The clothing worn by members of Amish communities in the United States is an outward expression of the philosophy of plainness and modesty they embrace, and of the religious beliefs that guide how they live in the world. Perhaps more than any other article of clothing, the white organza prayer covering or cap worn by Amish women is symbolic of their relationship to God, the Bible and their beliefs. The wearing of prayer caps stems from the Biblical directive in I Corinthians 11, which tells women to cover their heads as a sign of submission to God.
The Amish culture descends from European Anabaptists, a Christian Protestant subset. Ancestors of today's American Amish emigrated to what were then British colonies in the Americas to escape persecution starting in the 1730s. They value simplicity, humility and community. These values coupled with their religious belief against conforming to the modern world have led them to remain mostly separate from American society. They live in self-contained communities with ways of living that harken back to the world before the Industrial Revolution. The prayer covering serves in part as a symbol of their separation.
How It's Worn
The white organza prayer cap is part of the everyday dress of all Old Order Amish women and always is worn in public. They typically pull their hair back into a bun and cover it with the cap. Sometimes a black bonnet will be worn over the cap. The plain color and fabric is meant to show modesty and humility. The women avoid anything that could be deemed prideful or too individualistic.
Who Makes Them
Jana M. Hawley, a professor in Textile and Apparel Management at the University of Missouri, spent a year living with the Amish community in Jamesport, Missouri, and observed that while women in the past made their own prayer coverings and bonnets, contemporary communities employ a seamstress to make the caps. Hawley said that the Jamesport community also had access to computers through non-Amish friends or the local library and it wouldn't be out of the question for women to order prayer caps over the Internet.
Each Amish community has its own set of rules known as Ordnung, and this can lead to differences in the ways prayer caps are worn. Most often the cap is white and made of organza, a plain, sheer fabric, but in some communities young single women will wear black prayer caps when attending religious services. The style of a prayer cap and customs related to how it's worn also can be affected by the degree of orthodoxy of the community. Hawley reported that in communities where tradition is less stringent, women wear their prayer caps with strings tied tightly under the chin, but the caps themselves have less starch and form. In more orthodox communities, the strings may be left untied or the cap may not have strings at all, but the cap is heavily starched. The Jamesport community fell in the middle, and women there wore their caps with medium starch. Married women tied their cap strings in a bow, while young single women left them untied and played with them as a means of flirting.
- BBC Religions page on the Amish
- The Amish Veil: Symbol of Separation and Community: Jana M. Hawley, in The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics, Jennifer Heath, editor. The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore and Politics.
- I Corinthians 11, New International Version
- Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau
- Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images