woman, her family, and her religious community. It is much more rare to see Muslim women in America who are completely veiled; whereas loose, modest clothing and head veils are common in the United States, face veils are not.

Modesty and Female Sexuality in Dress

Among all of the major ethno-religious groups in America, modesty in women's dress is associated with gender norms; this is a major issue to sectarian societies. Gender issues are paramount in the dress codes of conservative religious groups, because the control of female sexuality is often of great importance in patriarchal societies. The dress codes generally relate to modesty and require clothing to cover the contours of the female body.

As used by religious groups, the issue of modesty goes beyond the covering of women's bodies in order to disguise female curves and secondary sexual characteristics; in the conservative strains of all of the major religions, dress codes also deal with the care and covering of women's hair, as it is associated with women's sexuality. Further complicating matters, dress codes are conflated with gender and power issues in America's ethno-religious groups. At the root of this issue is the control of female sexuality that is perceived to be necessary by some religious groups as a means to maintain social order.

An understanding of how dress works within religious groups calls attention to the complexity of meanings surrounding visible symbols such as dress and sheds light on the ways bodies can communicate social and religious values. The dress of America's sectarian religious groups can be used to facilitate social and ideological agendas. In these societies clothing and personal adornment are used for establishing and maintaining personal and social identities, social hierarchies, definitions of deviance, and patriarchal systems of power, which is evidenced in social control measures, and these are subtly expressed in dress codes. As a consequence, dress within conservative religious groups is a symbol of the individual's commitment to his or her ethno-religious society, while it also symbolizes the group's control over its individual member's lives. For America's fundamentalist Christian groups, and the Anabaptist groups in particular, dress is important with regard to its role as a cultural boundary marker that has an active role in maintaining the social control system and in greatly retarding social change and acculturation.

Dress and Social Control

With many of America's sectarian societies, dress is an immediate and visible indicator of how a person fits into his or her religious sect. As a marker of identity, dress may be used to gauge the person's commitment to the group and to the religious value system. In many of the most conservative groups, suppression of individuality is expected in order to show obedience to the rules of the religious organization. Ethno-religious groups frequently use clothing to simultaneously express ethnicity, gender norms, and level of religious involvement (religiosity). Through conformance to a strict religious value system, the most conservative of the American sectarian groups exert control over their members' spirituality and simultaneously control their bodies. Since strict conformity is often equated with religiosity, compliance to strict codes of behavior is demanded. The internal body is subject to control by the religious culture, especially with regard to food and sex. The external body, however, is much more visibly restrained. Strict dress codes are enforced because dress is considered symbolic of religiosity. Clothing becomes a symbol of social control as it controls the external body. Whereas a person's level of religiosity cannot be objectively perceived, symbols such as clothing are used as evidence that the member of the religious group is on the "right and true path."

Normative social control begins with personal social control through self-regulation, followed by informal social control. The member wants to fit into the group and expresses role commitment by following the social norms, visibly expressed in the group's dress code. When the individual begins to offend, for example, by wearing a garment that is too revealing of body contours, peers may disapprove and use subtle methods of informal control to pressure the individual to conform to the group norms. Finally, the threat an offender introduces to the social order is managed through formal social control measures, such as disciplinary actions and expulsion administered by specialized agents, including ministers, rabbis, and other moral arbiters. Thus, norms are managed through social control to inhibit deviation and insure conformity to social norms at even the most minute level.

Through symbolic devices, the physical body exhibits the normative values of the social body. Symbols such as dress help delineate the social unit and visually define its boundaries because they give nonverbal information about the individual. Unique dress attached to specific religious and cultural groups, then, can function to insulate group members from outsiders while bonding the members to each other. Normative behavior within the culture reaffirms loyalty to the group and can be evidenced by the wearing of a uniform type of attire.

Within American culture there are specific ethno-religious groups that intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society and attempt to reestablish the small, face-to-face community. Many originated in Europe and moved to America when religious freedom was promised to immigrants. Shakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish are such groups. These groups are often perceived by the outside world as quite unusual, but that derives more from their unique customs and behaviors than from their religious differences from mainstream Christianity. An essential factor in ethno-religious groups, social control is significant in terms of the survival prospects of the group. Among Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg, New York, social control was achieved in ways remarkably similar to those used by the Amish and conservative Mennonites. The most important features included isolation from the external society; emphasis on conformity with status related to religiosity (symbolized by clothing status markers); a powerful clergy; and rigorous sanctions to insure conformity to norms.

Some of America's sectarian ethno-religious groups use fossilized fashion to separate themselves from the outside world. Notable among these are the Shakers, Amish, Hasidic Jews, Hutterites, and several conservative Mennonite groups. Fossilized fashion has been explained as a sudden "freezing" of fashion, whereby a group continues to wear a style long after it has gone out of style for the general population. This phenomenon has been explained as expressing dignity and high social status or the group's religious, old-fashioned, sectarian identity. Within certain ethno-religious groups, fossilized fashion is used in contemporary settings as a visual symbol of traditional gender roles for women; this generally occurs in societies that find change to be a threat.

Sectarian Dress

Some of America's sectarian groups are referred to as "plain people" because they believe that simplicity is a prerequisite for Christian living. Their religious mandate that they live separate from the world is visibly manifest in their use of "plain dress" that identifies them as uniquely different from other Americans. In 1986 there were just under 800,000 people living in these sectarian societies. In spite of assimilation pressures, however, at that time over half of these groups still dressed plain or semiplain.

Among the best known of America's plain people are the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites who are descended from the Anabaptists, a radical group that originated during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. As the Anabaptists migrated from Europe to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, schisms occurred, and frequently the concept of how the group was to maintain its separation from the larger American culture was at issue. Cultural boundary markers that are visual, such as dress, figured into many of these schisms. Today there are a wide range of dress standards in the approximately 3,000 communities of Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites in the United States; 65 percent of these groups use plain dress.


