The Reform Dress

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Section Titles
What We Shall Seek to Prove
The Fashions of a Bygone Day
A Threefold Indictment
An Indictment of Dress in 1862
Styles of Reform Dress
Mrs. White Enters the Dress Discussion
The Visit to Dansville, 1864
Mrs. White Speaks on Dress Reform in 1865
Her Remark on “Gazing-stocks”
The Second Visit to Dansville, 1865
Waggoner Writes of Reform Dress at Battle Creek
Mrs. White Answers Questions on Dress
Mrs. White's Testimony in 1867
A Further Testimony in 1867
Those Dress Reform Patterns
The Reform Kept in Proper Perspective
Mrs. White on “Simplicity in Dress,” in 1881
Why the Reform Dress Was Discarded
She Refers to a Vision in 1875
Concessions to Human Frailty
Reform Dress Not to Be Revived
What Does Laughter Prove?

Charge: “Shortly before the Civil War of 1861-65 a few women wore and advocated a reform dress cut short—about half-way to the knees. With this they wore a sort of loose pants on the limbs below the dress. Some Advent sisters favored it as convenient and healthful; but Mrs. White condemned it, with good reason, as follows:

“‘God would not have His people adopt the so-called reform dress. It is immodest apparel, wholly unfitted for the modest, humble followers of Christ.’ (‘Testimonies for the Church,’ Vol. I, pp. 421, 422 [actually only 421] … )

“That was God's mind at that date.

“Again she says: ‘If women would wear their dresses so as to clear the filth of the streets an inch or two, … such a dress would be in accordance with our faith’ (page 424)….

“Once more she says:

“‘Christians should not take pains to make themselves a gazingstock by dressing differently from the world’ (p. 458)….

“This was in 1863, and was clear and emphatic. But one year later, September, 1864, Elder and Mrs. White spent three weeks at Dr. Jackson's Health Home.” They were “captivated” with his health reform views. “Miss Austin, one of the physicians there, wore a ‘Reform Dress’ with pants below the dress made like men's pants. Slightly modified, it was the same dress Mrs. White had condemned only a year before…. Immediately she adopted it herself, and began to write revelations and testimonies to the sisters, saying God now wanted them to wear it. It will be seen that after her visit with Miss Austin ‘the Lord’ changed His mind on the dress question, for she says:

“‘God would now have his people adopt the Reform Dress … (p. 525)….

“She gives the exact length of the dress. She says: ‘I would say that nine inches as nearly accords with my view of the matter as I am able to express in inches’ (p. 521).”

Before she met Miss Austin she said “an inch or two” but now “nine inches.” “That was the way Miss Austin wore hers.”

“Mrs. White had patterns of the dress,” which she took everywhere she went. She sold them “for one dollar each! She thus pocketed quite a nice sum of easy money.”

Mrs. White gave strong testimonies on the importance of this dress.


“But at length she saw it was a mistake and a failure.” So she “quietly laid it off.” When asked about it “she simply refused to give any” explanations. “The fact was, she had been misled by Miss Austin, and dared not own it.”

In 1875 she wrote, blaming “the sisters for abandoning” the dress and spoke of “another less objectionable style…. (‘Testimonies,’ Vol. IV, p. 640).”

Adventist sisters who wore the Reform Dress were the object of ridicule everywhere.

Here is the dress reform charge in all its fullness. Later critics have added a frill or a trimming but nothing substantial to the lines. After reading it, the reader is supposed to conclude that: (1) the fashions of the day were becoming, modest, and entirely satisfactory; (2) Mrs. White took hold of a weird notion of some fanatical dress reformers because she was easily influenced; (3) in doing so she reversed counsel she had given only a short while before, and (4) then she compounded her spiritual folly by abandoning the reform and recommending something else.

What We Shall Seek to Prove

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By the presentation of the documented historical record we shall seek to show that:

1. The fashions of the day loudly cried for reform.

2. A variety of reform dresses were being advocated at this time, some sensible, some not, and that the critic has failed to distinguish between these.

3. Mrs. White advocated a dress that was hygienic, practical, and modest.

4. The critic is mistaken in his chronology and in his interpretation of her words when he charges her first with condemning and then adopting the American costume worn by Miss Austin.

5. Mrs. White claimed, not to have received a revelation as to the details of a dress pattern, but only as to the basic principles of dress reform, and that therefore the critic's remarks about inches in length is irrelevant.

6. The evidence will not support the charge that she made a “nice” profit from the sale of patterns.

7. She declared that dress reform was only a “minor” matter.


8. The way many related themselves to the reform dress tended to offset the blessing it should have brought, and called for the abandonment of it.

9. By this time changing fashions had removed the more objectionable features that the reform dress was intended to correct.

10. Mrs. White concluded the whole matter by re-stating the basic objectives in reform dress and left the application of them to the sisters in the church.

The Fashions of a Bygone Day

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What was the fashion picture at the time Mrs. White wrote? That was the day of the hoop skirt, known often as crinolines, those billowing gowns, held out at the base with great metal hoops. That was the day of the wasplike waist, made so by tight-fitting corsets. That was the day when there were many and heavy undergarments, apparently intended not so much to give warmth as to give bulk and amplitude. That was the day of whalebones, that further served to strait-lace women's garments. And approximately at that time appeared the bustle skirt, with its curious surplus of clothing, posterior and near the base of the spine, that conveyed the impression of unstable equilibrium, by changing the center of gravity. Also, in those days flourished the trailing skirt, with its prodigal disregard of the cost of cloth per yard, so that it swept up many Square yards as a woman walked.

