I recently interviewed a series of people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. Over the next week or so I’ll be posting the interviews one-by-one. Here’s part one!
Sex and religion have both been around for a pretty long time, and since the beginning they’ve had a love-hate relationship. At certain times their marriage has been more civil than others–the pagan orgies of ancient Rome come to mind–however for the most part, almost unanimously, religions have viewed modesty, in both behavior and appearance, as inextricably linked to holiness. And modesty isn’t generally thought of as being super sexy.
But then again, sometimes covering-up has its own perverse appeal. Clearly, a primary objective of religious dress–particularly that of women–is to strip away any notion of sexuality–to “hide the goods,” so to speak. But in doing so, the wearer can become a symbol of the forbidden, or the hidden, which has its own allure. It’s a catch 22: the ambition to negate the body puts the focus on the body. It’s about having what you’ve been told you can not have, eating the apple you’ve been forbidden. It’s for precisely this reason that religious clothing has become so widely fetishized and appropriated in the secular world, from Lady Gaga’s translucent pink burqa, to Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection inspired by Hasidic apparel, to Madonna’s entire career.
Thirty or so years go, the religious blended far more seamlessly into society, both in their philosophy on sexuality and in fashion. Even in the 80s, a decade of sexual provocation and excess, there was still the implicit understanding by society at large that lewd or promiscuous behavior was “naughty,” and not done in polite company. However, as the Western world becomes increasingly secular, modesty is beginning to look a lot more alien. Miley publicly masturbates in latex underwear; Rihanna gives lap dances in a leather harness onstage; the average girl on the street wears either a Kim-Kardashian-inspired microdress or an American Apparel see-through crop top… and no one bats an eye. In a world where skimpy is the norm, our gaze naturally shifts to the most covered-up person in the room, thus isolating those in religious dress more than ever before.
I recently interviewed a series of people who grew up in strict religious communities about how their religious clothing has impacted both their sexual development and their personal identities. We also discussed the various ways that certain people bend the rules of their religion, in order to look more attractive or fashionable–from Muslim fashion bloggers creating stylish ways to wear hijab, to Saudi women wearing designer dresses under their abayas, to the special wigs Orthodox Jewish women wear when (almost) no one’s watching.
Part 1: Amish FashionSaloma Ferlong
The Amish like to think of themselves as humble pilgrims passing through Earth on their way to eternity, and therefore don’t get attached to the things of this world, like Louboutins and Instagram. Most of us know the Amish as the guys in the plain clothes who drive around in horse-drawn buggies and refuse to accept the greatness and convenience of modern technology. But for the Amish–a group of traditionalist Christians–plain dress is a symbol of their humble way of life. Although individual Amish communities differ in accepted dress, the style in each community is uniform, generally hand-sewn, and never flashy. Most sects believe that even buttons are too decorative, favoring plain, functional hooks or pins.
Amish women and girls wear conservative long dresses, and must cover their hair in public. Their hair should never be cut and is usually worn in a braid or a bun and covered by a white prayer cap, and sometimes with a bonnet as well, if they’re married. Amish men wear dark shoes and pants, and use suspenders instead of belts, as they’re considered less flashy. They wear practical straw hats in warm weather, and dark-colored felt hats during the winter. Single men shave their faces, while married men must grow an untrimmed beard, although mustaches are never allowed (they associate mustaches with military officers, and the nonresistant Amish refuse to perform military service).
Saloma Furlong grew up in an Amish community in Ohio, in a family of seven children. At age twenty she escaped her community, seeking freedom and higher education (the Amish tradition is to stop formal schooling in 8th grade). However, she was soon found and brought back against her will, only to leave again nearly three years later. Now in her fifties, her memoir Why I Left the Amish was published in January 2011, and the sequel, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, was released in February of this year.
When you’re young, what are you taught about the significance of Amish clothing?
Saloma: The Amish have a very humble and quiet faith. People don’t moralize about things, or even say, “women should have their head covered because the Bible says so.” It’s more about tradition–you learn what’s expected of you based on what people have been doing for generations. And if I questioned it growing up, I would hear, “Oh Saloma, that’s just the way it is.” That’s a very common way the Amish explain things. You never get any satisfactory answers, so eventually you just stop asking, and that’s really what those answers are designed to do–to shut down a child’s desire to be informed or curious. But as a child you do understand that your clothes set you apart from the rest of the world. When I was five I entered public school because there wasn’t an Amish school near us at the time, and I became keenly aware of the beautiful dresses and patent leather shoes that I couldn’t have.
But did you understand, to some extent, that the look was about modesty?
Well, even though Amish clothing is meant to be modest, that doesn’t prevent someone from stripping you of your clothes with their eyes. For the Amish, a primary element of the clothing is that it removes any element of individuality. A big emphasis in the Amish community is on humility–they believe that individuality equals pride, and to be proud is selfish and wrong, and therefore everyone should look the same. In the dominant culture, being an individual is valued, but in Amish culture being a good person is equated with fitting into the group.
Right, but it seems to be a natural human instinct to define oneself. It’s like when girls in Catholic school wear accessories even though it’s against the rules. Do you find that in Amish communities at all?
Yeah, it sometimes feels like there’s a competition of who can be the most different while still keeping within the rules. Like some girls open the necklines of their dresses more than others, or wear shorter, more form fitting dresses, or lighter colors. That’s more common when people are young, in the rumspringa years. Rumspringa is when you start dating, and sometimes during those years parents will get more lenient, and will look the other way if you have a radio or something. Some parents don’t, and would certainly smash a radio or bury it if they found it. There tends to be a hierarchy in Amish communities, and people at the top get away with a lot more than the people at the bottom.