Among America's sectarian societies is the Old Order Amish, whose dress is used to visually separate them from outsiders. Amish women and girls are known for wearing long, loose dresses made from solid-colored fabric that are pinned rather than buttoned. These dresses are covered with a cape over the bust and apron; in winter a shawl is worn for warmth. Following the perceived biblical mandate of 1 Corinthians 11:26, their hair is not cut but is parted and put in a bun; over that a white prayer covering is worn. Differences between Amish communities are seen in the pleating of the prayer covering. Pants, cosmetics, and jewelry are not allowed.

Amish men and boys are allowed to have buttons on their solid-colored shirts, but they often have hooks and eyes on outerwear such as jackets and vests. They wear dark-colored suits, "plain coats" (straight-cut coats without lapels) and broad-fall trousers with suspenders, like those worn centuries ago. Hats are broad-brimmed. In winter, black felt hats are worn, in summer the hats are of straw. Their hair is worn in a bowl cut, and they are not allowed to wear mustaches. Once married, men grow beards.


Only one-fourth of the Mennonite groups dress plain in the twenty-first century. Like the Quakers and many Brethren groups, many Mennonite groups began to eliminate clothing restrictions in the late nineteenth century as they began to assimilate into the larger American culture. Mennonite ministers had concerns with regard to assimilation and the perception that it might draw Mennonites away from their spiritual roots; as a result these concerns led to a revival of plain dress between the 1920s and 1940s. Nonetheless, by the 1980s most Mennonite groups had nearly abandoned plain dress. Those wishing to maintain plain dress standards frequently joined more conservative Mennonite groups. Plain dress is still used in the most conservative Mennonite communities, such as among the Holdeman Mennonites (Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) and among the Old Order Mennonites.

Modesty and gender segregation are the prevailing features for women's dress in the plain Mennonite groups. Dress styles are regulated by tradition; they are quite similar to those worn by their forebears in the previous centuries. Dresses are loose, high-necked, often long-sleeved, with skirts worn at calf length or longer. The most conservative Mennonite women also wear an apron and cape to disguise the bust and abdomen. A head covering (black for Holdeman women, white for other Mennonites) is required to be worn over uncut hair, which is pinned up in a bun. Fabric for dresses may be of subtle prints or patterns. Slacks and shorts are not allowed. Similarly, jewelry, fancy buttons, and cosmetics are prohibited as worldly.

In the plain Mennonite groups, dress is more restrictive for women than for men; it is the women's responsibility to maintain the tradition of plain dress. Mennonite men in the plain groups are not as distinctly dressed. In some groups a plain suit is worn to church, and men are prohibited from wearing ties and shaving beards, though some may trim their beards. Outside of church, plain Mennonite men often dress much like non-Mennonite neighbor men, in denim pants and plaid shirts. In contrast, Hasidic Jewish men wear more distinctive clothing than their wives.

Hasidic Jews

Among the most visibly orthodox of the Jewish groups, Hasidic Jews are easily distinguishable by their dress: men with beards and long side curls typically wear broad-brimmed black hats, black suits, and even black topcoats. Their dress is sometimes confused with that of Amish men, as both groups wear fossilized fashion that originated from the 1600s. Hasidic Jews wear the same clothes as centuries ago in order to protect themselves against assimilation and to reinforce their respect for the teachings of the Torah.

A Hasidic man's everyday wardrobe consists of a wool suit in a dark color with a long tailored jacket (bekeshe ), under which he wears a white shirt. He wears a felt hat most days. On the Jewish Sabbath, dress is more formal. The bekeshe is black satin or silk, and the hat (streimel) is a round hat made of fur. Under the jacket he wears a rectangular prayer shawl.

Hasidic Jewish women take care to dress modestly but have no prescribed garments. Skirts and sleeves are long, and they wear stockings. If they are married, their natural hair must be covered, even in the home. Hair is perceived as a sexual element appropriate only for the husband's view. Prior to immigration to the United States, Hasidic women covered their hair with kerchiefs or wigs that were obviously artificial. However, the use of fine human hair has made the wigs often look as good as or better than women's own hair, and the rabbis have started questioning whether these wigs now meet the religious requirements of modesty.

Dress and Social Change

With changing social, political, and economic environments, even the most sectarian religious group has to contend with the impact of social change. Changes in dress often signal underlying changes in social roles as well as gender roles. Traditional gender roles can be marked by a particular form of dress where the roles are stable for long periods of time; when dress changes suddenly in these groups, one can expect to find a change in gender roles. A good example is that of the change in the dress of Roman Catholic priests and nuns following the changes instituted by Vatican II in the 1960s. The changes were more pronounced for nuns, and as their roles within the church dramatically changed, so too did their dress. Additionally, when roles are restrictive, one can expect to see a restriction in women's dress in the form of either dress codes or physically restrictive clothing.

In conclusion, dress in America's sectarian societies can be used visually to provide distinction between the sacred and the profane, especially in the symbolic separation of the ethno-religious subculture from a dominant culture. As ethno-religious groups encounter social change, dress often symbolically becomes important as certain items of a religious group's clothing may be classified as sacred in contrast to what is considered profane. Due to their symbolic manifestation of religious values, dress codes can be seen as sacred rules. Dress in these groups is used intentionally to visually separate these religious groups from the larger culture.

See Also

Anabaptism; Christianity; Islam; Judaism; Protestantism; Sexuality.


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Linda B. Arthur (2005)

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Clothing: Dress and Religion in America's Sectarian Communities

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