This description might have been made more colorful. But this need not be done. Others, who had no interest in defending Mrs. White, and who probably never knew her, have left us descriptions of the times and the fashions that are more colorful than anything we could write.

A Threefold Indictment

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Various vigorous writers in mid-nineteenth century indicted the current styles of women's dress on three counts: (1) unhealthful, (2) impractical, (3) immodest.

They were unhealthful. Tight-fitting corsets restricted the breathing, and heavy skirts hung from the waist crowded the vital


organs out of place. The hoop skirts kept the clothing away from the lower limbs, a custom which meant that they were chilled in winter. The trailing skirts gathered up the filth or the dampness of the streets. The dresses were impractical. It was only with great difficulty that a woman wearing a hoop skirt could enter a carriage or a streetcar or could ascend a staircase. And they were immodest, for the only way that a woman could negotiate certain entrances and exits, and ascents and descents of stairs, was by lifting one side of the hoop skirt in order to shorten its diameter at the base.

Listen to Mrs. M. Angeline Merritt, writing in 1852 of the unhealthfulness of the current style, particularly upon the mothers of men:

“The popular fashions of the present day are not only operating insidiously, but mechanically, to lower the standard, which it is the duty, and should be the pride, of every mother to attain, in presenting offspring to the world with perfect physical, mental and moral requisites, to make the future man. The most prominent of these which militate against the health, natural position, and vitality, of the maternal organs, located in the cavity under consideration, is the present debilitating, injurious mode of female dress, which not only affects prominently the individual herself, but exercises an almost illimitable influence upon the physical condition of her children.”—Dress Reform Practically and Physiologically Considered, pp. 48, 49.

Of the inconvenient character of the current styles, she wrote:

“Every lady who has any experience in domestic life, must understand the abundant inconvenience attendant upon a style of dress, the dimensions of whose superfluities may be adduced in yards and pounds. The utility of skirts for sweeping floors and sidewalks, and for mopping stairways and passages, has become a proverb.”—Ibid., p. 79. (Italics hers.)

An Indictment of Dress in 1862

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Another reformer, Ellen Beard Harman, said this, concerning women's dress, in a lecture in 1862:

“Viewed in any aspect, the common style of dress for women is one of the greatest barbarisms ever known, especially considering the age in which we live. Only think of the women of the nineteenth century wearing apparel incompatible with the laws of their being—with health, comfort, and convenience, protection and neatness, disproportioned to the body, awkward and burdensome! What are we, indeed, that we should be rigged off


like a ship of war?—encased in iron, wood, whalebone, and steel; encoiled in cording, ropes, and sails; and freighted with a useless cargo of dry goods? Was there a mistake made in our construction, that we must go to the mines of the earth or the trees of the forest for material to gird us round about? A mistake was it, that we must rob the whale of his bones, and place them perpendicularly when nature has placed our own bones horizontally, and thus hinder their motion and use? If so, then have we reason to pity the poor men who, like us, were unfortunate in their construction, and are without these mitigating helps.”—Dress Reform: Its Physiological and Moral Bearings, p. 26. (Italics hers.)

Of the dress of those times, the crinolines and hoop skirts, a twentieth-century writer, looking back over the period, observes:

“It seems almost incredible that women of judgment and taste could ever have adopted this monstrosity of fashion.”—Elisabeth McClellan, Historic Dress in America, 1800-1870, p. 263.

A noted twentieth-century woman preacher, Dr. A. Maude Royden, reminiscing on the strange customs of the past, says this of the hoop skirts worn in the days of her mother:

“My own mother, who is in most things a great admirer of all that is old-fashioned, told me she considered crinolines the most absolutely indecent garments ever invented for feminine wear. Yet she herself and every respectable woman wore these indecent crinolines, and though, like herself, others may have deplored this vagary of fashion, yet they obeyed it, and would have looked exceedingly odd had they not done so.”—Ladies' Home Journal, March, 1924, p. 31.

A minister writing in the 1860's offers this comment on the current styles:

“The objections to the common style of dress are numerous, among which the following are a few: 1. The feet and limbs of the females are imperfectly clad, having generally only thin stockings and shoes to protect them. 2. The modern hoop skirt throws the clothes far away from the limbs and then exposes them still more. 3. Hence the feet and limbs often become chilly and cold. This prevents a proper circulation of blood in those parts.”—D. M. Canright in Review and Herald, June 18, 1867, p. 9.

Note the name of this writer. Canright is the critic from whose 1919 book against Mrs. White the charges in this chapter have been quoted!


It was inevitable that such folly in fashion should produce a reaction, an indictment of the styles of the day and an endeavor to reform them. About 1850 we see such reform endeavors beginning to take definite shape. These reforms sought to deal effectively with the three defects of the current styles: (1) Remedy the unhealthfulness by lighter weight garments suspended from the shoulders and fitting more closely to the limbs; (2) remedy the inconvenience of them by making them shorter, and removing the hoops and trailing length; (3) and by the foregoing changes, make them also modest.

Styles of Reform Dress

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Different reformers had different viewpoints on how to correct the styles of the day. Some were more extreme than others. Because of the very newness of the reform dress idea, there were at first no sharply defined names for the different styles of such dress. Dr. James C. Jackson and Miss Dr. Austin at “Our Home” at Dansville, New York, brought out one of the reform dress styles. This was described as the American costume. Wrote Dr. Jackson:

“It was with reference to a better method of treating diseases peculiar to women, that Miss Austin and myself were led to invent the American Costume.”—James C. Jackson, M.D., How to Treat the Sick Without Medicine, p. 66.

