Insubordinate Anabaptists in Virtuous Clothing? Amish Anabaptists as Model Subjects in the Context of Bernese Sumptuary and Morals Mandates

By Bates, Mary Ann Miller | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Insubordinate Anabaptists in Virtuous Clothing? Amish Anabaptists as Model Subjects in the Context of Bernese Sumptuary and Morals Mandates


Bates, Mary Ann Miller, Mennonite Quarterly Review


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Apart from the use of horse-and-buggy transportation, nothing distinguishes the Amish more visibly from the rest of society than their distinctive forms of dress. Surrounded by a culture where fashions change from season to season and clothing is a mark of individual identity, the Amish resistance to shifting whims of fashion and their commitment to simple and modest dress makes them visible anomalies to all they encounter. Yet even though interpreters of the Amish have offered helpful theological explanations for their convictions about dress, very little research exists on the historical origins of these practices. (1) The standard explanations for their distinctive clothing styles--a commitment to modesty, simplicity, humility and corporate forms of witness--are all important elements for understanding Amish faith and life. But these specific commitments emerged in the late seventeenth century within broader political and cultural understandings regarding appropriate Christian dress. A fuller picture of contemporary Amish practice must take into account the historical context from which the Amish emerged.

SUMPTUARY LAWS IN BERN

Laws governing clothing--so-called "sumptuary laws"--were common in virtually every European territory or free city during the early modern era. (2) In the Swiss city-state of Bern, for example, clothing regulations predate the Reformation, going back at least to 1481 when the council passed a brief ordinance prohibiting men's overly short skirts and coats. Mandates of varying scope, length and detail continued to appear in the following centuries imposing detailed restrictions on dress and fashion. (3) In the decades after the Reformation, Bernese authorities established morals courts (Chorgerichte) in the city and surrounding countryside to oversee the enforcement of a wide range of moral legislation, including strictures governing clothing. (4) The regulations dictating permissible clothing styles sometimes appeared as subcategories of statutes for the morals courts (Chorgerichtssatzungen) or as mandates explicitly defining acceptable moral behavior (Sittenmandate). (5) These mandates--almost always accompanied by instruction that they be read from the pulpits--attempted to eradicate behavior that civil and ecclesial authorities deemed undesirable or sinful. Thus, the "Great Mandate" (Grosses Mandat) of 1661 divided "current vices of all sorts" into tidy subcategories based on the Ten Commandments. The mandate forbade actions ranging from drinking on Sundays to jealousy, cursing, swearing, usury and miserliness. Haughtiness (Hoffart) in clothing appeared under the seventh commandment, (6) together with adultery--and the "drunkenness, debauchery and intemperance, as well as idleness, vanity and indolence" which led to it. The mandate also included in this category the misuse of tobacco, "flippant running and dancing" and extravagant expenditures for rural baptisms and funerals. (7)

The mandates and ordinances that focused specifically on moderation in dress often described the rules against extravagance in great detail. They stipulated, for example, the precise kinds of gold and silver embellishments that were forbidden along with adornments, such as pearls or silk lace, that should be avoided. Long hair and curled wigs for men, the excessive use of fabric in wide sleeves and trousers, and any sort of ornamental ribbons and strings were denounced as improper or useless. In precisely delineated categories, the clothing of all residents of Canton Bern--whether maid or noblewoman, cleric or tradesman--was carefully regulated. (8) In 1676, the Bernese council established a specific "chamber for the reformation of behavior" (Reformationskammer) to administer and enforce the increasingly detailed regulations. (9) Bernese authorities continued their effort to enforce moderation in clothing and accessories well into the eighteenth century, fighting to counteract the pressure of fashion's tide. …

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