In this class on The Advent Movement Survery, we will be focusing on the phase of health reform that has to do with the dress reform.
“‘My sisters, there is need of a dress reform among us. There are many errors in the present style of female dress.’
With these words [Sister] White introduced her sixth and last article on ‘Disease and Its causes,’ in the series entitled “How to Live,” which appeared in print … 1865” – Dores Eugene Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message, pg. 112, third edition
–The History Behind Dress Reform–
The historical facts will be of interest to you. Perhaps new to many of you are some of the facts concerning the beginning of the dress reform among us as a people. *I’d like us to go back in our imagination to 1850. As we picture the way women were dressed at that time, I’d like you to answer the question; was Sister White correct in saying, “There is a need in dress reform among us”? What do you remember was wrong with the dresses from a health standpoint of the time that we are speaking of? They swept the street… The dresses were too long. That was number one. Now, why did that have anything to do with health? Well, it picked up dirt and something else: the wetness. That’s right, and these wet, dirty dresses would dangle around their limbs. And in what condition were their limbs, as far as clothing was concerned? Remember what they had on their limbs? They were scantily clothed. She spoke of them as scantily clothed limbs with these long, wet dresses dangling around the limbs.
What about another problem? Too tight around the waist. That’s right. You remember that the ideal was for a woman’s husband to be able to get his two hands around her waist. Now, you think of compressing the waist to that little space. Think where the organs went. I don’t know exactly which direction they went, either up or down, but in whichever direction they went, imagine the body trying to function with the waist compressed in that way.
So with a compressed waist, and the long skirts, where were these long skirts suspended from? Suspended from the hips. That’s right. The tightness of the waist, the length of the dress dangling on the ground, all made this a very unhealthful dress.
From the modesty standpoint, there were some other features that weren’t so good. These hoop skirts that distended the dresses – when the person had to get in or out of cars it made the dress a very immodest arrangement. Then, they spent days and weeks making the dress to get all the ornaments on the dress.
Do you think with the dress of the world in this predicament, a dress reform was needed among us? Is that a good message back at that time? Very definitely. We can think of a number of things that we would like to see different, can’t we, about the dress as it appeared back then?
Now, about this time, the women of the world began to be concerned about the matter of dress. They were tired of the ill health and the uselessness that this dress imposed upon them. They were not well, and they were not able to do much. You can see that with the dress of this length and all these heavy skirts. Not only did they have skirts as we know them, but they wore six or seven skirts, all hanging on the hips. Imagine a woman doing what normal
women do today, in working and walking. All that was denied to the women at that time.
Around 1850, the women’s suffrage movement began. One of the early things that the women wanted to do was to become emancipated from this terrible type of dress. There were three women that particularly led out in this work, as it relates to the women’s suffrage movement and the dress reform: Mrs. Elizabeth Miller, Mrs. Elizabeth Stanton, and Amelia Bloomer. These three women led out in the dress reform. This is the worldly dress reform. These were just women of the world that were tired of this. In fact, this is what Mrs. Stanton said after she went and visited her cousin, Mrs. Smith. I will read what she says after her visit:
“To see my cousin with a lamp in one hand and a baby in the other, walk upstairs with ease and grace, while with flowing robes I pulled myself up with difficulty, lamp and baby out of the question, readily convinced me there was a sore need of reform in women’s dress, and I promptly donned a similar costume.” – Elizabeth Stanton
The dress was somewhat like a Turkish costume. They had pants and a shorter dress, and it was free from many of the problems that this common dress that the women were wearing at this time had. This Turkish costume was the first that was adopted. Women felt such a freedom in this dress. No more tight corsets. No more long sweeping dresses. For several years, different women over the country, were emancipated from the terrible unhealthful attire of this early costume. Now, this is what was called the Turkish costume.
Along with the freedom from the bondage of these things, women cut their hair and entered into positions in work in town where women hadn’t worked before. There was just a freedom in this whole women’s suffrage movement, as you perhaps have read about. This came to the attention of Dr. Harriet Austin. When Dr. Austin heard about this women’s suffrage reform in dress, she was very interested in it, but she carried the dress reform further, in the wrong direction. She made a dress that was later called the American Costume. This dress had a much more mannish appearance than that first one. There were the pants. There were high-top boots. The skirt reached about to the knee. There was a sort of a vest-like coat and they had a cap that went along with it, a rather mannish looking cap.
This is the dress that you will read about in Volume 1. On page 457, it describes this American Costume:
Some who believe the truth may think it would be more healthful for the sisters to adopt the American costume. – Testimonies for the Church, Volume 1, pg. 457
Sis. White said the mode of dress would cripple our influence because, for one thing, spiritualists adopted this mode of dress. Then she says that those who adopt the American Costume are disregarding the Lord’s instructions about a woman not wearing that which pertains to a man (Deut. 22:5).