We have not found in the writings of Dr. Jackson any exact description of the American costume. We do know, however, from other sources that this costume was distinguished by the extreme shortness of the dress. Some described the dress as coming to the knees, and some as coming to a point half way between the hips and the knees, with mannish trousers to cover the legs. Obviously such a costume went further than was necessary to remedy the grave defects of the current fashions, and gave to women an extremely mannish look.*

* Mrs. White's critic builds much of his case on the claim that he knows precisely the length of Miss Austin's American costume, that is, about nine inches from the floor. He does not trouble to give any proof. The very terms used to describe the different kinds of reform dress were fluid, for the patterns kept changing. That fact alone makes it difficult to speak with certainty on various details. The critic, half a century after the day of these reform dresses, is dogmatic to the inch about.a particular dress in a particular year. He must be, or his argument would collapse.


So well defined was the dress reformers' opposition to the current fashions that it took on, for a time, the quality of a crusade. There were women's associations that had as their main object dress reform. They held lecture courses at which patterns of reform dress styles were exhibited to all who came.*

Mrs. White Enters the Dress Discussion

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It is in this setting that Mrs. White began to write on the subject of dress reform. We wish to give, in chronological order, her principal statements on the matter. We quote, first, from her statement in 1863:

“No occasion Should be given to unbelievers to reproach our faith. We are considered odd and singular, and should not take a course to lead unbelievers to think us more so than our faith requires us to be.

“Some who believe the truth may think that it would be more healthful for the sisters to adopt the American costume, yet if that mode of dress would cripple our influence among unbelievers so that we could not so readily gain access to them, we should by no means adopt it, though we suffered much in consequence. But some are deceived in thinking there is so much benefit to be received from this costume. While it may prove a benefit to some, it is an injury to others.

“I saw that God's order has been reversed, and his special directions disregarded, by those who adopt the American costume. I was referred to Deut. 22:5: ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment, for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.’

“God would not have his people adopt the so-called reform dress. It is immodest apparel, wholly unfitted for the modest, humble followers of Christ.”—Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 420, 421. (Testimony No. 10.)

Mrs. White's comment on the American costume is strong presumptive proof that it was distinctly mannish. But to speak of a costume with a dress falling to within nine inches of the floor, as that “which pertaineth unto a man,” would hardly make. sense.

Notice that Mrs. White describes “the American costume,”

* A glowing report of such an organization is given by one of the dress reform crusaders, a Mrs. S. W. Dodds, M.D., under the title “Dress Reform and Health Reform in Kansas,” in The Health Reformer for February, 1870, pp 155-158. In that report she declares, “Now, good friends, what we want for the triumph of Dress Reform, is Organization. Let us have it.”—Page 157.


as “the so-called reform dress.” It was this kind of “reform dress” that she said “God would not have his people adopt.”

If Canright, whose charges are quoted in this chapter, had only remembered what he wrote in the 1860's, he would have answered most of the charges that he brought against Mrs. White in 1919 in the matter of dress reform. Reporting through the church paper in 1867 on his visit to the church in Portland, Maine, and of his endeavor during that visit to promote a true reform dress, he declares:

“The extreme short dress had been worn here before by Sabbath-keepers; hence some prejudice existed against everything that bears the name of short dress. But the reform dress and the American costume are two very different things. All could readily see this.”—D. M. Canright in Review and Herald, June 18, 1867, p. 9.

No wonder we find Mrs. White warning the sisters against the “so-called reform dress.” Note that the critic, writing in 1867, states explicitly that the reform dress being promoted among Seventh-day Adventists was not the American costume.

Turning again to what Mrs. White is saying in that Testimony No. 10, written in 1863, we find her adding this:

“We do not think it in accordance with our faith to dress in the American costume, to wear hoops, or to go to an extreme in wearing long dresses which sweep the sidewalks and streets. If women would wear their dresses so as to clear the filth of the streets an inch or two, their dresses would be modest, and they could be kept clean much more easily, and would wear longer. Such a dress would be in accordance with our faith.”—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 424.

“‘There is a medium position in these things. Oh that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.’”—Ibid., p. 425.

The Visit to Dansville, 1864

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In September, 1864, Mrs. White with her husband visited “Our Home” at Dansville, New York.

Her comment on that visit, at least so far as the dress feature is concerned, is reflected in a personal letter she wrote immediately afterwards:

“They have all styles of dress here. Some are very becoming, if not so short. We shall get patterns from this place, and I think we can get out a


style of dress more healthful than we now wear, and yet not be bloomer or the American costume. Our dresses according to my idea, should be from four to six inches shorter than now worn, and should in no case reach lower than the top of the heel of the shoe, and could be a little shorter even than this with all modesty. I am going to get up a style of dress on my own hook which will accord perfectly with that which has been shown me. Health demands it. Our feeble women must dispense with heavy skirts and tight waists if they value health….

“We shall never imitate Miss Dr. Austin or Mrs. Dr. York [both of ‘Our Home’]. They dress very much like men. We shall imitate or follow no fashion we have ever yet seen. We shall institute a fashion which will be both economical and healthy.”—Letter to Brother and Sister Lockwood, September, 1864. (Letter la, 1864.)

