This evening’s Four Corners report on the Christian sect known as the Exclusive Brethren reminded me about a striking scene I witnessed at Melbourne Airport one morning about a month ago. Gate Lounge 23 was full to overflowing with EB adherents – I rough-counted about three hundred, which is a lot of believers, no matter which way you look at it – queueing to board a flight to Perth. (Wonder what that was all about?) I soon found myself in a very particular (emphatically secular) sector of People-watching Heaven. To be precise, it was the ‘repelled-yet-fascinated gawping at religious fashions’ sector to which I was transported.
Exclusive Brethren men look pretty normal – up close, you might detect a certain spark, a self-consciously clean-living je ne sais quoi – to a casual glance, though, they just seem to be neatly soberly dressed, clean-shaven, extremely white men. It’s the women who draw the eye. One EB woman on her own looks reasonable enough – two or three are an interesting sight – two hundred or so massed together look most peculiar indeed. EB women and girls wear long loose skirts, high necks, and long sleeves, and kerchiefs or other coverings on their heads, and under the scarves they wear their hair long and flowing. (This photo will give you an idea of the arrangement of the headgear.) Most women I saw this morning had neatly trimmed, ironed hair reaching down to nipple level or thereabouts. I haven’t really tried all that hard but I can’t think of another religious costume that both covers the woman’s head (“modesty”) and at the same time requires her to display her long hair underneath (“womanliness” ??) The look is conservative, ‘wholesome’, frumpy, but as with many lay-religious womens garbs there’s also an interesting, paradoxical element of conspicuousness and display to the way basic signifiers of modesty are interpreted, and there seem to be a range of more and less fashionable ways of adapting the basic skirt-sleeves-headscarf template.
My impression of the Exclusive Brethren community is that there’s a truly exclusive aesthetic at work within its circles. It appears to have evolved modes of high fashionableness that are remarkably independent of fashionableness in the general community. Among Muslim women who wear the hijab, some wear it as part of a daggy ensemble and some wear it enviably stylishly – but the daggy outfits are daggy in mainstream fashion contexts and the same goes for the stylish ones. Stylish Muslim women look chic in any language. Exclusive Brethren ladies, by contrast, present themselves in a variety of ways, variously interpreted as daggy or stylish in their community, but the key difference is that they all look irretrievably daggy to me, even (especially?) the “hip” ones. At the airport I saw older women in kilts, Peter Pan collars, navy headkerchiefs and baggy navy blue cardies, standing next to young girls in long straight denim skirts and shirts with faux-graffiti prints accessorised with (quelle horreur!) white FM,FM boots and matching white headscarves. Other young women wore fluffy little caribou feather brooches pinned to their headkerchiefs or great big jewelled brooches with long artificial flowers trailing across the cotton squares. There was a great deal of accessorising, in fact: belts bags and boots colour-coordinated with headscarves, and ribbons wound into big bows and pinned to the side of otherwise symmetrical heads.
I am conscious of making their costumes sound slightly better than they were in reality, but the truth is, I looked at these women and felt a powerful urge to remove the fussy tacky accessories and then perhaps get out the scissors for an impromptu hairdressing session. The desire to display and to follow fashion trends is there for Exclusive Brethren women, it appears, but it seems to manifest itself in ways that totally don’t translate to mainstream style. Quite an achievement for a little sect, I’d say, and an interesting visual demonstration of how a community like that manages the lives of its members.