"Dress Reform" Counsels

"Dress Reform" Counsels—No. 2

A look at Ellen White's counsel on modest dress.

By W. A. SPICER, Field Secretary of the General Conference

At the first "Dress-Reform Congress," in Boston in 1874, Dr. Mary Stafford-Blake, a woman physician, in a lecture declared that in the good time coming, which they could see already appearing, "nothing will astonish and grieve us more than to reflect upon the life and energy we have squandered in cling­ing to that worst form of barbarism in our dress—the trailing skirts." She added that women blinded by this custom of dress were "converted into city, town, and country scavengers."

We would not dare use such language now, but these women were turning their scorn upon a universally prescribed custom that had taken health and strength and self-respect out of the lives of many. In the revolt against it many women had gone to extremes. The in­struction that came to the sisters of our church by Mrs. White in 1865 warned against any approach to imitation of men's dress, such as was seen in the "American costume." She wrote:

"Those who adopt and advocate this style of dress, are carrying the so-called dress reform to very objec­tionable lengths. . . . They could be instrumental in accomplishing vastly more good if they did not carry the matter of dress to such extremes."—"How to Live," No. 6, chat,. 6 (1865).

The group of sisters in the Battle Creek church then worked out a design which they felt represented the conservative costume called for. One early critic of the Spirit of prophecy, I recall, represented this design as forced upon the sisters. But in the little tract of that period, "The Dress Reform," written by Mrs. White, describing the mode and rea­sons for reform, she said at the close : "We recommend the reform dress to all. We urge it upon none."

Not a Test Question

Those who lived in that time and later know that many wore the recommended dress, and many did not. It was a matter for individual conviction; but, as might be expected, some made quite a trial out of the recommendation. Mrs. White wrote regarding this:

"With extremists, this reform seemed to constitute the stun and substance of their religion. It was the theme of conversation and the burden of their hearts ; and their minds were •thus diverted from God and the truth. . . . To those who put it on reluctantly, from a sense of duty, it became a grievous yoke. Still others, who were apparently the most zealous re­formers, manifested a sad lack of order and neatness in their dress."—"Testimonies," Vol. IV, pp. 636, 637.

Perhaps the most regrettable feature was the attempt by some "to control others' con­science by their own. . . . They forgot that none were to be compelled to wear the reform dress."—Id., p. 636.

It can be seen from the foregoing that al­though a better way was pointed out, and our sisters were counseled to dress in a manner which would be beneficial to health rather than a detriment, not all accepted the counsel aright. There was the tendency with some to turn counsels regarding better physical habits into ironclad rules and prohibitions. Again, it was written:

"Some were greatly troubled because I did not make the dress a test question, and still others be­cause I advised those who had unbelieving husbands or children not to adopt the reform dress, as it might lead to unhappiness that would counteract all the good to be derived from its use."—Id., p. 637.

These conditions led to the discontinuance of the agitation regarding "reform dress." Writing of this experience in 1883, Elder G. I. Butler commented:

"A point was reached where it became evident that the short dress, which was designed to be a blessing to our people, became an actual hindrance to the cause, because of the unreasonable course of many among us concerning it. Sister White ceased to speak in its behalf, and did not wear it herself, and it soon ceased to be generally worn."—Supplement to Review and Herald, Aug. 14, 1883.

The reform dress gradually disappeared from among our sisters, but they did not return to garments so conspicuous for their objectionable features as those originally con­demned. A change in general styles had be­gun with the early seventies. I am old enough to remember it well. Although improvement was not as rapid as might have been desired, a modest, healthful style developed.

In her original counsel of 1865 (pamphlet, "How to Live," No. 6), Mrs. White suggested that if the world adopted a reasonable style of dress, our sisters would in no wise be doing wrong if they, too, accepted it. One of the most reasonable and balanced statements I have ever seen on dress is this paragraph from the instruction that appeared in this pamphlet :

"Christians should not take pains to make them­selves gazingstocks by dressing differently from the world. But if, in accordance with their faith and duty in respect to their dressing modestly and health­fully, they find themselves out of fashion, they should not change their dress in order to be like the world. But they should manifest a noble independence, and moral courage to be right, if all the world differ from them. If the world introduce a modest, convenient, and healthful mode of dress, which is in accordance with the Bible, it will not change our relation to God, or to the world, to adopt such a style of dress. Christians should follow Christ, and conform their dress to God's word. They should shun extremes." —"How to Live," No. 6, chap. 6.

We rejoice with the women of the present on the better day that has come, when common everyday usage prescribes a costume that is the neatest, most artistic, and most healthful in our generation. But we must not forget the battle that earlier women fought against what Elizabeth Cady-Stanton called "tyrant cus­tom." Our own sisters of the sixties and seventies had their part in preparing the way for the better modes that came about, led as they were by instructions through a gift that always pointed the path to a better way. This instruction never magnified the matter into great prominence. "The dress reform was among the minor things that were to make up the great reform in health," wrote Mrs. White, in the Review of October 8, 1867. It did contribute its part, of course, in bring­ing about the better day that came. The critic who heaps ridicule upon our sisters of that time and upon the gift that gave such well-balanced and sensible instruction to them has missed the heart of the story.

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By W. A. SPICER, Field Secretary of the General Conference

August 1938

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