Note that in this letter Mrs. White explains why she would never imitate Dr. Austin. That reason comports with her 1863 statement, already quoted. She refers to “that which has been shown me,” meaning of course, what she had seen in vision. It is also evident that though in her vision dress reform had been presented before her, she had not been given any pattern or specific details concerning it, and certainly not with regard to its length, in terms of inches from the ground. She specifically declared that the dress she thought to “get out” would not be “the American costume.”

Mrs. White Speaks on Dress Reform in 1865

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Mrs. White's next statement on dress is found in number 5 of the six pamphlets, published in 1865, which bear the general title How to Live. In her article in this number she discusses the care of children, particularly their dress. She observes, “Show and fashion are the demon altar upon which many American women sacrifice their children.”—Page 67. She decries the style of dress for children that leaves the extremities poorly covered.

A further statement by Mrs. White, in 1865, is found in number 6 of the How to Live pamphlets. This is her first positive, formal presentation in behalf of reform in dress, written to the sisters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We quote:

“My sisters, there is need of a dress reform among us. There are many errors in the present style of female dress. It is injurious to health, and,


therefore, sin for females to wear tight corsets, or whalebones, or to compress the waist. These have a depressing influence upon the heart, liver, and lungs. The health of the entire system depends upon the healthy action of the respiratory organs. Thousands of females have ruined their constitutions, and brought upon themselves various diseases, in their efforts to make a healthy and natural form unhealthy and unnatural….

“Many females drag down the bowels and hips by hanging heavy skirts upon them. These were not formed to sustain weights…. The female dress should be suspended from the shoulders. It would be pleasing to God if there was greater uniformity in dress among believers….

“The children of Israel, after they were brought out of Egypt, were commanded to have a simple ribbon of blue in the border of their garments, to distinguish them from the nations around them, and to signify that they were God's peculiar people. The people of God are not now required to have a special mark placed upon their garments. But in the New Testament we are often referred to ancient Israel as examples. If God gave such definite directions to his ancient people in regard to their dress, will not the dress of his people in this age come under his notice? Should there not be in their dress a distinction from that of the world? Should not the people of God, who are his peculiar treasure, seek even in their dress to glorify God? And should they not be examples in point of dress, and by their simple style rebuke the pride, vanity and extravagance of worldly, pleasure-loving professors? God requires this of his people. Pride is rebuked in his word.”—Pages 57, 58.

Her Remark on “Gazing-stocks”

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A few pages farther on in this pamphlet she makes a key statement of principle from which the critics have quoted only a part of one sentence:

“Christians should not take pains to make themselves gazing-stocks 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.”—Ibid., pp. 61, 62.

She then indicts current styles and follows with a criticism of a certain kind of reform dress:

“There is still another style of dress which will be adopted by a class


of so-called dress reformers. They will imitate the opposite sex, as nearly as possible. They will wear the cap, pants, vest, coat, and boots, the last of which is the most sensible part of the costume. Those who adopt and advocate this style of dress, are carrying the so-called dress reform to very objectionable lengths. Confusion will be the result. Some who adopt this costume may be correct in their views in general upon the health question, and they could be instrumental in accomplishing vastly more good if they did not carry the matter of dress to such extremes….

“The dress should reach somewhat below the top of the boot; but should be short enough to clear the filth of the sidewalk and street, without being raised by the hand. A still shorter dress than this would be proper, convenient, and healthful for females, when doing their housework, and especially, for those women who are obliged to perform more or less out-of-door labor.”—Ibid., pp. 62-64.

Before passing on to Mrs. White's next declaration, we wish the reader particularly to note two points concerning the statement on “gazing-stocks,” which, according to the charge, was made in 1863. Note, first, how differently Mrs. White's words concerning “gazing-stocks” sound when placed in the larger context. There her true meaning is revealed. Second, note that this “gazing-stock” statement appears first in Number 6 of the How to Live pamphlets, published in January, 1865,* which fact means that Mrs. White made this statement after she and her husband made that much-discussed visit to Dansville, not before.

The Second Visit to Dansville, 1865

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In September, 1865, Elder and Mrs. White went the second time to Dansville, he suffering from a “stroke.” Regarding this visit she wrote two years later:

“I put on the reformed dress September 8, 1865, when I visited Dansville with my sick husband. It was the same length I now wear, and I was distinctly given to understand that it was not the ‘American Costume.’”—Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867, p. 260.

* See Review and Herald, Jan. 10 1865.

As a matter of fact, the critic quotes this “gazing-stock” passage as from Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 458 where Mrs. White is really restating what she said in How to Live No. 6. Her restatement in the section of volume 1 known as Testimony No. 11, was not published until 1867. See page 713 of volume 1 for a table giving date and place of publication of each Testimony from No. 1 to 14, which constitute volume 1. The critic builds half his case on the alleged 1863 date for the “gazing-stock” statement. It is difficult to understand how he made this error, because there has never been any question as to the date of publication.


It was about this time that Mrs. White had called upon the sisters in the church to take a positive step in the way of dress reform, thus to break the domination of fashion and to secure better health. It was therefore very natural that she should make the transition to a reform dress at the time she went with her husband to an institution where a variety of reforms were under way. She made sure, however, in putting on the reform dress, that she was not adopting anything that could be described as the American costume.

Waggoner Writes of Reform Dress at Battle Creek

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In 1866 the Western Health Reform Institute* was founded at Battle Creek, Michigan, by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

J. H. Waggoner, writing in The Health Reformer of March, 1868, tells of the introduction of a reform dress at the Health Reform Institute:

“When the Health Reform Institute was established, the physicians decided that a better style of dress for women than the long, dragging skirts, was desirable….

