Tuesday, March 27, 2007


One of my indulgences when I am in a big group is watching people and playing at being an amateur Margaret Mead.

I hadn't been in a big group of Mennonite youth like the bunch at Bonners Ferry since the Beachy Youth Fellowship Meetings in—goodness, was it 1980? I was utterly fascinated, then as now, with the fashions, the rituals, the interplay, the pecking order, the complicated dynamics under the surface. Only of course, back then, I was in the middle of things--utterly self-conscious about my clothes, seeking kindred spirits, scoping out the guys, and making snide comments about the fashion doll who had sewed shirts for her boyfriend to match all her dresses. This time I could watch, comfortable and amused, from the vantage point of middle age.

How things change, I decided. And how much they stay the same.

Mixed-gender dynamics have not changed a bit in all these years. As the various vanloads arrived, the girls greeted each other with enveloping hugs and wild shrieks that could be heard all over the gym and fellowship room--"SANDRAAAA!!!" The guys of course punched each other and laughed roughly.

In the cafeteria, the Established Couples ate at little tables on the side while the other guys and girls congregated at their own tables and peeled the foil off their hot sandwiches. The girls ate daintily and engaged in happy conversation while the guys slyly checked out the girls then wolfed their sandwiches, wadded up the foil, and chucked it at their friends.

How quickly, in such a group, the rebels find each other, the Nice People exude warmth and acceptance and inclusion to all, and the Cool Girls sashay in with dresses that make all the others seem dowdy.

One of the purposes of cape dresses*, I have often been told, is to free women and girls from the tyranny of fashion. But fashion must be hardwired into the genes, because even cape dresses pass through their own very distinct fashion phases.

Back in Iowa at the Fellowship Meetings, gathers were in. And "ties." All the cool Indiana girls showed up with gathers on their sleeves, their waists, their necklines, their yokes And most of these gathers were embellished with little fabric bows. No one from our church had as yet dared to try any of these, so we looked on in envy and felt backwards and plain.

How times have changed. Gathers are as "out" as polyester doubleknit. The current look is straight and sleek, from neck to sleeves to waist and clear down to the hem, with the occasional exception of a ruffle at the bottom. Not a gathered ruffle, but a drapey curved number that adds a chic little swish to the dress. Or a pleated ruffle. Or simply a band of fabric turned the other way so the stripes run horizontally.

As for length, long is in. The cool Pennsylvania girls played volleyball in dresses that swished their shoetops. "Mid-calf" was the prescribed length for us, back in the day, and we convinced ourselves of very loose definitions for "calf" and "mid" so that most of our dresses were not far below the knee. This weekend, I don't think I saw a single dress that was shorter than the dictionary-definition mid-calf.

Then there was the matter of camouflaging. In our day, we really didn't try to hide the fact that we wore capes, but when long sleeves were required, we got by with short-sleeved dresses by wearing long-sleeved sweaters over them. These girls camo'd their cape dresses with remarkable numbers of layers. Over a cape dress went a t-shirt, perhaps a polo, sometimes even an Aeropostale hoodie or a jean jacket. All layers stayed on through meals, volleyball, and uncomfortably warm temperatures in the sanctuary. Paul, who knows nothing of these nuances, was surprised at how "few" of the girls wore cape dresses. Amy and I laughed him to scorn, since we could tell at a glance what was a genuine skirt and what was a cape dress in disguise.

But then, who am I to chuckle in amusement at these young ladies? How well I remember how I wore a navy-blue long-sleeved polyester double-knit dress with a 3-inch-wide belt to the Fellowship Meetings on a hot, humid Iowa night--because it was as cool as I could get.

Yes, well, before long these young people will be all paired up and concerned with far more important things than impressing each other and wearing the latest fashions. And their children will look at their old photo albums and fall all over each other laughing.

*a dress with an extra piece of fabric over the bodice, from shoulder to waist, often the prescribed uniform for Amish and Mennonite women

Quote of the Day:
"Oh my goodness, that was like so yours!"
--one girl to another, during volleyball


  1. Thanks for the update. Sounds like a good weekend!

  2. Truly funny!

  3. Fascinating! Write some more on anthropology.

  4. I went through the "cape" phase when I was a teen even though I attended a Mennonite Church that didn't teach wearing cape dresses. (I did it because I had more conservative friends; just call it peer pressure!) I am amazed at how cape dresses are now camouflaged.

