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Most of us wear many hats in life both literally and figuratively. Different hats go with different occasions ball caps in summer, straw hats for gardening or the beach or perhaps a specific type of hat is part of a uniform worn for a job.
But few of us (especially women) know what its like to have our heads covered every day of our adult lives, as the Amish do.
The Amish base their unique dress code on many passages from the Bible, mainly those urging Christians to guard against the evils of the world and to separate themselves from the rest of society.
One specific passage, I Corinthians 11, dictates that men should have their heads uncovered for prayer, but women should cover their heads. Hair is also discussed in this passage, and its clear mens hair should be short and womens should be long.
Ultimately, the Amish uphold the biblical virtues of simplicity, modesty and humility, as well as nonconformity to the world, and these values form the basis for their distinctive styles of head coverings (and all clothing). Indeed, the garb of most plain people is reminiscent of peasant-type clothing of the 18th or 19th century (or even earlier!).
Amish women do not cut their hair, and from a very young age it is worn up, either in a bun or another simple style. Women and girls wear a prayer covering most or all of the time, although for housework or other chores they may replace it with a kerchief in order not to damage the covering. Unmarried girls wear a black covering to church from the time they are teenagers. Married women wear white caps in general.
In Conservative Mennonite groups and less conservative Amish groups, women wear smaller head coverings, usually pinned on and in varying sizes and shapes. In some groups the covering has shrunk to a size slightly larger than a silver dollar, and for decades many Mennonite groups have chosen not to wear head coverings at all.
Although the many variances in cut, size and style, are important to the individual groups, there probably is little or no spiritual significance attached, according to Paul Miller, executive director of the Amish Mennonite Heritage Center near Berlin.
My hunch is that the slightly different styles depended upon (and evolved from) local custom and culture, he said, and they have now become a means of identifying different groups by sight.
In cold weather, most Amish women will wear a heavy, often quilted, black bonnet over their covering to protect and warm their heads.
Like the women, Amish men wear their hair in simple, unassuming styles, most often a bowl cut. In some more conservative orders such as the Swartzentruber Amish, the hair is notched at the ear and longer in the back. In general, the longer the mans hair, the more conservative his group.
The stricter and more conservative the group is, the more the peoples lives are regimented, Miller said, pointing out that seemingly trivial matters such as mens hair length serve the purpose of keeping a particular community united a vital part of Amish culture.
Beards (getting away from hats and heads for a moment) are generally not trimmed, except in some of the New Order groups. Men belonging to more conservative orders would most likely never trim their beard. In Ohio, Amish men let their beards grow after they join the church that is, when they are baptized. This often coincides with or slightly precedes marriage. In other states the timing for beards differs.
Many people wonder why Amish men do not have mustaches. Practically, the absence of a mustache aids in cleanliness, although this is probably not the reason for the practice. It is thought to have originated from an effort by Amish men to distinguish themselves from European soldiers, most of whom had curled mustaches.
Although Amish men wear a few different types of hats, the differences in style are much smaller than in the womens head coverings.
In Ohio, Amish men wear hats most of the time; a hat would never be worn in church, and most of the time they would remove it when going indoors as well. Inside doorways at public places like hospitals, one will often see a rack hung with varying sizes of yellow straw hats (whose owners are most likely visiting an Amish patient). Little boys are seen without hats outdoors more often than men, but boys wear the same types of hats as their fathers.
In summer, a straw hat is worn for working outside. Depending on the order or group, the hat may be flat-topped or the crown may be rounded. In some moderate or less-conservative groups the men wear straw fedora-like hats. For church and formal occasions, Amish men wear black felt hats.
While it would be hard to find any English women who wear Amish-style coverings, many non-Amish men in this area have discovered the practical sturdiness of the summer straw hats. Theyre perfect for gardening or any outdoor work, protecting the head from the elements while allowing for good ventilation.
In fact, many male visitors to this area leave with one of these hats theyre certainly one of the most authentic (not to mention functional!) souvenirs you could take home from Amish Country, and they can be found in almost any dry goods or general store.
An impressive collection of hats, bonnets and coverings (as well as other plain clothing) can be seen at the Amish Mennonite Heritage Center. The exhibit has been open to the public for about a year, Miller said, and it grew out of simple curiosity.
We were talking about the fact that there are so many different customs (in head coverings), he said, and we thought, wouldnt it be nice to gather a number of them into one location. Its turned out to be a very interesting and enriching experience.
The exhibit will be open at least until Fall 2003, Miller said. For more information, contact the center at (330) 893-3192.
This story, sourced from Stephen Scott's "Why Do They Dress That Way" (Good Books 1986, 1997) first appeared in the July 2003 edition of Amish Heartland magazine. You can see that original story and any comments here.