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.
Shane Rothe (they/them) joined Shaker Museum in July 2023, working with independent curator Maggie Taft on an exhibition for the new museum space in Chatham. Shane is an artist as well as a curator and continues to create in the mediums of painting, sculpture, writing, and performance. Shane holds a BFA from CalArts and an MA in art history and curatorial studies from the University of Chicago.