    BTW, I am a faithful reader of your blog and have enjoyed your book.~karen

  5. Oh this is too funny! How well I remember all of this from my youth, I recall when Robin went to Mississippi she came home with dresses that had tie belts. It was all the rage at the more liberal church in Macon. So Robin , Gwen and I, set about making ourselves dresses with these tie belts. Well it didn't last long because Bro. Ernest saw it immediately and announced over the pulpit that he's concerned with some of the dresses he's seeing because it appears that some of the girls have forgotten to trim the fabric from their belts. He went on to say that he hopes this is remedied the next time the dresses are worn!

    Oh and then there's the time we wanted to wear sandals. The liberal chruches wore them and we thought they were oh so stylish until Bro Ernest spied them and again announced over the pulpit that when shoes get holes in them they need to be thrown out! There went our stylish sandals!

    And V necklines. Oh my goodness was there anything that could compare to a V neckline on a sunny spring day? Well again our dear Bishop had other ideas and again used the pulpit to announce to the congregation that he doesnt know much about sewing but he can tell when the scissors slipped and he wants to make sure that next time the scissors slips that we fix the cut it made. Then on a more serious convicting note he added that he could tell the Holy Spirit wasnt guiding the scissors on some of the dresses he's seen. Well since we didnt seem to feel the Holy Spirit telling us it was wrong Pop became our Holy Spirit and the V necks were exchanged for a proper neckline!

    One thing that Bro Ernest did let stick was the elastic waist instead of the belt. Can you say chic and fashionable? Those elastic waist dresses were all the rage!

    Then at Maranatha Bible School we saw dresses with the cape sewn to the bodice all the way up the dart in the front. Uh, well lets just say we knew better than to try that one! LOl

  6. Wonderful post! Oh, the fun and horror of those teenage years! but while my bf and I had lots of matching shirts and dresses, I don't think I ever classified as a fashion doll! I was always too fat! Keep up the great posts! Pauline

  7. So funny and very insightful! If this would have been a Beechy group you would have noticed how far the term "solids" gets pushed.

  8. So funny to read and identify. "Fashion doll??" ROTFL My brother just posted something along these trend-lines here:

    ~an Indiana girl who missed the cool boat ;o) "Du tsell sell schtuff goah net vah-da." sigh...the trials of the eldest child.

  9. re ''chuffed''.

    British slang; to be pleased with oneself/happy. Sorry, I haven't worked out where I should post responses but this seemed the most sensible. Thank you for visiting.

  10. Your post made me chuckle. I'll try to refrain from the "epistle" my sis wrote! : ) Yeh, it's sorta amusing ,but I find it sorta sad also. Why is there so much emphasis on clothes? To where that is the way you can tell the "in" the "liberal" the "rebel" the "preacher pleaser" the "old fashioned" the"cool ones" and on and on it goes. I really wish we could free our young people from the feeling their clothes express "who" they are. I know it is inevitable that somewhat of who you are will be expressed by your clothes. It should be that the godly look different than the ungodly but.... I don't know... maybe I'm not making sense. It just kinda brought back some bad memories along with the amusing.

  11. You put it into words SO WELL. I think of it every time I see those Aeropostle sweatshirts, but never quite could express it..."cape dress in disguise", *lol*!! But I've said it all along. Even in trying to avoid the fads and trends and culture of "the world", a new one is created, with it's own trends and fads and style.
    And I've got to say that I do love those long, straight dresses with the pleated ruffles on the bottom... :)

  12. In Pennsylvania, at a Mennonite used clothing store, I once saw a stone washed denim cape dress with hot pink trim. I found it rather amusing and was telling my sister about it. She told me she saw a young lady with a sleeveless cape dress with stand up lace over the shoulder. The desire to be noticed is eliminated by rules.

  13. sorry, that should say the desire to be noticed is NOT eliminated by having rules.

    But you knew what I meant, right?

  14. What a wonderful commentary! I'm a generation ahead of you age wise, but nevertheless you've said so well what the rest of us 'knew.' I remember the battle with dress lengths so well. Below the knee, but how far.