“As might be expected, when it was first being adopted at the Institute there was not complete uniformity, but the taste and choice of the wearers had much to do with the length and appearance of the dresses worn….

“At my request the physicians at the Institute named a number of its inmates whose dresses they considered as nearly correct in make and appearance as could be found to that number amongst the varieties. I measured the height of twelve, with the distance of their dresses from the floor. They varied in height from five feet to five feet seven inches, and the distance of the dresses from the floor was from 8 to 10½ inches. The medium, nine inches, was decided to be the right distance, anti is adopted as the standard.”—Pages 129, 130.

The Health Reform Institute was set on its way very directly under the counsel and guidance of Mrs. White and by physicians and others who confidently believed that she possessed the gift of the Spirit of prophecy. If, at the outset, she had drawn up exact patterns and specifications for a particular reform dress, on the claim that she had received the exact specifications in vision, would

* Later known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium.


it not follow that that would have been the one and only dress adopted by the Health Reform Institute when it was opened?

Waggoner's statement reveals that there was no one pattern, nor was there any principle that guided them further than that they sought to create a style of dress that would remedy the evils of the current fashions and give maximum of health, convenience, and modesty. And in doing so they naturally sought to profit, as far as possible, by the current reform-dress endeavors being made by others. This is a very important point.

Because Mrs. White promoted a reform dress, finally carrying patterns of such a dress with her, and because she declared that she promoted dress reform as a result of instruction from the Lord, the critics immediately assume that she claimed to have received the pattern from heaven. And of course if Mrs. White received, directly from heaven, a specific pattern, with exact specifications of length and the like, then if at any time she said anything that seemed to differ in any detail from what she had earlier said, behold the critics have discovered her in a contradiction.

But there is nothing in what Mrs. White has written that warrants the assumption that she claimed to have received a pattern from heaven, with exact specification in inches. On the contrary, Waggoner indicates that an institution that had just been set up under her direct guidance did not have any one pattern, and that the details were decided on after experimentation with dresses that conformed to the basic objectives of health, convenience, and modesty.

Mrs. White Answers Questions on Dress

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In 1867 several questions were addressed to Mrs. White on the subject of dress reform. One question read thus:

“Does not the practice of the sisters in wearing their dresses nine inches from the floor contradict Testimony No. 11, which says they should reach somewhat below the top of a lady's gaiter boot? Does it not also contradict Testimony No. 10, which says that they should clear the filth of the street an inch or two without being raised by the hand?”—Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867, p. 260.


Now listen to Mrs. White's clear-cut answer, that follows immediately:

“The proper distance from the bottom of the dress to the floor was not given to me in inches. Neither was I shown ladies' gaiter boots; but 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 burden 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, &c.

“As I have before stated, the length was not given me in inches, and I was not shown a lady's boot. And here I would state that although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation. 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, which I have done by stating that the bottom of the dress should reach near the top of a lady's boot, which would be necessary in order to clear the filth of the streets under the circumstances before named….

“Numerous letters came to me from all parts of the field, inquiring the length of the dress shown me. Having seen the rule applied to the distance from the floor of several dresses, and having become fully satisfied that nine inches comes the nearest to the samples shown me, I have given this number of inches in [Testimony], No. 12, as the proper length in regard to which uniformity is very desirable. If it be said that a lady's boot is not nine inches high, I would say I wear a boot eight inches high, and when I have walked


before my sisters with it uncovered as those properly dressed passed before me in vision, they could not see the top of my boot.”—Ibid.

Mrs. White here frankly states the nature of her vision concerning dress reform. There passed before her vision-focused eyes certain scenes, which scenes were clear and definite as to the basic principles concerning the dress reform. From these principles she was left to frame, in human words, the application of the principles as they applied to health, convenience, modesty. Her statements about inches were incidental. She was seeking only to convey the general thought that the skirt should be a reasonable distance above the ground.

Mrs. White's Testimony in 1867

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In this same year, 1867, Mrs. White published Testimony No. 11, containing an article entitled “Reform in Dress,” which restates at some length what she had written before. Her reason for doing so, as she explains in the opening paragraph, is that some did not seem to have understood her position, and that some who did not wish to believe what she had written had sought to make confusion in the church regarding it. In this testimony (No. 11) she takes note of a report that was in circulation that she wore the American costume, and that that style of reform dress was the one being worn by the sisters in Battle Creek. Her vigorous comment was: “I am here reminded of the saying, that ‘a lie will go around the world while truth is putting on his boots.’”—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 463.

She explained again the objectives she had in view in recommending the kind of reform dress that she did. She counseled her sisters to be neat and give proper attention to dress, even the dress that they wore in ordinary house work when only their family saw them. Said she:

“Sisters when about their work should not put on clothing which would make them look like images to frighten the crows from the corn. It is more gratifying to their husbands and children to see them in a becoming, wellfitting attire, than it can be to mere visitors or strangers.”—Ibid., p. 464.

Having made general observations about the kind of reform dress that she considered proper, she continued:


“The above-described dress we believe to be worthy of the name of the reform short dress. It is being adopted at the Western Health Reform Institute [Battle Creek Sanitarium], and by some of the sisters at Battle Creek and other places where the matter is properly set before the people. In wide contrast with this modest dress is the so-called American costume, resembling very nearly the dress worn by men. It consists of a vest, pants, and a dress resembling a coat and reaching about half-way from the hip to the knee. This dress I have opposed, from what has been shown me as in harmony with the word of God; while the other I have recommended as modest, comfortable, convenient, and healthful.”—Ibid., p. 465.

