Red dresses, rebellion and redemption

Jun 22, 2018 by

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“Red is the color of harlots. It’s the color of women in rebellion. Why would we want to have red dresses in the church when we are all well aware of what it represents?”

Though the elderly preacher’s voice quavered with age, he spoke with conviction and firmness. I was almost 13 years old and I kept my eyes downcast, feeling inconspicuous in my dark red cape dress. I was sitting on the front row with the rest of the young girls in our Beachy church. I wanted to get up and rush out the door, but I knew getting up would make the whole church notice that the dress I had on was red. Instead, I sat as still as I could, hoping the service would soon end without bringing attention to myself.

As soon as the service ended, I rushed out. I was barely out the door when several other girls joined me.

“Rebel!” one of them teased.

I cringed, but as I looked up at her, I realized her dress was also red. We laughed together.

“Well, if that wasn’t awkward! There were at least four red dresses in the front row!” another girl said.

We laughed some more, and I felt relieved that the other girls had felt as awkward as I had. My family had left the Amish and joined the Beachy church about a year earlier, and sometimes all the new rules were hard to figure out. Especially the unwritten ones that only mattered some of the time. But I wanted to know what I needed to do to fit in.

That is my first memory of red dresses.

Two years later, I went home with a friend after church for the afternoon. She let me borrow some of her clothes so that I wouldn’t have to wear my church clothes all afternoon. I was a little small for my age, so she said she would try to find something that didn’t fit her anymore. She handed me a bright red dress that had black buttons down the front and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

When it was time to go back to church for the evening service, she told me I could just keep the dress because it didn’t fit her anyway. I was so excited. I could hardly wait to wear it for school.

That week I wore my new red dress to school. Several of the girls commented on my “new” dress, telling me they liked it, and I felt so happy as I went about my day. Recess time came, and I stayed in as I often did, trying to get ahead on my school work.

I went up to the scoring table to grade some of my work (we used Basic Christian Education curriculum, so we did our own grading). As I was up there, one of the older helper supervisors approached me.

“We cannot have this. It’s absolutely preposterous!” he said in a voice tinged with anger and exasperation.

I looked up in confusion. Was he talking to me? I looked around, but no other students were near us. He must not like it that I stayed inside instead of going for recess, I thought.

“I usually stay in and keep working. The teachers don’t mind,” I tried to reassure him nervously.

“No! I’m not talking about recess! I’m talking about your dress! We cannot have this!”

“My dress?” I asked uncertainly.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous! It looks like something you’d find on a street corner!” His voice rose as he spoke.

The bell had rung, and children were pouring into the classroom. My embarrassment grew as he continued. “You need to go home and change! You will not be in this school dressed like this!”

I stood in silence, not sure what to say and trying to keep embarrassed tears from slipping out. Students noticed the confrontation happening and moved to their desks awkwardly, trying to avoid us.

“You need to go call your mom and tell her to come pick you up,” he told me.

“I can’t,” I protested. “She’s at work.”

“Then call your dad,” he directed.

“He’s on a run in the semi,” I told him.

He thought about it briefly. “Then go get in my car and I’ll take you home. You can’t stay here dressed in that.” His voice portrayed his disgust.

The 20-minute ride to my house felt like hours and neither of us spoke a word. When I got home, I let the tears fall. Embarrassment and anger filled every part of me. You think I’m a rebel? Fine. I’ll be the rebel.

I looked through my closet trying to decide what to wear. I picked a dress that needed to be ironed. I got out the iron and the ironing board and ironed it more meticulously than I had ever ironed before. When I got done, I ironed it again.

Finally, I put it on. I recombed my hair. I walked through the living room and picked up the toys.

Never had I ever dreaded going to back to school so much in all my life. How could I go back and face everybody? I wanted to go out and beg him to just let me stay at home. But, I knew that would not be allowed, so finally I gathered my courage and went back out to his car where he sat waiting.

I was afraid he was going to reprimand me for how long it took me, but he didn’t say a word. We rode back to school in silence again.

That evening I told my mom what had happened, and she threw the dress in the trash. It didn’t matter that both she and my dad had approved of the dress before I wore it. If the leaders decided it was sinful, then it was sinful.

A year later, a handsome young man from a conservative Mennonite church wanted to take me on a date when I turned sixteen. My parents gave their approval of him, but mom had some criteria she wanted me to meet first.

She had wanted me to learn to sew for quite a while. I hated sewing and cape dresses seemed like an impossible task to learn, so I kept finding excuses not to. It seemed she had finally figured out the ultimatum to use. She told me that I needed to sew a dress before I could go on a date.

I groaned inwardly but decided it really wouldn’t matter. I would throw it together and however it ended up was fine with me. I didn’t think sewing was really that important of a life skill anyway. I figured I was probably going to marry that conservative boy and go to his church, a church where the women didn’t have to sew their clothes.

But mom had different ideas. She said she wanted me to learn to sew regardless of what church I went to. She said I could make the dress however I wanted, but I was supposed to wear it on my first date.

My heart sank. I was going to have to do it right and make it look nice. Once I got my attitude right, I rose to the challenge.

She went with me to pick out material and as we looked through all the different colors, my eyes fell on a bolt of red material. It looked just like the material of the dress that had once been the source of past emotional pain. My mom saw me looking at the material and her eyes met mine.

Maybe because my mom still had a bit of an Amish mindset, or maybe because she knew how much that whole episode had hurt me, she looked at the material and asked me if I wanted a red dress since I was “almost sixteen.” She said, “You can have it for a dress to go on dates.”

So we went home and I learned to sew.

I wore a red dress with black buttons down the front when I went on my first date. I felt like a queen. Later I married that conservative boy and I’ve never sewed a dress for myself since.

That dress still hangs in my closet and I’ve gotten it out only a few times when I’ve told the story of how I had to learn to sew before I could go on my first date. I keep it because of the memories associated with it. The style is not something I would care to wear anymore, but I’m glad my mom was willing to redeem the color red for me.

Mostly, I’m glad that God doesn’t hate red dresses any more than he does anything else red in his creation.

Sharon Graber Carpenter grew up Amish and Beachy Amish in Indiana. She and her husband live in Colon, Mich., and attend The Ekklesia in Harlan (Ind.), an unaffiliated Anabaptist church.

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