“There is tendency to have women in their dress and appearance as near like the other sex as possible, and to fashion their dress very much like that of men, but God pronounces it an abomination.” – Testimonies for the Church, Volume 1, pg. 457
Looking at some of the good features of this dress, what can you see is better about this dress? I suppose they were amply covered, all right. It didn’t have the evils of the long dress, did it? Their limbs were clothed. That was one of the best features about it. What about the waist? There was more freedom at the waist. It didn’t have a tight waistband. It was more convenient, wasn’t it? You think of those three features, the limbs well covered, the waist free to breath properly, and the convenience of not having the long trailing dress. Now, those were the good features of the American Costume, and some of our people thought we ought to accept that. But, the bad features of it is it being mannish, it looking like men’s apparel.
With the so-called dress reform there goes a spirit of levity and boldness just in keeping with the dress. – Testimonies for the Church, Volume 1, pg. 457
See, cutting the dress off short, wearing the mannish apparel brought in that spirit of levity into the so called dress reform. The Lord says that we couldn’t accept it from that standpoint. This was around 1860. From 1850 to 1860 this transition was going on of the women feeling free. But you see, they didn’t have any Spirit of Prophecy to guide them. They didn’t have the Lord to guide them in knowing what was proper and what was right. So we come up to the period soon after 1860 with this sort of a confusion. Here was this terrible bondage, the prison that you might say the women were in, the common way that they were dressing. Then here was this freedom, which was too free, in the American Costume.
Now, for the second reason, as Sister White said at the very beginning, there is a need of dress reform among us. The world didn’t have anything that could be worn. And when they tried to make something different, they did something we couldn’t accept as a movement. So you can see that it was necessary that God’s people do something about what was happening in the world. Our people were being stirred up. Our women didn’t enjoy having their waist constricted and all those heavy skirts on, any more than the women of the world did, and they wanted something different. They wanted a freedom, the right kind. So it was necessary that God should take a hand and help His people know what to do in this situation.
–The Reform Dress–
At this time the Lord gave Sister White a vision. Sometimes that thought is overlooked. You may read things that sound like, well, people just sort of thought this up, but that was not so. In the book, The Story of Our Health Message, part of this vision is recorded, on page 111 (this appeared in the Review and Herald):
Three companies of females passed before me, with their dresses as follows with respect to length:
The first were of fashionable length, burdening the limbs, impeding the step, and sweeping the street and gathering its filth; the evil results of which I have fully stated. This class, who were slaves to fashion, appeared feeble and languid.
The dress of the second class which passed before me was in many respects as it should be. The limbs were well clad. They were free from the burdens which the tyrant, Fashion, had imposed upon the first class; but had gone to that extreme in the short dress as to disgust and prejudice good people, and destroy in a great measure their own influence. This is the style and influence of the ‘American Costume,’ taught and worn by many at ‘Our Home,’ Dansville N. Y. It does not reach to the knee. I need not say that this style of dress was shown me to be too short.
A third class passed before me with cheerful countenances, and free, elastic step. Their dress was the length I have described as proper, modest and healthful. It cleared the filth of the street and side-walk a few inches under all circumstances, such as ascending and descending steps, et cetera.
As I have before stated, the length was not given me in inches, and I was not shown a lady’s boot. … As I wrote upon the subject of dress the view of those three companies revived in my mind as plain as when I was viewing them in vision; but I was left to describe the length of the proper dress in my own language the best I could …
… I put on the dress, in length as near as I had seen and described as I could judge. … When the subject of inches came up in order to secure uniformity … a rule was brought and it was found that the length of our dresses ranged from eight to ten inches from the floor. Some of these were a little longer than the sample shown me, while others were a little shorter. – Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 8, 1867
Not quite all is quoted [above], but that is most of the article. God gave Sister White a vision, and you can see the need for that with the confusion that there was in the world over this matter. At that time, the things that she wrote, was the very first vision, which came out in a little tract and on the front is the picture of the dress that was given, the reform dress. This is what is meant when it speaks in Volume 1, of the reform dress. Some of the wrong things were corrected from the worldly costume… The waist is free, no tight band. The skirt is suspended from the shoulders, not hanging around the waist. The skirt is either sewed on, or buttoned on, to a waist, and hung from the shoulders. The feet were clothed with warm shoes, and the legs with pants, as they were spoken of. The dress is simple, plain, unadorned, convenient, modest, and healthful in every phase.
There were things about this dress, of course, that were objectionable. But let’s look, first of all, at the features of it, that would appeal to a person at that time. Those people were looking for some things along health lines, they were looking for something that would free them from all the terrible things that had been imposed on them by fashion, and this dress surely did that. They could freely go about their work. They could get their exercise, do their work without all of the problems, and they would become healthful. In fact, in our health institute, this dress was prescribed by the doctors, part of their
prescription. When women would come with all their ailments to see our doctors, our doctors would tell them, “Well, one of the things you need to do is accept the dress reform.” That was just put on the prescription list. It was done by Dr. Austin over at Our Home. She would just write on a prescription for them to do it.