Note Mrs. White's repeated indictment of the “American costume.” But this was the costume worn by Miss Dr. Austin, who, according to the charge, persuaded Mrs. White to adopt it! That Mrs. White did not adopt that costume, even in a “slightly modified” form, seems transparently clear from the evidence.

A Further Testimony in 1867

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To continue the story: Still later in 1867 Mrs. White wrote Testimony No. 12, which contains a section entitled “The Reform Dress.” In this she refers to the experience of the children of Israel and God's counsel to them, to put upon the fringe of their garments a ribbon of blue to distinguish them from the heathen. Drawing from the principle of this ancient counsel, she adds immediately:

“God would now have His people adopt the reform dress, not only to distinguish them from the world as his ‘peculiar people,’ but because a reform in dress is essential to physical and mental health. God's people have, to a great extent, lost their peculiarity, and have been gradually patterning after the world, and mingling with them, until they have in many respects become like them.”—Ibid., p. 525.

The critic quotes a portion of the first sentence from this passage and plays on the word “now,” attempting to make it appear that when in 1867 Mrs. White said “God would now have his people adopt the reform dress,” she was really reversing a statement she had made in 1863. But the context reveals clearly that Mrs. White does not at all have in mind a “now” in contrast to her 1863 statement. The “now” is intended to provide a certain comparison or parallel to an ancient practice enjoined by God, and simply reiterates what she had written earlier.


Those Dress Reform Patterns

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In this same testimony (No. 12) she expresses concern over the fact that “the reform dress is not rightly represented,” that is, this new style of dress was not being made properly. The result was that in many cases, instead of looking neat in appearance and sensible, it looked the very opposite. Said she:

“This style of dress is unpopular, and for this reason neatness and taste should be exercised by those who adopt it…. Before putting on the reform dress, our sisters should obtain patterns of the pants and sack worn with it. It is a great injury to the dress reform to have persons introduce into a community a style which in every particular needs reforming before it can rightly represent the reform dress. Wait, sisters, till you can put the dress on right.”—Ibid., p. 521.

It is in this setting that we see great reasonableness in her statement:

“I shall have patterns prepared to take with me as we travel, ready to hand to our sisters whom we shall meet, or to send by mail to all who may order them.”—Ibid., p. 522.

The critic cites this passage, quite out of its context, seeking to convey to the reader that Mrs. White not only claimed to have got her pattern from heaven, but had privately made duplicates, and was selling these at a high price and at great profit to herself. The critic says she charged a dollar, but he cites no documentary evidence in support of his statement.

The documentary evidence available reveals clearly that she carried on no exclusive work in the distribution of patterns. In The Health Reformer of January, 1868, is an article on “The Reform Dress,” by Dr. Russell, in which he says: “As none should attempt to make the dress without a pattern, we would say, it can be obtained by addressing Miss Dr. Lamson, Health Institute, Battle Greek, Mich. Price, 25 cents.”—Page 107. But in the next issue of The Health Reformer Miss Dr. Lamson stated that this announcement was an error and that the price was 50 cents.

If the sisters in the church could secure, through The Health Reformer, which came to many of their homes, a pattern for fifty cents, is it reasonable to believe that Mrs. White would be so


foolish as to demand “one dollar each” for these patterns, as alleged? In our examination of charges we have had many exhibits of how stories grew tremendously over the years. We should, therefore, not be surprised if this particular story grew to one dollar!

The Reform Kept in Proper Perspective

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Mrs. White kept the whole matter of dress reform in proper perspective. She refused to let it become a dominant subject in the church. Listen to her words:

“None need fear that I shall make dress reform one of my principal subjects as we travel from place to place. Those who have heard me upon this matter will have to act upon the light that has already been given. I have done my duty; I have borne my testimony, and those who have heard me and read that which I have written, must now bear the responsibility of receiving or rejecting the light given. If they choose to venture to be forgetful hearers, and not doers of the work, they run their own risk, and will be accountable to God for the course they pursue. I am clear. I shall urge none, and condemn none.”—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 523.

In line with this was the counsel she gave to certain sisters whose husbands were opposed to the reform dress:

“Sisters who have opposing husbands have asked my advice in regard to their adopting the short dress contrary to the wishes of the husband. I advise them to wait. I do not consider the dress question of so vital importance as the Sabbath. Concerning the latter there can be no hesitation. But the opposition which many might receive should they adopt the dress reform, would be more injurious to health than the dress would be beneficial.”—Ibid., p. 522.

It is difficult to see how she could have presented more judiciously a reform program—and how greatly the current fashions needed reforming! She did not permit this program to overbalance other and more vital considerations.

In her statement on dress reform in the Review and Herald in 1867 Mrs. White is explicit that it is one of the minor things:

“The dress reform was* among the minor things that were to make up the great reform in health, and never should have been urged as a testing truth necessary to salvation.”—October 8, 1867, p. 261.

* The past tense here simply indicates that Mrs. White, in 1867, was referring back to the time of the introduction of the reform dress.


Mrs. White made this statement about the minor place of dress reform while she was in the midst of promoting that reform. She did not make this statement as an afterthought, in a lame attempt to explain why that particular dress reform was abandoned. In fact, her statement concerning the minor character of this feature of reform provides the proper setting in which to consider the matter of the abandonment of a particular style of reform dress.

As late as 1873 Mrs. White made this brief comment on dress reform in connection with an extended discussion of the Health Institute:

“The dress reform is treated by some with great indifference, and by others with contempt, because there is a cross attached to it. For this cross I thank God. It is just what we need to distinguish and separate God's commandment-keeping people from the world. The dress reform answers to us as did the ribbon of blue to ancient Israel.”—Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 171.

