Plain on the Outside, Fancy Underneath

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On Tuesday afternoon, while returning from an errand, I stopped briefly at Union Station here in DC to get some lunch.  Union Station has long been a busy depot by which rail and bus traffic arrives and departs, and it also  serves as a rail and bus stop for area public transportation.  With the passage of time, part of the inside of the terminal has been  transformed into a shopping mall of sorts, which frequently satiates the boredom of tourists and passengers.  Predictably, it also houses a Victoria’s Secret.

While walking by on my way from somewhere else, I noticed, much to my  amazement, two plain dress women inside, apparently shopping for fancy underthings.  They were plain Mennonites, which was confirmed by the  bonnets they wore on their heads and their single-shade pocketless dresses.  It was my understanding that, due to their religious beliefs, anything ornate or showy was not  allowed, yet both of these women clutched in their hands what looked like several pairs of underwear and lingerie, evidently desiring to purchase them.  Intrigued, I consulted a fellow Friend (Quaker) who keeps plain dress herself, in the hopes of getting some answers.

Her guess was that the women weren’t really supposed to be buying fancy undergarments.  She informed me how in some Amish communities, even little things like hem length and width are dictated by community rules.   This was interesting to me on many levels, especially when I recognized that a great diversity of views exist regarding plain dress.   We seem to think that all plain people dress the same, and this simply isn’t the case.  Each community dictates its own specific rules regarding manner of dress.  My friend’s community of plain people has a very different set of guidelines than other communities in the area.

But back to underwear.  The Friend’s opinion was that it’s hard to enforce  rules for clothing that can’t be seen, particularly intimate apparel.   This is probably much of the appeal.  Amish and plain Mennonites have their lives governed by a lot of rules, women even more so.  That this  might be their way to push back in rebellion against legalistic  restrictions towards group conformity I found fascinating to contemplate.  Perhaps it’s also a way to assert one’s individuality and in so doing buy something private, just for the self.  The Friend added that she has read stories of women living in Afghanistan buying fancy shoes because everything else is supposed to be covered, feet being the one place on the body where they feel they can truly express themselves.

In some ways, though we consider ourselves individuals with individual rights, we’re also told precise ways to conform.  Women certainly have their lives governed by lots of rules, a reality which manifests itself all over the place.  Most women in this society may not have to obsess about the length of a hem, but they’ll certainly obsess about beauty products and the demands of seeming flawless.  I daresay many reading this post probably own fancy undergarments, at least by plain standards.

Now for something completely different.  If you, readers, could come up with your own form of rebellion against the exacting rules that take so much energy and time out of your life, what would it be?  What would it look like?


  1. who has embarked on his share of adventures (mostly while young and indestructable), I haven’t yet been tempted to purchase and/or wear exotic intimate apparel, and frankly, given the current state of the economy, probably couldn’t afford to include such a luxury within my shrinking budget.

    That said, I believe that tasteful undergarments, when modeled correctly, can be more erotic than complete nudity, by virtue of leaving something to the imagination, which oftentimes exceeds reality.  

    For those who haven’t seen it yet, if you ever have an opportunity to see a theatrical production of “Intimate Apparel”, authored by Lynn Nottage, consider giving it a look.  Set in New York in 1905, the play tells the story of a young black woman who pursues a career as a seamstress in her quest to ahieve independence. In the hands of a reputable theatrical company, the set design and costuming offer considerable challenges and opportunities for those who specialize in those areas.

    Another highly acclaimed play by Nottage, “Ruined”, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009,and has enjoyed considerable success. The play graphically tells the story of the plight of females caught in the crosshairs of the wars raging in the Republic of the Congo, which has claimed more lives than any conflict (5.6 million and counting) since World War II.  

    Like “Intimate Apparel”, which casts black females in its most prominent roles, have both run off-Broadway in New York, but haven’t yet been able to clear the hurdle for a run on Broadway.  This, apparently, has frequently been the case for theatrical productions that prominently feature black female actresses.

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