When I first encountered the Friends' Way, there was so much that spoke deeply to me of Truth--the peacemaking, equality, honest, purity, open worship, non-dogmatism.. but the testimony I couldn't understand was plainness, the original emphasis on drab clothing.
I'm not talking about John Woolman and others who chose to wear un-dyed clothes because dyed cloth was made by slaves. On the contrary! What a mighty testimony for Woolman, a tailor and clothing store owner, to refuse to wear fashionable clothes if it meant he would be wearing what the slave system had produced. I hope I would have done the same.
Rather, I am speaking about what Margaret Fell/Fox complained against--the rigid testimony of wearing plain clothes as a central outward sign of being a Friend. Such a focus seems simplistic, not simple. Indeed, she called such an outward display a "silly poor gospel. We must all be in one dress and one colour; this is silly poor gospel. It is more fit for us to be covered with God's Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light" 1700. After all the word "simple" literally means 'single" and has to do with innocence--as in simple beauty.
But Quakers became obsessed early on with what had originally been an outward sign of witness against inequality and pride. Finally, George Fox and Edward Perot even verbally fought over exactly when one should take his hat off and when not during Meeting--talk about superficial, outward, and simplistic!
As the charismatic Quaker movement gradually changed into a peculiar sect the emphasis on such outward plain forms hardened into codified rule. Strangely, a religious movement which originally emphasized the inward Spirit came to emphasize outward forms. Rather ironic. Nor do I understand the recent interest of some modern convinced Friends to return to such plain dress, not at all.
The main reason I am against plainness is that I am heart and soul--to the deepest innermost--an artist, a poet, novelist, and photographer. I love all things creative, all things colorful, all things beautiful.
The early Friends came out of the Puritan revolution--a movement that wanted to 'purify' Christianity of much of art, considering it pagan and idolatrous. The latter fanatics smashed stained glass windows, defaced artwork, tore doewn prayer railings, and condemned the festive and bright. Friends generally didn't involve themselves in such destruction but they did join in the revolt against the showy aspects of religion because too often the show had no real Life within. Church of England ministers were often hypocritical, lacked spiritual vision and passion, and sometimes were only in it for money.
When religion becomes superficial, when people focus obsessively on fashion, when the arts become an expression of extravagance, pride, and even evil, then a return to the simple is necessary. Plain speaking is needed, and I suppose even plain dress as a witness against the surface gaudiness of corrupt culture. But surely that doesn't mean one has to hate an illumined stained glass window by Marc Chagal or the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Yet as so often happens among humankind, when people revolt against one wrong extreme, they too often end up at the other. Thus for many years Friends didn't become artists or writers (except in their journals).
Another factor in the lack of creative arts was that Friends were banned from advanced educational institutions in England. So they primarily focused on business enterprises and excelled there because of their honesty. And then during the Quietist period, many saw creative and intellectual pursuits as 'creaturely activity' contrary to God's Light.
In contrast, I don't think God is primarily interested in the plain--the drab, the lackluster, the outward. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to the beauty of plants in the natural world, saying "Think of the flowers of growing in the fields; they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these."
While it is true, God doesn't want us to be obsessed with the temporal, certainly not the ostentatious or gaudy, God is vividly desirous of us to seek Beauty-- to be innovative, creative and bright.
What God wants are not outward efforts of denial anyway but an inner singleness of spirit, our heart wholly for truth, for goodnesss, for true beauty.