Mrs. White on “Simplicity in Dress,” in 1881

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In 1881 Mrs. White wrote at length under the title “Simplicity in Dress,” in which she discussed the broad principles involved in such simplicity. She declared that unwarranted expenditure on clothes, either in time in the making of them, or in money in the buying of them, is contrary to the spirit of true religion, which calls for simplicity in our dress and for sacrificial giving to the Lord of our resources for the advancement of His work. She also sets forth there the principle that in blindly following fashion we make of it a god, because we give it our first interest, and that if the fashion be unhealthful, we harm body as well as soul in following the fashion. In the setting of these principles Mrs. White declared:

“To protect the people of God from the corrupting influence of the world, as well as to promote physical and moral health, the dress reform was introduced among us. It was not intended to be a yoke of bondage, but a blessing; not to increase labor, but to save labor; not to add to the expense of dress, but to save expense. It would distinguish God's people from the world, and thus serve as a barrier against its fashions and follies. He who knows the end from the beginning, who understands our nature and our needs,—our compassionate Redeemer,—saw our dangers and difficulties,


and condescended to give us timely warning and instruction concerning our habits of life, even in the proper selection of food and clothing.

“Satan is constantly devising some new style of dress that shall prove an injury to physical and moral health; and he exults when he sees professed Christians eagerly accepting the fashions that he has invented.”—Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 634, 635.

Then she goes on to discuss further some of the evils of current fashions, particularly the trailing skirts, and adds immediately:

“But dress reform comprised more than shortening the dress and clothing the limbs. It included every article of dress upon the person. It lifted the weights from the hips by suspending the skirts from the shoulders. It removed the tight corsets, which compress the lungs, the stomach, and other internal organs, and induce curvature of the spine and an almost countless train of diseases. Dress reform proper provided for the protection and development of every part of the body.”—Ibid., p. 635.

Why the Reform Dress Was Discarded

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It is evident from this, as it has been evident from other quotations, that Mrs. White was seeking to promote, not so much a specific pattern of a dress, as a basic idea that would give expression to certain principles. In other words, a particular design of dress was merely a means toward an end, and not significant in itself. After thus describing, in 1881, the advantage of the reform dress, she comes to the important question:

“The question may be asked, ‘Why has this dress been laid aside? and for what reason has dress reform ceased to be advocated?’ The reasons for this change I will here briefly state. While many of our sisters accepted this reform from principle, others opposed the simple, healthful style of dress which it advocated. It required much labor to introduce this reform among our people. It was not enough to present before our sisters the advantages of such a dress, and to convince them that it would meet the approval of God. Fashion had so strong a hold upon them that they were slow to break away from its control, even to obey the dictates of reason and conscience. And many who professed to accept the reform, made no change in their wrong habits of dress, except in shortening the skirts and clothing the limbs.

“Nor was this all. Some who adopted the reform were not content to show by example the advantages of the dress, giving, when asked, their reasons for adopting it, and letting the matter rest there. They sought to control others' conscience by their own. If they wore it, others must put


it on. They forgot that none were to be compelled to wear the reform dress….

“Much unhappy feeling was created by those who were constantly urging the reform dress upon their sisters. With extremists, this reform seemed to constitute the sum 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. They failed to cherish the spirit of Christ, and manifested a great lack of true courtesy. Instead of prizing the dress for its real advantages, they seemed to be proud of its singularity….

“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. For years I carried the burden of this work, and labored to establish uniformity of dress among our sisters.”—Ibid., pp. 635-637.

Mrs. White's remark on “uniformity” refers to her expression of regret that the reform dress had not been made in any approved way, and had become with some a “variety suit” with each of the parts of a different material. The result was that the dress was “ill-proportioned and out of taste.”—Ibid., p. 637.

She Refers to a Vision in 1875

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It is in the setting of these facts that we can understand her statement which follows on the same page:

“In a vision given me at Battle Creek, Jan. 3, 1875, I was shown the state of things which I have here represented, and that the wide diversity in dress was an injury to the cause of truth. That which would have proved a blessing, if uniformly adopted and properly worn, had been made a reproach, and, in some cases, even a disgrace.

“Some who wore the dress sighed over it as a heavy burden. The language of their hearts was, ‘Anything but this. If we felt free to lay off this peculiar style, we would willingly adopt a plain, untrimmed dress of ordinary length.’ …

“God has been testing his people. He allowed the testimony concerning dress to become silent, that our sisters might follow their own inclination, and thus develop the real pride existing in their hearts….

“If all our sisters would adopt a simple, unadorned dress, of modest length, the uniformity thus established would be far more pleasing to God, and would exert a more salutary influence on the world, than the diversity presented four years ago. As our sisters would not generally accept the reform dress as it should be worn, another, less objectionable style is now


presented. It is free from needless trimmings, free from the looped-up tiedback over-skirts. It consists of a plain sacque or loose-fitting basque, and skirt, the latter short enough to avoid the mud and filth of the streets. The material should be free from large plaids and figures, and plain in color. The same attention should be given to the clothing of the limbs as with the short dress.

“Will my sisters accept this style of dress, and refuse to imitate the fashions that are devised by Satan, and continually changing? No one can tell what freak fashion will take next. Worldlings whose only care is, ‘What shall we eat, and what shall we wear?’ should not be our criterion.”—Ibid., pp. 637-640.