What were you taught about sex when you were growing up? Is it similar to most other forms of Christianity–basically, “Don’t have it until you get married”?
No, it’s literally just never even talked about. At all. There have been stories of young women who left the Amish and knew absolutely nothing about the facts of life. They would know that babies appear, but not why or how, and once they were out in the real world they were raped, and they had no idea what was happening to them. That same thing also happens within the community, which is even worse, because the predator could be you brother or father or cousin, etc. And sometimes sexual knowledge is used as a way to get close to you, by saying, “Do you know how babies are made?” As if it’s some kind of a secret that’s being passed around. And then it becomes, “Well, may I show you how it’s done?” In many Amish families, if girls weren’t sexually abused, they may not know the facts of life until they’re married.
So is sexual abuse more prevalent within the Amish community than outside of it?
I’ve been asked that question many times, but it’s hard to say. There’s so much secrecy that shrouds abuse, and in a culture like the Amish, the secrecy that shrouds abuse becomes so thick, you can’t penetrate it at all. The only thing I have to go by is that if you talk to people who have left the Amish, usually, not only can they tell you their own abuse stories, but they know of many other victims as well, and they often talk about how rampant it was in their communities. There’s research showing that the more male dominated a culture is, the more prevalent abuse is. In that regard, I would say that the way Amish girls are taught to obey their brothers, fathers, uncles, and elders of the church, which makes them vulnerable to abuse.
Are there occasionally people who learn about sex, or the ways of the outside world, through secretly having a radio, like your mentioned, or through conversations with an outsider?
Well nowadays some people have technology on the sly, like smartphones, and some Amish will actually have a TV in their basement that they rig up with a car battery. So some people are very well versed in sexual stuff. The people who don’t know anything about sex come from the strictest of the strict–the Swartzentruber groups. They wouldn’t dare have a cell phone, even on the sly. People can be really in the dark. There are a lot of young women who don’t know what’s going on when they get their period for the first time.
And you allowed to wear tampons?
Well when I was young, we had homemade pads made from cloth. Today, some Amish women may wear tampons, but in the strictest groups they still wear homemade cloth pads.
I guess a homemade pad is not that much worse than a regular pad, though.
I disagree. I’ve tried both, and believe me, having to wash your pads is way worse than throwing them out.
You win. Is it common for Amish people to have sex out of wedlock?
Okay, now you’re getting into the area of Amish culture that’s one of the biggest secrets. Some Amish communities, including my home community, still practice something called bed courtship. This was practiced back in Switzerland, where our ancestors came from. They were being prosecuted for their faith, which meant that sometimes young people would hide in the attick of their home, and in Switzerland it’s very common to have a haymow above your living quarters. So they would lie up there in a bed and talk, and they would place a board down the middle to separate the man from the woman and that was basically a “date.” Today, some Amish still do this, except the board has long disappeared. And even though you’re supposed to remain chaste until you’re married, it’s very common for girls to get pregnant beforehand, partially because of this practice. I personally think the reason bed courting is still done is because it traps the woman if she does get pregnant. Entrapment is one way of maintaining the culture.
What about the clothes Amish men wear–are they intended to desexualize, and convey modesty, in the way the women’s clothes are?
Kind of, yeah. There’s nothing really attractive about their baggy pants suits. I mean, they look like grizzly bears because of the shaving restrictions, and their hair has to be long. And Swartzentruber men don’t bathe often. Men get more privileges though, like they’re allowed to have buttons on their shirts but women have to use straight pins.
Are there variations in the way women dress in different Amish communities?
Yes, in the most conservative communities they’re not allowed to wear underwear with elastic at the waist, and it has to be homemade, so the only choice is cotton bloomers with a button at the waist. They’re not allowed to wear bras, and they have to wear these long, baggy slips underneath their dresses, even in the heat of summer.
When and how did you leave the Amish? Was it a hard choice to make?
It was hard, because for the Amish, the ultimate judgment is against those who leave. They don’t condemn anyone else to hell, not even murderers. But my life had become really unbearable. My family was dysfunctional–I had a mentally ill father, a mother who did not protect us, and an abusive older brother. I felt I had two choices: I could commit suicide or leave the Amish. And I thought, “Well, if I commit suicide I’m going straight to hell, and if I leave I’m told I’m going to hell too… but at least I’ll get a whole lifetime on Earth before that happens.”
I know, right! I was twenty when I left the first time, and I escaped in secret. But after four months I was blindsided when a van load of Amish came from Ohio to Vermont, where I had moved, and took me back. The bishop was in the van, along with my uncle, who is a minister, and his wife, my sister and my older brother, who had a great deal of influence over me at the time. I didn’t trust that if I refused to go my brother wouldn’t physically grab me and put me on the van. There are many stories of people being surrounded and physically prevented to leave. But the second time I left, I told my mother and my sisters what I was about to do, and I left with a lot more confidence, so they let me be.
Now that you’ve left, do you think any of the Amish philosophy has stuck with you?
Well, now that I’m part of the dominant culture, I kind of resent the modern fashion that is shoved down our throats. In the Amish you have to conform, yet in the dominant culture, if you don’t keep up with fashion, there’s a stigma that goes along with that too. We think we’re so free, yet who’s to say we’re not as conditioned as the extreme religious people? And it’s largely not even women who are determining what’s in style for women, which today tends to be very revealing. I have a Catholic friend whose theory is that the new fashion of showing so much skin is like giving someone a gift without the wrapping on it, and I kind of like that image. And if you look at it from a slightly different angle, you could say that actually, the Amish are the one’s who are refusing to comply.