Eldress Anna Case and Sister Isabella Graves, South Family, Watervliet, NY. Leaders dressed no differently from lay members.

Circular from the Ministry about dress, 1866, with instructions to tailoresses from Polly Reed on the use of the Graduated Scale of Waist Measures.

Circular from the Ministry about dress, 1866, with instructions to tailoresses from Polly Reed on the use of the Graduated Scale of Waist Measures.

South Family, Mount Lebanon sisters. By the time this photograph was taken (ca. 1910-1920), Shaker sisters dressed more like their worldly counterparts, but still rather uniformly.

Shoe last, Canterbury, NH. The toe box for shoes made from this last is pointed and straight, so that the shoes could be worn on either foot. Henry Blinn, Canterbury elder, wrote that shoes made for Shaker meeting were "all were formed on straight lasts, the toes of which came to a very sharp point."

The Millennial Laws of 1845, issued by the Ministry at Mount Lebanon, cover aspects of daily life in minute detail but say very little about dress.

The black cotton lining on this dress would conceal dirt and stains and could be replaced as needed.

Scraps of listing tape and dress fabric were used to make this rag mop. 

The deep matching bertha for this Canterbury dress conceals the body’s shape.

Net caps were commonly worn over the hair by sisters after the 1870s.

Shaker Dress: “Plain, Comfortable, Economical, and Comely”

Online Exhibition

Practicality

The first consideration of Shaker clothing was practicality. Maintaining uniformity of appearance among Believers had much to do with fostering union, or a sense of a kinship among all Believers. When no one has unusually fine garments, ornaments, or accessories, there is less opportunity for envy and ill will that can harm communal families. According to the 1866 Ministry circular concerning the dress of Believers, “[U]niformity in style, or pattern in dress, between members, contributes to peace and union in spirit, in as much as the ends of justice are answered, and righteousness and justice are necessary companions.” That same year, the Ministry issued a circular stating that, “And now as something is done about uniform fabric, we have called upon Eldress Polly Reed, in union with other Sisters whose experience in the line of dress-making has made them competent to the task to labor upon this subject, and measure and reason till a rule can be found, by which all whether large, medium or small, shall have a proper proportion of cloth and look alike.”  

Other characteristics of Shaker sisters’ clothing were due to pragmatic considerations as well. Uniformity in dress meant that large quantities of cloth could be woven at once or purchased. Colors were not restricted; rather, the concern was that the dyes used would be fast so that the cloth, and the garments, would last. Some dresses were pressed with paper and treated with zinc chloride to make them wrinkle- and water-resistant. This helped to reduce the frequency of washing and pressing and helped to preserve the fabric as well; more than 100 years later, the fabric of surviving treated dresses is still shiny and crisp. When clothing had at last outlived usefulness, remnants were made into rugs and other goods.  

The other necessity for sisters’ clothing was to preserve modesty, and celibacy, by minimizing feminine attributes. Dresses had square bodices to obscure the curve of the waist and deeply pleated skirts reduced the flare of the hips. Neckerchiefs and later berthas were worn over the shoulders and chest, covering the breasts. Like their worldly counterparts, young women wore a cap over their hair by about age 14 and wore bonnets outside.