Concessions to Human Frailty

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We think that these statements speak for themselves and reveal no inconsistency, no contradiction, on Mrs. White's part. After all, even prophets of God can only set forth principles. God has not commissioned them as policemen to enforce the principles. Furthermore, it was still to be possible for the sisters in the church to give obedience to the principles in terms of a “less objectionable style” that she then sought to present.

Our Lord said, in explanation of a certain course of conduct allowed to the ancient Jews: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives.” Strictly speaking, it was not Moses, but He who spoke through Moses, that allowed this.

When the children of Israel wanted a king to rule over them so that they might be like the nations round about them, the Lord said to them, through the prophet Samuel, that in asking for a king they were rejecting Him, the Lord of heaven. Yet the Lord followed this with instruction to Samuel to pour the anointing oil upon Saul to make him king. Later King David received the special blessing of God and the assurance that his throne would be established forever.

The critics find no difficulty with these Scriptural incidents, but they affect great amazement over the fact that Mrs. White, who stated explicitly that the reform dress was simply a “minor” item, should have withdrawn her advocacy of it in favor of a “less objectionable” dress, which retained the essential features of the reform dress.


Reform Dress Not to Be Revived

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That she was concerned with giving life to certain principles and that the reform dress was only a means to an end, was made doubly evident by what she wrote in a letter in 1897 when some raised the question as to the advisability of a revival of the particular style of reform dress worn by Adventist women in the 1860's:

“There were some things that made the reform dress a decided blessing. With it the ridiculous hoops, which were then the fashion, could not possibly be worn. The long dress skirts, trailing on the ground and sweeping up the filth of the streets, could not be patronized. But a more sensible style of dress has now been adopted, which does not embrace these objectionable features. The fashionable style of dress may be discarded, and should be by all who will read the word of God. The time spent in advocating the dress reform should be devoted to the study of the word of God.

“The dress of our people should be made most simple. The skirt and sacque I have mentioned may be used—not just that pattern and nothing else should be established; but a simple style, as was represented in that dress.

“Some have supposed that the very pattern given was the pattern that all were to adopt. This is not so. But something as simple as this would be the best we could adopt under the circumstances. No one precise style has been given me as the exact rule to guide all in their dress…. The Lord has not indicated that it is the duty of our sisters to go back to the reform dress. Simple dresses should be worn. Try your talent, my sisters, in this essential reform.”—Letter 19, 1897.

This statement in 1897 is wholly consistent with one she made in 1865 at the very beginning of the reform-dress program, as the reader will recall. In that initial statement she declared:

“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.”

What Does Laughter Prove?

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Thus we come to the end of our examination of the most colorfully garbed of all the charges brought against Mrs. White, a charge that has almost exhausted the critics' store of adjectives through the years in their attempts to make the whole reformdress idea ridiculous, a thing obnoxious, immodest, even scandalous,


and to make Mrs. White appear as an easily influenced character who spoke out against a reform dress one day only to reverse herself the next, because someone changed her mind for her. We think the evidence makes clear that Mrs. White's course was a consistent one, not determined by a contact with “Our Home” at Dansville, but by a contact with Heaven, that she sought, not so much by a specific pattern, as by the enunciation of principles, to bring about a reform in dress that would remedy certain glaring evils in the fashions of the day.

The only part of the charge that we cannot refute is that Adventist sisters suffered ridicule, at times, because they wore a reform dress. But we deny the conclusion drawn from this fact; namely, that it proves the reform-dress idea to have been one of Mrs. White's “saddest delusions.” Perhaps the critics would like to tell us what they think of the styles of the present day, in contrast to the fashions of the nineteenth century. We hear them declaring that the styles are much more sensible today in every way. Then we would like to ask them what they think would have happened to a woman in the nineteenth century if she had walked the streets in a style of dress worn today. Do they think that she would have been free from ridicule?

Everyone knows that the best way to provoke a laugh is to look at the family album—anyone's! Every style there portrayed on the person of grandpa and grandma and all the other ancient relatives looks ludicrous by comparison with the style that we happen, at the moment, to be accustomed to. But the folks in the family album created no laugh when they wore their outfits! Yet we laugh at them, and they would have laughed at us! Pray tell, what does laughter, or ridicule, prove?

True, dress reformers, like most other reformers, were ridiculed in their day, but a later day endorsed their views. Listen to these words, written in 1913:

“The cause for which the early dress reformers labored and suffered martyrdom has triumphed in almost all points….

“The chief points in the indictment of woman's dress of former times were that the figure was dissected like a wasp's, that the hips were overloaded


with heavy skirts, and that the skirts dragged upon the ground and swept up the dirt. Nowadays the weight of a woman's clothing as a whole is only half or a third of what it used to be. Four dresses can be packed in the space formerly filled by one. In the one-piece dresses now in vogue the weight is borne from the shoulders, and the hips are relieved by reducing the skirts in weight, length and number. The skirt no longer trails upon the street…. The women who for conscientious reasons refused to squeeze their waists and in consequence suffered the scorn of their sex now find themselves on the fashionable side. A 32-inch waist is regarded as permissible where formerly a 20-inch waist was thought proper. A fashionably gowned woman of the present day can stoop to pick up a pin at her feet.”—Independent, Oct. 23, 1913, pp. 151, 152.

Evidently, then, those who have ridiculed Mrs. White for her dress reform counsel are simply behind the times.

Who will question but that the activities of Seventh-day Adventist dress reformers was one factor among several that led to the healthful attire worn by women in many lands today!

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