At the Health Institute, the women would come there and see the other women with this dress on, and they would say, “Now I can see how that would solve some of my problems.” Many of them accepted it because of the healthful advantages of it. But can you see that along with the blessing that came from this, that there would be a problem to a person who had been used to all the frills and the fussiness of the dress of the world? It would be a cross. It was hard for our people to accept, because the Lord said the dress should be plain, unadorned, and shouldn’t be following the fashions. But what a blessing it brought to our people. What a deliverance it brought to them. The dress is not following the American Costume in the mannishness of it. It’s a very feminine type of dress.
There is another feature that I think we need to consider. You know, if this came in vision, as we have read here, that means that the Lord gave it to Sister White, doesn’t it? This was God’s ideal to handle the dress problem. It is very important in our thinking that we understand what God’s ideal was. That we understand the reasons for the various features of God’s ideal.
You know, I was thinking of the matter of proportion. A dress that is just cut in two, (as a real short dress is, the blouse and the skirt are just about cut in half) isn’t really as beautiful and as graceful as one where the skirt is twice as long as the waist. There is the matter of proportion that makes things look more graceful. So in dressing, a dress is more gracefully proportioned if it isn’t just half and half, as if it’s cut in thirds as it is in this. This was given to us, as we understand, in vision, and it is very important that we see in it, the beauty, the healthfulness, the convenience; that we see God’s ideal in that dress.
We have been discussing the matter of the freedom of the waist, not having to have heavy skirts. The shorter dress was surely more convenient than the one that was sweeping the floor, wasn’t it? What about this matter of clothing the limbs? To me, it would seem like a wonderful solution to the problem of keeping your limbs warm. Because it is hard to get enough on your legs to keep them amply covered. The pants seem a little odd to us today, but they weren’t odd back then. The women of the world wore the pants with the Turkish costume. You have seen the American Costume with the pants. Then perhaps some of you have seen little old fashioned pictures of the pantaloons, that little girls wore. They were worn more for decoration. There wasn’t any particular warmth about them. They were little starched pantaloons that hung out at the bottom of their skirts. That was a current style at that time.
So the idea of the pants at the time it was given, was not just an unheard-of thing like it would be today. I think that’s an important thing to get into our minds. God didn’t give some unheard-of style, something that was very foreign to their thinking. It was being worn in a number of ways by different types of people, but it proved to be one of the most objectionable features of the reform dress. The people at that time disliked the pants more than any other feature, and the fact that the dress was so short seemed to be the thing that they objected to the most.
But when we think of this dress, free waist, skirts hung on the shoulders, shorter skirt to make it more convenient, and the limbs and feet amply clothed, it surely met every specification that a person with good judgment would want in the matter of dress. The fact that it was not trimmed up and dolled up like the dresses worn by the world, would appeal to a christian. Of course, that would not appeal to a worldly-minded person.
Now, what did our people do about it? Did they accept God’s plan for freedom from all of this terrible bondage and ill health and problems that came with the worldly dress? Did they accept it? Some did and some didn’t. It wasn’t the fashion, and so it was not accepted by some. Some accepted part of it and didn’t accept it all. Some of them wore the shorter dress, but they trimmed it up and fixed it up just as fancy as they had their worldly costumes.
Then others felt like, “If I am going to wear that thing, I am going to make everybody else do it”. You can see what kind of spirit that would bring in, can’t you? The sort of thought that if I have to take this bitter pill, why, everybody else has to. And that wouldn’t bring a good spirit into a church, would it?
Then, some who accepted it didn’t put it on in a neat, orderly way. Some of them wore white sleeves and white pants with a dark dress. You can see how ill sorted that would look. In various ways they made the thing not tasty and orderly. Others just murmured about it. They didn’t want to wear it. They didn’t like one feature or the other feature of it. Well, what did the Lord do? Yes, the Lord said, “Well, I gave you what I felt was the ideal, would have solved your problems, but it brought in so many more problems because of your lack of accepting it.” You remember one time when the Lord did something like that with the children of Israel? They wanted to go across into Canaan, they wanted to go and then they got afraid of going. The Lord said, “You don’t have to go. If you are going to murmur and complain, you don’t have to go.”
Well, that’s what the people did back then. They murmured and complained so much about it that the Lord took it away. Here again, I would like to stress that fact, that the Lord took it away. Sister White didn’t just change her mind. I want in what we are studying to help you know how to meet criticism of Sister White on this point.
The first thing that I have stressed is that this was given in a vision. Don’t try to just slide over that. If you are brought into question about this matter, as we will be someday, let’s be very clear and plain that God gave us that dress. Then if we understand the reasons that the Lord took it away, we can be just as clear that the Lord took it away. The Lord took away the dress that He had given because they didn’t accept it in the right spirit. We need to keep both of those facts very clear in our minds…
For a resource full of principles, to aid you in your journey to dress reform, order The Art of Dressing [book] from our End-time Store. Get a copy for yourself, your daughter, and a friend. By God’s grace you shall receive a blessing!
* This study has been adapted from classes taken by Elder W.D. & Sis. Helen Frazee.